top of page

Midsummer bonfires in Cornwall

The recent lighting of beacons across Cornwall - during the Jubilee weekend - is a tradition that has been re-enacted many, many times in Cornwall's history.

Redruth-born historian A K Hamilton Jenkin (1900 - 1980) - the last in a long line of chroniclers and historians in his family - documented much about the 'old ways' of life on the remote Cornish peninsula. He wrote many books between 1928 and 1978, including the 16-volume 'Mines and Miners of Cornwall', each covering a specific part of the region. All of his publications have the virtue of being enjoyable as well as informative to read. In talking to the oldest people in the communities in the 1930s, A K Hamilton Jenkin reached back to retrieve and record anecdotes from over 100 years before this time, leaving an important documentation of times gone which would otherwise have been lost.

The following excerpt is from A K Hamilton Jenkin's book, Cornish Homes and Customs (pub. 1934), and recreates, with his characteristic prose, the atmosphere and significance of this event for us all to enjoy.

As twilight fell, the first of the waiting beacon fires broke into flame upon the rock-strewn summit of Chapel Carn Brea. The signal, once given, was quickly taken up by other groups of watchers standing beside their fires. From Castle-an-Dinas, the people of Penzance, passed on the message to their neighbours of St Ives and Hayle, assembled respectively upon the hilltops of Rosewall and Trencrom. From here it flashed across the intervening country to Camborne and Redruth. Meanwhile, other fires were already blazing in the neighbourhood of Helston, from whence the signal was carried southward into the long outstretching promontory of the Lizard. From the top of Carn Marth Redruth, passed on the word to its neighbours of Truro, many of whom had assembled at St. Agnes. From here on the beacon-top fire was quickly seen at Newquay, and so it went to the great 'china clay' district of central Cornwall, where other watchers were waiting in readiness upon the top of Hensbarrow. The people of Bodmin next saw the flames, and after them Liskeard, whose inhabitants were gathered in force upon St Cleer Downs. As their fire leapt upwards into the night, an answering gleam from the heights of Kit Hill showed that the message had reached the Tamar borderland, about 20 minutes having elapsed since the first fire was lighted at the Land's End.

Though the fires may soon die down and the stirring of old memories lasts perhaps but a moment, the life to which we return is none the poorer for this strange experience. Rather it may well be that those moments spent in forgetting the present and looking only on the past and to the future may come in time to hold a deeper significance than many hours which at their passing had seen more profitably spent.

Read more about the life of A K Hamilton Jenkin, and consider sending a token of remembrance to his resting place:

bottom of page