‘Twas a Dark and Stormy Night…!


Remember this picture?  It was taken at the end of last year’s All Hallows Gathering where we were taking refuge from the elements  that raged whilst we were visiting the local hostelries in Tintagel with our Osses and accompanying band of revellers.  So what were we up too?  Someone suggested that the photo resembled an Agatha Christie denouement which made me laugh, however we were plotting …..! As a result of this I am delighted to be able to present to you the result of our scheming and proudly present:

Halloween in Boscastle

A special Morris side named Dark Morris has been formed specifically to perform at Halloween, made up of accomplished dancers and musicians from various sides from around the country.  We felt that this name conjured up the appropriate energies for All Souls night and was a suitable homage to the sad passing of Terry Pratchett who first coined the concept.


“DARK MORRIS In the spring, on Mayday, Morris dancers “dance the sun up” lest it fail to warm the land for the coming summer. This custom is widely observed across the Multiverse and especially on the Discworld, where the threat of stories and legends is real and such rites are more than just quaint old customs. Mayday is a festive occasion and many will drag themselves out of bed before dawn to watch and cheer on the dancers and the sun. Later in the day, perhaps after a nap, there will be more dancing, Morris as well as the maypole, with feasting and frolic and beer.

On or near the first of Ember there is another dance, the last of the year. There is no crowd of cheering spectators, no merriment, no music, no sound. The dancers trade their bright white beribboned costumes for black shrouds and perform in darkness and silence without bells, sticks or swords (or better, with bells of octiron that create a lacy counter-tinkle of silences}. This is the Dark Morris, without which winter may not arrive to complete the cycle, water the land with snow and prepare for the renewal of spring. Winter begets summer, death begets life, and a city-sized sun that travels faster than its own light needs all the help it can get.” Wintersmith – Terry Pratchett
dark morris
The Museum of Witchcraft are looking forward to seeing everyone on Halloween and they fully support the visitation of the Osses who will be coming to perform the old tradition of pwnco to bless the premises.  Later on the same evening there will be a Candlelight evening to view the exhibits – very atmospheric I would imagine. We, however, will be carousing around the local hostelries in Boscastle with the Osses ending up at the Wellington Hotel.  There we will be performing from 8 till late providing live music, song and storytelling.

The word is out now and already over 100 people have said they are coming and we will be expecting lots more.  Will you be one of them?

Penk at Pwnco

All Hallows Gathering 2014

It all started so innocently…

Following our wonderful visit to Chepstow Wassail earlier in the year, we had made important connections with some of the folk concerned with the Mari Lwyd.  These were re-ignited when I received a message from the couple who operate the Y Fari Troellog, one version of the Mari Lwyd.  They were coming to Cornwall over Halloween bringing their Mari and asked if we would like to meet up and bring our Oss, Penkevyll.

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Y Fari Troellog

My partner, Laetitia, then had the brilliant idea of meeting up at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle and making an event of it.  I wrote to the Museum and they agreed to our plans and the next couple of weeks were filled with myriads of emails and Facebook messages flying to and fro encouraging folks to come and witness this historic event.  One of the responses we had been from Mari Trecopr – so that was another Mari who wanted to come!

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Mari Trecopr

We then decided to extend the Mari event to include All Souls Day and to be spent visiting the hostelries in nearby Tintagel.  We sent emails to all of them warning them of our impending appearance and suggesting that if they had any problem with that to get back to us.

We worked on the pwnco ceremony that we would be enacting at the Museum.  A pwnco is a rhyme contest between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the household, or in this case, museum.  Both parties challenge each other with improvised verses which are traditionally sung as an exchange through the closed front door.  If the Mari Lwyd is successful then they are invited in to bestow blessings and good fortune on the building.  During this time the Osses are ‘fed and watered’ with alcohol and cake.  Many people offer the Mari money to bring luck.

