Nov 192018

Doom Bar sounds like it ought to be a sketchy nightclub that you frequent only if you have no regard for life or limb, but, in fact, it is a sandbar at the mouth of the Camel estuary on the north coast of Cornwall that has been a danger to shipping for centuries. On this date in 1911, two ships, Island Maid and Angele, foundered on Doom Bar. All five of the Island Maid’s crew were rescued, but all but the captain of the Angele perished. The Doom Bar has accounted for more than 600 beachings, capsizings and wrecks since record keeping began early in the 19th century, the majority of which are wrecks.

The bar is composed mostly of coarse sediment carried up from the seabed by bed load processes, and it has been shown that there is a net inflow of sediment into the estuary. This inflow is aided by wave and tidal processes, but the exact patterns of sediment transport within the estuary are complex and are not fully understood. There is only a very small sediment contribution from the River Camel itself: most of the river’s sediment is deposited much higher up the estuary. A large proportion of the sediment in Doom Bar is derived from marine mollusk shells, and as a consequence it includes a high level of calcium carbonate, measured in 1982 at 62%. The high calcium carbonate content of the sand has meant that it has been used for hundreds of years to improve agricultural soil by liming. This use is known to date back to before 1600. High calcium carbonate levels combined with natural sea salt made the sand valuable to farmers as an alkaline fertilizer when mixed with manure. In a report published in 1839, Henry De la Beche estimated that the sand from the Doom Bar accounted for between a fifth and a quarter of the sand used for agriculture in Devon and Cornwall. He also stated that around 80 men were permanently employed to dredge the area from several barges, removing an estimated 100,000 long tons (100,000,000 kg) of sand per year, which he said he had been “assured by competent persons” had caused a reduction in height of the bar of between 6 and 8 feet (180 and 240 cm) in the 50 years before 1836. An estimated 10 million tons of sediment was removed from the estuary between 1836 and 1989, mostly for agricultural purposes and mostly from the Doom Bar.

There is a submerged forest beneath the eastern part of the Doom Bar, off Daymer Bay. It is believed to be part of the wooded plain that existed off the current Cornwall coast before it was overcome by sand dunes and beach sand during the last significant rise in sea-level, which ended around 4,000 years ago. Exposed as they are to the Atlantic Ocean, the sands of the area have always been prone to sudden shifts: several houses were said to have been buried one night during a powerful storm. According to tradition one such shift led to the formation of the Doom Bar during the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547), causing a decline in the prosperity of Padstow. Today, the sandbank covers approximately 0.4 square miles (1.0 km2), linking the beaches near Harbour Cove by sand flats, although the actual size and shape varies.

The name “Doom Bar” is a corruption of the older name Dunbar which itself derives from dune-bar. Although the bar was commonly known as “Dunbar sands” before 1900, the name “Doom Bar” was used in 1761 (as “the Doom-bar”), and it was also used in poetry, and in House of Commons papers in the 19th century. According to local folklore, the Doom Bar was created by the Mermaid of Padstow as a dying curse after being shot. One local legend says that a Padstow local, Tristram Bird, bought a new gun and wanted to shoot something worthy of it. He went hunting seals at Hawker’s Cove but found a young woman sitting on a rock brushing her hair. Entranced by her beauty, he offered to marry her and, when she refused, he shot her in retaliation, only realizing afterwards that she was a mermaid. As she died she cursed the harbor with a “bar of doom”, from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay. A terrible gale blew up that night and when it finally subsided there was the sandbar, “covered with wrecks of ships and bodies of drowned men”.

For centuries, the Doom Bar was regarded as a significant danger to ships—to be approached with caution to avoid running aground. When sails were the main source of power, ships coming round Stepper Point would lose the wind, causing loss of steerage, leaving them to drift away from the channel. Sometimes, gusts of wind known colloquially as “flaws” blew over Stepper Point and pushed vessels towards the sandbank. Dropping anchor would not help, as it could not gain a firm hold on the sand. Richard Hellyer, the Sub-Commissioner of Pilotage at Padstow, gave evidence in 1859 that the Doom Bar was regarded as so dangerous that in a storm, vessels would risk being wrecked on the coast rather than negotiate the channel to Padstow harbor.

In 1761 John Griffin published a letter in the London Chronicle recommending methods for entering the Camel estuary during rough weather, particularly while north-northwest winds were blowing and described the bolts and rings he had fixed to the cliffs to assist ships trying to enter the harbor. Mooring rings were still there in 1824, and around 1830, three capstans at the base of the cliffs and bollards along the cliffs, by which means boats could be warped safely past the bar were installed.

