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Sunday, September 27, 2020
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Pasties, prayers and a breath of fresh air

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THE weather was kind, the scythe was sharp and the field was dry. I was glad to have exchanged sandals for walking shoes, having stepped into a liquid cow pat as I chatted to the farmer’s wife. Low cloud and a light breeze were no threat to our planned outdoor ceremony.

Thanks to some effective advertising, not least from the excited members of the parish, the lane was full of cars and people were arriving in large numbers from all directions. We ran out of the printed programmes, but there was good-natured sharing.

The annual ‘Crying the Neck’ (Garma Penn Yar) is a tradition in Cornwall and Devon, possibly once practised more widely. The assembled crowd is welcomed, the ceremony explained and a mixture of Cornish prayers, the farmers’ ‘Cry’ and singing of one hymn on the field is followed by a church service with more harvest hymns, prayers and readings in Cornish and English. The ‘neck’ is the last of the corn to be cut and is mown with a traditional scythe, not as easy a task as the farmers make it look. Some of them practise for hours to perfect the technique in front of visitors.

Once cut, the corn is tied and decorated with coloured ribbons, each colour signifying an aspect of harvest thanksgiving. Holding aloft the decorated sheaf the farmer faces in turn, east, west and south, calling ‘I ’ave ’n,’ repeated three times, the crowd responding, again three times, ‘What ’ave ’ee?’ the response being ‘A neck, a neck, a neck,’ the crowd: ‘Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!’ The Cry is then re-run using the Cornish language.

How lovely it was to hear everyone joining in the harvest hymn, unaccompanied, the familiar words carried on the cool evening air.

Numbers in church included several bards of the Cornish language, ensuring confident and correct pronunciation, and banners from the Old Cornwall Society were presented. The society, formed a century ago next year, is a thriving historical and cultural group promoting custom, language and understanding of the county, and it is this society that organises Crying of the Neck events, liaising with different parishes each year.

Fortunately we had ordered many more pasties than usual, although we were stretched on the number of saffron buns. Warm tea, laughter and chatter filled the church hall for the pasty supper, which included a demonstration of an ancient Cornish harvest dance.
We are a strong ‘leave’ voting constituency, and feelings run high. I have been guilty of obsessing over the latest moves in Parliament, worrying where it will all lead, when it will end. However, I heard no mention of politics, or, if it arose, the subject was rapidly quashed. The mood was good-natured, satisfied, grateful.

I was reminded of my farmer grandfather, frequently booming his favourite mantra: ‘Fresh air is sanity.’

A part of me wonders whether, when they refurbish the Palace of Westminster, they should leave open the roof?

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Linda Beskeen
Former deputy head of a grammar school and teacher for 25 years in comprehensive schools.

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