It was decided that in this case we would create our version of a pwnco by making it more of a welcome rather than a challenge as it was the Mari’s first time in Cornwall.  We thought that we would enter into the spirit of things by reciting our verses in Cornish, so we contacted the redoubtable Craig Weatherhill for help, and he produced the goods willingly and swiftly.  Many thanks Craig!

The culmination to all our plans happened this last weekend when it all finally came together in a wild, slightly anarchic happening.  I’ll take you through the experience….

We travelled up from our home near Lands End with certain misgivings and unanswered questions on our mind:

Would many people turn up?  We’d sent invites to all we could think of who would be interested but apart from a handful of people, no-one had really committed themselves to coming.

Would we be able to perform our part in the pwnco ceremony adequately?  Our contribution was written in Cornish and had to be sung in response to the Welsh verses, and given the busyness of our lives at that time, we hadn’t had any chance to practise.

Would the weather be kind as Cornish weather is notoriously unpredictable?

We all met up in the Cobweb Inn and following suitable refreshment it was time to take Penkevyll down to the Museum.  We allowed plenty of time for this as the Oss has to ‘meet and greet’ on her way!

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Most children love Penkevyll!
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Penkevyll always shows appropriate respect to the Elders.

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Once inside the Museum we met the managers, Judith and Peter, and prepared ourselves for the arrival of the Mari’s.  We hadn’t long to wait.  Before we knew it there was a great knocking on the front door and the Mari party starting singing their verses of the pwnco in Welsh.

Mari pwnco
Singing the Pwnco – Photo credit: John Isaac
Mari Trecopr – Photo credit: John Isaac

We answered, rather haltingly in Cornish, a final verse was exchanged and the door was flung open and the Mari Lywds were welcomed in!

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In order for the Mari Lwyd to properly bestow blessings on a building, they have to thoroughly investigate every nook and cranny.  So you can guess what fun the Osses had doing that!  As you can see from the following photos.

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At last it was time for the traditional libations and so everyone was ‘fed and watered’ with alcohol and cake.

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Needless to say this was very well received!

It was time to go out and meet our public and see how many folks had turned up to support this event.

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Credit: John Isaac

To our delight there were dozens and dozens of people there enjoying the music, dancing and general merriment.  So without further ado the Mari Lwyd and Penkevyll joined in with gusto!  It was brilliant!  😀

Credit: Museum of Witchcraft
Dancing Oss
Credit: John Isaac
Dancing Mari
Credit: John Isaac

Later on we caroused our way around the Boscastle pubs meeting the locals and thoroughly enjoying ourselves – as you can tell…

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…and so to bed!

The next day we were joined by more people from Wytchwood Morris.  We repeated our visitation to all the hostelries in Tintagel, only this time Penkevyll stayed in her warm and dry stable (rider unavailable), and I was free to join the musicians and enjoy the spectacle of the Mari Lwyd without having to keep an eye on Penkevyll (a full-time job).

Credit: Angie Latham
Credit: Angie Latham
Credit: Angie Latham
Credit: Angie Latham

Unfortunately the night weather was wild and more like Wuthering Heights as we made our way from pub to pub.

This footage link will give you some idea of what we were up against!

It didn’t dampen our enthusiasm though and we even found time to discuss and plot how we may repeat this experience in the future.

Credit: Angie Latham

The outcome of all our scheming?  Well now, you’ll just have to wait and see……!  😉

Cornish Penkevyll makes history by meeting the Welsh Mari Lwyd

Photo credit: Val O’Connor

Over my many years of Oss Teazing, firstly with Penglaz in Penzance and latterly with Penkevyll the Lands End Oss, I have often heard references made to the Mari Lwyd from Wales.  This is a Welsh counterpart mast or pole Oss, so-called because it consists of a horse’s skull on the end of a pole with a material cover for the rider underneath.  Both Osses traditionally emerge over the dark days of winter to bring luck to any household that allowed them entrance.  I never thought that I would have the opportunity to bring our Oss to meet the famous Mari Lwyd but in 2012 we (as in our Guise team Boekka) were invited by Chepstow Wassail to do just that and we were booked in to appear for January 2013.  To our intense frustration and bitter disappointment we were thwarted by the British weather.  There was heavy snow fall with the main Red Alert weather warning slap bang over – yes you guessed it – Chepstow!  So this year we were petitioning all the weather gods who would listen to let us travel up and perform and let the Osses meet at last.  This post is about the unforgettable experience we had…