In 1846, the Plymouth and Padstow Railway company took an interest in trying to remove the Doom Bar, hoping to increase trade through the harbor at Padstow. The plan was to create a breakwater on the bar, which would stop the build-up of sand, and the railway would transport sand from the nearby dunes to where it was needed for agricultural purposes elsewhere in the south west. However, neither the breakwater nor the railway was built, but the issue was re-examined by the 1858 British Parliamentary Select Committee on Harbours for Refuge.

During the 20th century the Doom Bar was regularly dredged to improve access to Padstow. By the 1930s, when Commander H.E. Turner surveyed the estuary, there were two channels round the Doom Bar, and it is thought that the main channel may have moved to the east side in 1929. By 2010 the original channel had disappeared. The estuary is regularly dredged by Padstow Harbour Commission’s dredgers, Sandsnipe and Mannin.

In 1827, the recently founded Life-boat Institution helped fund a permanent lifeboat at Padstow, a 23 feet (7.0 m) rowing boat with four oars. The lifeboat house at Hawker’s Cove was erected two years later by the Padstow Harbour Association for the Preservation of Life and Property from Shipwreck. Reverend Charles Prideaux-Brune of Prideaux Place was the patron. In 1879, four of his granddaughters and their friend were rowing on the Doom Bar and saw a craft go down. They rowed out to save the drowning sailor. All five girls received a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Silver Medal for their bravery.

Despite the safer eastern channel and improvements in maritime technology, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution still deals with incidents at the Doom Bar. In February 1997, two fishermen who were not wearing lifejackets drowned after their boat capsized. Two anglers had been killed in a similar incident in 1994. On 25th June 2007, the Padstow lifeboat and a rescue helicopter rescued the crews of two yachts in separate incidents from the area.

Doom Bar has lent its name to a bitter (4.0% abv) brewed by Sharp’s Brewery originally at Rock, a village on the estuary opposite Padstow and in Burton-upon-Trent. It is the brewery’s flagship beer, accounting for 90% of sales and with an output of 24,000,000 imperial pints (14,000 kl) in 2010. In 2011, sales increased by 22%, making it the UK’s fastest growing beer for three years in a row. In June 2013, Doom Bar bitter became the number one UK cask ale, by volume and value.

In honor of Padstow, Doom Bar, and Cornwall, here is a recipe for Cornish Game Hen marinated in a beer brine, and then roasted.

Doom Bar Cornish Game Hen


2 Cornish game hens
12 oz Doom Bar bitter
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp whole cloves


Combine the beer, salt, sugar, cloves, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until all the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Place the hens in sealable plastic bags, and divide the beer brine between them. Squeeze out the air, seal tightly, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning remove the hens from the brine and let them air dry.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place the hens on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast until golden brown and cooked through (about 40 minutes).  Serve with roast potatoes and other roast vegetables.

Jun 042018

Today is the feast day of Saint Petroc or Petrock (Medieval Latin: Petrocus; Welsh: Pedrog; French: Perreux) (d. c. 564). He’s a new one to me; I learn something every day. He gives his name to Padstow in Cornwall, which is a well-known location in folkie circles, and which I visited back in my wild youth (as a folkie myself). Padstow comes from Pedroc-stowe, that is, ‘Petroc’s Place.’ Petroc was probably born in South Wales but is known for his ministry to Britons in Devon (Dewnans) and Cornwall (Kernow). He is associated with a monastery in Padstow which appears to have been his earliest major cult center, but Bodmin became the major center for his veneration when his relics were moved to the monastery there in the later 9th century. Bodmin monastery became one of the wealthiest Cornish foundations by the 11th century. There is a second ancient dedication to him nearby at Little Petherick or “Saint Petroc Minor.”

There are 17 ancient dedications to Petroc in Devon (plus Timberscombe just over the border in Somerset), mostly coastal and including one within the old Roman walls of Exeter as well as the villages of Petrockstowe and Newton St Petroc. In Wales his name is commemorated at St Petrox near Pembroke, Ferwig near Cardigan and Llanbedrog on the Llŷn peninsula. He also became a popular saint in Brittany by the end of the 10th century.

The earliest Life of Petroc states that he was the son of an unnamed Welsh king: the 12th century version known as the Gotha Life, written at Bodmin, identifies that king as Glywys of Glywysing and Petroc as a brother of Gwynllyw and uncle of Cadoc. Petroc studied in Ireland, where later he is said to have been the teacher of Saint Kevin. For continued personal development he made a pilgrimage to Rome, and returning to Cornwall, shut himself up in a monastery of which he was himself the founder, at Petrocs-Stow (Padstow). All accounts indicate that Petroc moved from Padstow to Bodmin, and there founded a second monastery and a great church which king Athelstan afterwards favored with great benefactions and singular privileges, including the right of sanctuary (which was rarely granted).

