Hwethel Gwydhyel: Withiel’s Story
The Parish of Withiel lies just to the north of the geographic centre of Cornwall and provides a microcosm of Cornish history: from the bronze age; through the first millennium; medieval Cornwall with its Celtic language; the industrial revolution with its mining; and on to the roots of our modern rural community.
Flints dating from 6000 > 5000 BC have been found in Withiel and there is evidence of a bronze age barrow at Tregawne on the northern boundary of the parish. Richard Carew’s History of Cornwall, published in 1603, records the discovery and excavation of this barrow by one Mr Gidley:
“In the bottome of which he found three white stones, triangle-wise (as pillers) supporting another flat one, some two foote and a halfe square, and in the midst betweene them, and under it, an earthen Pot, halfe full of a blacke slymie, and ill-fauouring substance, which (doubtlesse) was once the ashes of some notable person, there committed to that maner of buriall.”
This barrow is now just a shallow mound, but a clear outline can be seen from the air.
The First Millenium
Field names such as Gears Wood and Gears Hill as well as Kerriers have the Celtic place name element “Gear / Ker”, meaning fort or settlement and show that there was an established population here in the first millennium. There are also two Cornish Crosses from this period in Withiel. These may have been boundary markers or simple wayside crosses. One is situated in the grounds of the Rectory. It was originally positioned on the roadside at the entrance to the Rectory but was moved in 1858. Another cross stands beside a hedge close to the roadside near Inches farm. This cross is recorded as being deeply buried and therefore may be a much taller monument than it appears now. Withiel also has a milestone marking the parish boundary at the end of this road at the junction with the old A 30.
The Medieval World
The medieval world is represented by the bridge at Ruthernbridge and St Clements Church. The Bridge has been strengthened and rebuilt over the years but retains the original 15th Century Arches. St Clements church is a listed building – along with the privy! It originally belonged to Bodmin Priory and has a history of rectors dating back to the 13th Century. The Vyvyan family feature in this list and their ancestry can be traced back to the arrival of the Norman and Breton barons in 1068. The church had become nearly derelict by 1523 and was rebuilt by Prior Thomas Vyvyan who became Rector. St Clements church provides a wonderful time capsule, follow menu link to explore further.
Brynn Manor was situated to the south of the Church and was owned by the Grenville family, renowned for leading the Royalist troops during the British Civil War. One of the family, Richard Grenville led a coup during the civil war to set up an independent Cornish state. The failure of the coup and imprisonment of Grenville resulted in the Cornish troops leaving the Royalist cause and hastened the loss of Cornwall to the Parliamentarians. The manor itself has long since disappeared but is remembered in place-names like Brynn Mill and Higher Brynn farm. Brynn is derived from the “brenn” meaning hill.
Kernewek, the Cornish Language
The Cornish language is embedded in the place names of the parish. Withiel itself is derived from Gwydhyel meaning a wooded place, the hard consonants are often lost in Cornish place names. It is interesting that the spelling in the parish is that normally associated with general use of the language at quite a late date. The inhabitants of Withiel seem to have continued to use Cornish long after Bodmin succumbed to the use of English! There are more than 50 historic Cornish names within the Parish of associated with its landscape and history. Many more have been added in recent years by people wishing to capture this heritage in their own house names.
Some names “Pengelly ” (pen – head, kelly – grove) and “Trenance” (Tre – Farmstead, nans – valley) contain common and well understood elements. Some names are much more intriguing and invite exploration of the story behind them. Bosnieves, for example, was spelt as Boskenevys in 1334. This could mean that it was the dwelling (bos) of a person called Kenevys or possibly a dwelling for the autumn (Kynyav). But an interesting possibility is that “nevys” could derive from “nevet” meaning sacred grove. One cannot help but be conscious of the fact that Bosnieves lies in the valley below the mysterious barrow mentioned above!
The holy men and women of the first millennium and the medieval worlds merge into folk traditions that have continued into living memory in the parish. To the south west of the parish, St Gundred’s Well lies on the boundary with the neighbouring parish of Roche. The legend is that St Gundred (sometimes St Gomonda, St Gonand or St Gonandas) was the daughter of a leper who lived as a hermit at Roche Rock. Like many holy places the well was thought to have healing properties and in 1894 the Cornish historian Quiller Couch noted:
“It retains its repute and is resorted to on Holy Thursday and the two following Thursdays, before sunrise, for the cure of eye diseases, in children chiefly, but not exclusively, and, the neighbours tell me, with great benefit. The favour of the tutelary saint is first bespoken by the offering of a pin, sometimes bent before being thrown into the water.”