Our arrival was not wonderfully auspicious as the sat nav directed us over the Severn bridge, which incurs an expensive toll, round the roundabout and then back over the bridge to our accommodation for the night!  Once we’d changed into our kit and piled into the car again it was back over the bridge – another expensive toll, and then on to the car park at Chepstow Castle.  We quickly assembled our Oss and Penkevyll came alive – we were ready to meet the Mari Lwyd!

We made our way toward a large crowd of revellers that had gathered together underneath the walls of Chepstow Castle.  What an awesome castle it is too!  It’s Norman, dating back to 1067 and you could literally feel its history emanating from within it.


Fortunately, although we hadn’t arrived early enough to join in the opening dances from the many Morris sides that had attended, we had arrived just in time for the first Wassail.  Then we spotted our first Mari and made our way slowly towards it.  We had no preconceptions as to our welcome as we were very aware that the Mari Lwyd ceremonies were a custom that dated back hundreds of years, and we had no idea what reception our Cornish Oss would have.  We needn’t have worried as our welcome couldn’t have been warmer!  Penkevyll stood out because she is so dark whereas the Maris wear white and she attracted a lot of interest.  I was in my element and so was Penkevyll, being surrounded by so many other Osses.  The Welsh truly honour and show respect to their Maris often bowing to them.  Many Maris were tethered and had handlers that were often women or children and they spoke to them lovingly.  I dread to think what would happen if I tried to harness Penkevyll – we’d need one of those extendable leads as she’s forever running off and getting into mischief!  One naughty thing that I noticed all the Maris including Penkevyll have in common, is their propensity to steal people’s hats!

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Photo credit: Laetitia Latham-Jones

This was such a refreshing change as most of the time Penkevyll is often viewed askance by many and has actually had some folks acting very aggressive towards her.  Having said that there are many who are very fond of her, especially when she’s being naughty (which happens often!) – nevertheless, she performs alone and has never met other pole  Osses before.  To see her move among the Mari Lwyds was very touching and I was in awe at the wonder and magic of it all.

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Photo credit: Laetitia Latham-Jones

It was time to start the Wassail.

A Wassail is a ceremony generally performed in an orchard or amongst apple trees.  If you think of the Harvest Festival as a thank you for a good harvest, then the Wassail is a request for a good harvest for the coming year.  Cider soaked toast is hung on the trees by women and a lot of noise, sometimes including gunfire is produced to supposedly drive away any bad spirits.

Following lots of singing and general merrymaking whilst circumambulating the cider fed trees we all made our way to the Three Tuns Inn where the first Mari ceremony would be performed. 

The Mari Lwyd ceremony is an ancient Welsh custom which originated in South Wales, similar to ‘first footing at New Year’.  Traditionally a horse skull or representation of same is carried from house to house by the Mari Lwyd group.  At the house a kind of singing competition (pwnco) between the group and the people of the house begins after the group has knocked on the door and requested entry for food and drink.  Eventually, the Mari group are given entry and sustenance, there is more singing and capers and then after blessing the household, off to the next house, pub or even museum.

How we squeezed so many Osses and their handlers into an already full pub once we’d gained entry, I’ll never know!  There was lots of singing and offering of ale to the Maris and it was at this time that everyone had also started to call Penkevyll a Mari too – we felt so honoured.  The air was electric with energy and it all felt timeless and yet age-old at the same time…I felt truly between the worlds.