Petroc founded churches in Little Petherick and Bodmin and in many parts of Britain, Wales, and Brittany. He is said to have converted Constantine of Cornwall to Christianity by saving a deer Constantine was hunting. After 30 years, legend says that he went on his pilgrimage to Rome by way of Brittany (which is quite possible but unverifiable). The place of his death was reputedly at a house belonging to a family named Rovel, thought to be a farm now called Treravel near Little Petherick, south of Padstow.

With Saint Piran and Saint Michael, Petroc is one of the patron saints of Cornwall. The legendary tales surrounding Petroc are exceptionally colorful and imaginative (giving him a second pilgrimage, travels to India, taming wolves) and may represent interpolation from local non-Christian legends. In iconography, like several other British saints, Petroc is usually shown with a stag.

Petroc’s chief shrine was always at St Petroc’s Church in Bodmin. In 1177, a Breton stole his relics from Bodmin and gave them to the Abbey of St Meen. However, Henry II restored them and, though the relics were thrown out during the English Reformation, their ivory casket is still on public display at St. Petroc’s in Bodmin. His remains were reputed to have been thrown into the bay of Hailemouth near Padstow.

The St. Petroc’s Society is a non-profit working to address homelessness in Cornwall.

I have given plenty of Cornish recipes already, including Cornish pasties (of course), fairings, stagazy pie, pilchards, etc. I have not mentioned hevva cake yet – normally now called “heavy cake.” It is well known in Cornwall, but not especially known to visitors. It was originally made with lard only, but now it is more common to use a mix of lard and butter, or butter only. It was also, originally, a plain cake with little or no spices or fruit. I find some spice and fruit useful, but not necessary. Some modern cooks use self-raising flour because they find the cake too dense. This, I think, is a major mistake.

Hevva Cake


175 gm plain flour
¼ tsp fine salt
1-2 tsp ground ginger, cinnamon or mace, or a combination, to taste (optional)
40 gm granulated sugar
40 gm each of unsalted butter and lard (or 80g butter, if you prefer), cold, cut in small chunks.
75 gm currants
25-50 gm chopped mixed peel (optional)
2 tbsp (approx.) milk or water


Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F.

Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Mix the flour, salt, spices (if using) and sugar together. Rub in the butter and lard until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (I use a food processor for this step).

Mix in the other ingredients with a wooden spoon, dribbling in the milk (or water) until you have a stiff dough with no dry ingredients showing.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to about 1 cm thick and in a rough oval shape. Carefully lift the dough on to the baking sheet. Make a criss-cross pattern on the top with a sharp knife for ease of cutting when cooked.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 25-30 minutes, or until golden.

Serve warm from the oven, or allow to cool then store in an airtight container.

May 012017

The 1st of May is a global celebration in one guise or other. I’ve already dealt with 2 important celebrations, International Workers’ Day (throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and beyond)  and May Day which is mostly an English custom . It is also Walpurga’s Day which is celebrated in Germanic countries, typically more on the Eve than the day itself . Now it’s the turn of Celtic traditions. Beltane was not historically associated with an exact date, but in modern times it has been pegged specifically to May 1.  As always, there’s a great deal of nonsense written about the nature of Beltane historically, with precious little in the way of primary sources to back it up. Romantic, and wishful, speculation always trumps proper historical method, largely because people have a (bad) habit of believing what they want to believe. Having fun in whatever way you want is fine with me.  I’d just prefer that you leave historical justification out of the picture. Here is what is reasonably certain.

In Irish Gaelic, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine (“day of Beltane”) while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine (“month of Beltane”). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is called (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is Latha Bealltainn. Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (“the yellow day of Beltane”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day”.

Despite more fanciful etymologies of recent years, it is commonly accepted that the Old Irish word Beltaine is derived from the conjectured archaic Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”. The element *belo- is probably cognate with the obsolete English word “bale” (as in bale-fire) meaning “white” or “shining.” Middle English “bale” comes from Old English bǣl (“funeral pyre”) which derives from Proto-Germanic *bēlą (“pyre”), from Proto-Indo-European *bʰel- (“to shine; gleam; sparkle”). Old Norse bál is also a cognate and may have been the direct source for the English word via Norse invaders. The most important point from all of this is that Beltane is a FIRE festival.

The best historical documentary evidence of the Celtic celebration of Beltane comes from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, but something akin to it has been noted in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. Beltane in pastoral communities is associated with the beginning of the summer season when the animals of the community were driven up into summer pasture. The reverse traditionally occurred on Samhain (~ November 1) when they were driven back down to the village for winter.  Because timing was determined by climate and not by the weather, the exact date varied. In solar terms, Beltane is approximately a cross-quarter day – that is, in Northern latitudes, about halfway between the vernal equinox, and the summer solstice.