St Gundred’s well was still a popular pilgrimage destination in the 1930s and late Eileen Eddyvean of Withiel described going on picnics to the well when she was a child between the wars.
The Sunday School Teat Treats are another tradition that was popular in the parish. The Tea Treats featured games and dances as well as the traditional Cornish cuisine of yeast buns, splits, cream, jam and the ubiquitous pasty. One dance was called the Snail Creep. This dance is unique to this part of Cornwall and involves a long procession of couples following a band, led by two people holding up branches to represent the tentacles of the snail. The dancers form a large circle and then spiral into the middle and back out again which would have been an amazing spectacle and quite a logistic achievement with several hundred people. There were no special steps, people just followed behind the band around the field and invited people standing watching to join in
Mrs Gwen Millet of Withiel recalls a Snail Creep being held in the School playing field and explained that it was part of a Tea Treat event used to raise money to cover the cost of the District Nurse based at St Wenn.
Crying the Neck
A parish custom worth special mention is that of Crying or Calling the Neck. There has been a healthy revival of this custom throughout Cornwall in recent years and this is largely due to a detailed description of an event at Withiel provided by a Mrs Burton for the Old Cornwall Society Journal published in 1929:
“The calling of the neck took place on the evening of the day in which the last of the wheat had been cut and there was great rivalry among the farmers of the parish as to who should be the first to finish the wheat cutting. On the occasion when I myself heard it the Rector of Withiel who farmed the Glebe, finished first, and the calling took place that evening in the Rectory Grounds………..
…….The leader held the “neck” in his hand. This was a small sheaf of wheat made from the finest ears, specially selected. It was tied with bright coloured ribbons just underneath the ears and the outside straws were woven into several plaits into which flowers were inserted….
……..The leader stepped forward and holding out the neck at full length called out in stentorian tones “I hav’n!” three times. The next man thrice responded with “what av’ee?” after which which all the harvesters shouted “A nack!” also three times. AIl the spectators then joined in calling ‘Wooraw!” (Hurrah). And this was also repeated three times.”
Whilst agriculture has been the primary industry from the earliest of times, tucked away within the landscape is evidence of some serious mining enterprise. There were iron mines at Lanjew and Blackhay. Uranium was mined at Wheal James and Retire with copper being mined at Wheal Betsy and Wheal Edward in the Tremore valley. Correspondence between Joseph Treffry and Sir Richard Vyvyan dated 1847 indicates that a “railway in Withiel for carriage of manure and iron” was being considered at one stage. Had this ever materialised then there would have been a rail connection with Grogley Halt and ultimately the Southern Railway line to Exeter and on to Waterloo Station in London.
Cornwall’s engagement with mining and heavy industry created a demand for iron foundries. As mining went in to decline in the late 19th century these foundries were put to good use making the cast iron finger posts and post boxes that have become an attractive part of the parish landscape today. There are three wall post boxes in the parish; at Retire and Withiel Churchtown they date to George V but the box at Bosnieves Cross Roads is older and dates to the time of Queen Victoria.
There are six historic finger posts positioned on cross roads within the parish. The basic design of the finger posts is that of a central pillar or column to which the finger arms are attached by means of a sleeve which slides over the pillar and is locked in place. The pillar is capped with a decorative filial. The lettering is embossed on the arms and some also have “Cornwall” embossed on the pillar. The finger post in Withiel Churchtown is smaller than the others and likely to be much older. In 2018, with help from the St Breock Wind Farm Community Fund the Parish Council commissioned a new set of arms to be cast by Irons Brother of Wadebridge, a long-established foundry that may well have been involved in casting some of the original posts.
The Saints’ Way
The history of the parish is captured symbolically by the Saints’ Way which traverses from North to South. It is a modern heritage project that follows the route between the ports of Padstow and Fowey taken by holy people, like St Gundred, travelling between Ireland, Wales and Brittany during the first millennium. It enters the parish near the barrow at Tregawne and follows a series of footpaths and bridle ways through the parish past the crosses, place names, history and traditions that make up the story of Withiel.