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Photo credit: Laetitia Latham-Jones

It was time to move outside where we had the first chance to perform with Penkevyll.  Our dances were greeted with loud cheers and applause and many folks approached us afterwards during the rest of the day saying how wonderfully ‘spooky’ our performance was.  Huge thanks must go at this point to a certain young man called Martin Ware who was not only responsible for getting us invited but also drummed expertly for us on the day.  🙂

Photo credit: Angie Latham

We spent the next couple of hours eating, drinking and talking with some fascinating people, making new friends and creating important networking connections until it was time for the long-awaited Big Event.  The Meeting of the Welsh and the English at the Border.  This occurs on the old Iron Bridge which spans the River Wye and has been described as “It’s like going to War, and then all Peace breaks out!”.  To our delight we were asked to march across the bridge with the Welsh rather than join the English on the other side.  This was the time for us to get out our Cornish flag that we had brought with us which we proudly marched with to the sound of skirling pipes and drums.  It was another moment when the hair stood up on the back of my neck as I watched all the Maris sway and dance to the rousing music.  Our flag was exchanged and we now have a fine Welsh dragon flag.  Our Cornish one remains in the Castle Inn until we return again.

Bridge meeting
photo credit: Stenson Craig-Ann

Once the English, Welsh and Cornish all had a chance to dance at the Border on the bridge we all then decamped to reassemble for the last Mari ceremony of the night at Chepstow Museum.  Once again I witnessed the Welsh exchange of coercions and insults but instead of letting the Maris in to rampage about the Museum the Lord & Lady of the ceremony, Ned Heywood MBE and Anne Rainsbury (Museum Curator) made an appearance and offered up the wonderfully wrought Chepstow Wassail Bowl full of steaming, mulled cider.  To our utter astonishment and delight our Cornish team was offered the first sip to drink the Wassail!  Things were starting to feel a little surreal as I gazed across the large smiling crowd, past the flags including our Cornish one flapping briskly in the breeze, and toward the floodlit Chepstow Castle.  A moment to savour and remember indeed!  🙂

Photo credit: Laetitia Latham-Jones

It was time to put Penkevyll back in her stable and pick up our musical instruments and join our newly made friends at the Castle Inn where we shared songs and tunes in an open mic/jam session which continued for the rest of the night.

I learnt from that experience that there are very close connections with our Celtic cousins, the Welsh.  I had heard about the similarities with the language before but I must admit that I was still startled to realise that, Penkevyll easily translates from Cornish ‘Horse Head’ to the Welsh Penceffyl, and Cornish Boekka ‘Scarecrow’ to the Welsh Bwbach the pronunciations sounding almost identical.

It’s going to take a while for me to assimilate all that happened at Chepstow – I’m still dreaming of Maris!  Many heartfelt congratulations go to all the organisers of the Chepstow Wassail with particular thanks to Mick Lewis who went out of his way to be so helpful.  Bless you!

Here’s a Role of Honour of all the Mari Lwyds who attended:

Heb Enw Mari, Pembroke

Llanfihangel Tor Y Mynydd Mari

Y Fari Troellog,  Carmarthen

Coppertown Mari, Swansea

Cwmni Gwerin, Pontypwl

Coppin the Hooden Horse, Stroud

Poor Awd Oss, Nottinghamshire

Gloucestershire Broad, Gloucester

photo credit: Micky Tose

All in all, a powerful festival that I would thoroughly recommend to you all, and definitely an experience I would love to repeat.




Here I am adding one of the most powerfully evocative songs I have ever come across concerning the Mari Lwyd.  Music and performance by Chris Wood. Lyrics by Hugh Lupton.

I’ve also found some footage from this particular Wassail:

This is Boekka performing ‘As Above, So Below – drumming by Martin Ware.

Boekka performing ‘Dark Triskele’.

The Mari Lwyds meet the English on Chepstow Bridge.  Footage on these three videos by Smikestock.


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