There are a number of customs that were once associated with Beltane, many of which died out but were revived in the second half of the 20th century: bonfires, May bushes, visits to holy wells, and house decorating. The Beltane bonfire was probably the most widespread tradition historically, and is the most common today.  There are references to Beltane in Old Irish literature, notably the (perhaps 10th century) glossary Sanas Cormaic and the anonymous, The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn in the 15th or 16th century Tochmarc Emire, where we read:

For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year.

I don’t trust this statement for one minute. What did early modern chroniclers actually know about druid customs that had died out a millennium earlier? In fact, we know virtually nothing about druids anywhere in the British Isles, but there is no end of idle speculation.  It’s possible also that Beltane bonfires were a conscious revival in the 18th and 19th centuries based on these old MSS, rather than the continuation of an ancient tradition.  In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires was documented in parts of Ireland and Scotland. Sometimes the cattle would be driven around a single bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise. In the Isle of Man, people encouraged the bonfire’s smoke to blow over them and their cattle. Subsequently people would daub themselves with the fire’s ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead and would be used to re-light the house’s fire which had been doused the night before.

Food could also be cooked at the bonfire. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.

According to several 18th century writers, who may or may not be reliable sources, in parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded. According to one writer, whomever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times. According to another, those present would pretend to throw him into the fire and, for some time afterwards, they would speak of him as if he were dead.

The use of yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold as garlands was a common Beltane custom, analogous to customs throughout Europe. These were placed at doorways and windows at Beltane in 19th century Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.

The May Bush was a common custom in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be placed outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighborhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighborhood. Each neighborhood competed for the most well-decorated tree. A certain amount of rowdiness associated with this custom led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times. The practice of decorating a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland.

May garlands are a part of the Cornish May 1st celebrations in Padstow. On the evening of the Eve of May the town is thoroughly decorated with flowers, green bowers, and bunting. On May 1st there are two processions through town accompanying their ‘Obby ‘Oss – a unique custom of unknown origins. In the early part of the 20th century it was a very obscure event. But it was popularized by folklorists mid-century so that it is now a gargantuan tourist attraction, laden with the usual nonsense about ancient pagan origins despite the fact that the earliest reference to an ‘Obby ‘Oss in Padstow is 1803.

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, as well as at Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking “sunwise” (moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (cloths). The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew. It could (theoretically) be rolled in or collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. You might notice my skepticism. Ever tried collecting dew in a jar?

Most Beltane customs died out a long time ago and in many locations traces are seen only in place names and a few landmarks. There are a number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities may have once been held. It is often Anglicized as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone. In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (“the Beltane field”). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (“the Beltane ringfort”) is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine (“the Beltane stream”) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick.

I suggest that you play around with the idea of oatcakes and caudle on this day since they are so commonly mentioned in old sources. They both come in kaleidoscopic variety in the Celtic world. The traditional Scottish oatcake or bannock was a heavy, flat cake of unleavened barley or oatmeal dough formed into a round or oval shape, then cooked on a griddle or, before the 19th century cooked on a bannock stone, a large, flat, rounded piece of sandstone, placed directly on to a fire, then used as a cooking surface. Most modern bannocks are made with baking powder or baking soda as a leavening agent, giving them a lighter texture.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word “caudle” in 1297. The earliest surviving recipe, from 1300–1325, is simply a list of ingredients: wine, wheat starch, raisins, and sugar to “abate the strength of the wine”. In a description of an initiation ceremony at Merton College, Oxford in 1647, caudle is described as a “syrupy gruel with spices and wine or ale added”. Another recipe from the late 14th century has more ingredients and more details on the cooking procedure: “mix breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey, and saffron, bring to a boil, then thicken with egg yolks, and sprinkle with salt, sugar, and ginger.” A 15th-century English cookbook includes three caudle recipes: ale or wine is heated and thickened with egg yolks and/or ground almonds, then optionally spiced with sugar, honey, saffron, and/or ginger. This is one version of caudle you can make without much effort. Just be sure to keep an eagle eye on the pot; it burns without much effort also !! This recipe is for one serving, but can easily be multiplied.



1 cup milk
1 tbsp oatmeal
2 eggs, beaten
grated fresh nutmeg
whisky or ale


Heat the milk in a pan with the oatmeal and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, then turn down the heat and simmer until it starts to thicken.

Whisk in the eggs, plus honey and nutmeg to taste and simmer for about five minutes, constantly stirring to avoid sticking.

Remove from the heat and stir in whisky or ale in the quantity you want. Serve hot (“caudle” means “hot”) in mugs, or, if you prefer, you can pour it over a bannock as a dessert.