Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Off to Skibbereen!

Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall

Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall

What’s the link between Newlyn in Cornwall – where I had a fisherman’s cottage for 20-odd years – and Skibbereen, our nearest town here in West Cork? The answer is ‘art’, and the painting below by Alexander Stanhope Forbes sums it up: Off to Skibbereen from Newlyn.

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Stanhope Forbes was born in 1857 in Dublin and worked in the en plein air technique of painting, first in Brittany and then in Cornwall, where he settled and founded the Newlyn School of artists. He died in Newlyn (a day or two short of my first birthday) in 1947. If you want to see a collection of Newlyn School paintings visit the Penlee Gallery in Penzance: they are superbly detailed depictions of everyday life in a working fishing community during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. En plein air was all about light, sun and clarity: the artists chose places where the light was at its best, usually close to the sea. My cottage looked out over Mounts Bay in West Penwith, on the far south western tip of Britain. Like the lugger in the picture I have crossed the Celtic Sea from Cornwall, and I now live on the far south western tip of Ireland.

View from my cottage in Cornwall

View from my cottage in Cornwall

I am intrigued by the Off to Skibbereen painting. It tells a story, but we can’t guess that story. It’s presumably PZ 614 that’s on its way to Ireland, and not the ladies in a small open punt with a basket of sandwiches… But why Skibbereen? Records show that from the 1820s Newlyn fishermen were chasing the Herrings off the coast of County Cork. On the whole the fishermen of Newlyn were active most of the year. In January and February they fished for Mackerel off South Devon, following the shoals westwards to Mounts Bay for the next couple of months. Then they moved to Irish waters for the Herring season, returning in July to catch Pilchards until December. They were away from home for weeks at a time so a departure could be a poignant time for their families.

Skibbereen at the end of the 19th century: can you spot the cat?

Skibbereen at the end of the 19th century: can you spot the cat?

Skibbereen was a settlement served by water. The River Ilen is tidal and in the early 19th century boats of up to 200 tons could navigate to Oldcourt, within two miles of the town centre. From there goods were transferred into ‘lighters’ (unpowered barges) and then brought into the quays where there were warehouses and a Customs House. Now, sadly, Skibbereen’s waterfront is a bit neglected and its active past shipping history is no longer obvious. Five historic quays have been identified along the river: Steam Mill Quay, Long Quay, Levis Quay, Minihane’s Quay and Chapel Quay. The Skibbereen Town Development Plan has this to say about them:

…Historic Quays – Comprising of old disused stone quays along the town side of the River Ilen between the two road bridges, these quays were once the primary means to transport goods and people in and out of Skibbereen. Some of the quays are in private ownership, others are unrecognisable and some have been blocked with stone and deposits. However,what is unquestioned is the historic significance and value of the quays and therefore their protection should be considered as part of this plan. In the past, communities and public bodies turned their back on water bodies but now the tide is turning in this regard. Therefore an opportunity presents itself … by ensuring that the quays are redeveloped as part of any proposal on adjoining land…

Building work progresses in Skibbereen

Building work progresses in Skibbereen

There is a new development going up in the centre of Skibbereen right now, just by the old Levis Quay. It’s on the site of a rather bleak four-storey warehouse structure (now demolished) known most recently as Wolfe’s Bakery. This new building is all about art – rather neatly for my thesis on the artistic links between West Cornwall and Western Ireland.

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Competition Winner – Skibbereen’s new Arts Centre

The people of Skibbereen are very fortunate to have secured funding for a major arts building, especially in the present climate of austerity. The West Cork Arts Centre will house exhibition space and studio space for artists and social spaces for the community, including enhanced workshop, dance, performance and film club facilities providing a ‘centre for excellence’ in the visual arts at local, national and international levels. The building occupies the ghost of the earlier warehouse and is on five storeys, all fully accessible. Valuable extra space is cleverly gained by cantilevering a portion of the main block out over the Caol Stream. An international design competition was held for the design of the new centre, and this was won by Architects Donaghy and Dimond of Dublin. Visually the building is stunningly contemporary – and this works well in a small town with a diverse architectural language spanning many centuries. So often, new buildings are not allowed to be ‘of their time’ and resort to pastiches of older styles with the result that present day town centres can lack any dynamic character.

The building is being clad with a material known as ‘Corten‘. It’s actually rusted steel! It’s an attractive and durable finish which matures and stabilizes as time goes on. The appearance of a large rusty steel box in the centre of town is exciting some comment but – as always with anything new – judgement is best reserved until the project is completed. In my opinion it will add to the attractions of Dear Old Skibbereen and provide very welcome new facilities in the heart of this creative community. Well done Skibbereen!

Taking Shape - 21 May 2014

Taking Shape – 21 May 2014

Here’s an idea: several of the Newlyn School artists were Irish – or had Irish connections. Perhaps in West Cork we should put on an exhibition highlighting artistic links – old and new – between Cornwall and Ireland?

Wolfe’s Bakery – site of the new Arts Project