Stories from Cornwall have entertained generations
For young and old, the stories that captivate young people are special. For those hearing them the first time, they take them to faraway lands and on new adventures. For those hearing them again, they are a reminder of special times in their past when they were little.
For all its uniqueness, Cornwall is the home and inspiration for quite a few memorable classics of children’s literature. An escape for those telling and listening to them, you can enjoy these stories while staying just miles away from their source as you tuck into bed in a warm, cosy St Ives holiday cottage.
Wives, sacks and cats
There may be no nursery rhyme more familiar than a riddler’s tale about a journey to St. Ives.
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives, each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits: Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were there going to St. Ives?”
The earliest known published version of the poem was found in a manuscript dating back to 1730. The first fully published version was in 1825. It has gone on to become one of the more famous mathematical riddles ever written.
Although there is always room for debate considering the number of other St Ives in Britain, it is generally thought that the rhyme refers to the Cornish location. A vibrant seaside fishing community, the village has always been home to a lot of cats – in part to control the rat and mouse population created by the busy fishing port.
As far as the mathematical conundrum caused by the rhyme’s question, it is widely accepted that the person asking the question is the only person going to St Ives. But others argue, the direction of travel could have been the same for everyone. In that case, get your calculators out and start multiplying.
The revered Knights of the Round Table
Literary historians may not always agree, but there is strong evidence that the inspiration and tales about the legendary King Arthur grew from the foggy moors of North Cornwall. Part history, part legend, it is believed it started based on the folklore about the various kings and queens of Cornwall.
At Tintagel, there are castle ruins that date from the 1100s. Evidence suggests this site had an earlier history as a trading post and Celtic stronghold. 12th century author Geoffrey of Monmouth was convinced the birth of Arthur came to Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, wife of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, at Tintagel Castle. The famous Round Table is said to have been constructed following a visit by Arthur to Cornwall as well.
From the Old French in The High History of the Holy Grail:
"Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain came into a very different land, scarce inhabited of any folk, and found a little castle in a combe. They came thitherward and saw that the enclosure of the castle was fallen down into an abysm, so that none might approach it on that side, but it had a right fair gateway and a door tall and wide, whereby they entered. They beheld a chapel that was right fair and rich, and below was a great ancient hall. They saw a priest appear in the middle of the castle, bald and old, that had come from the chapel. They are come thither and alighted and asked the priest what the castle was, and he told them it was the great Tintagel".
Modern Day Classics
There are a few children’s books written in the last century that capture the bit of the magic that is Cornwall.
In Over Sea, Under Stone written by Susan Cooper, a family gets into an adventure when they visit their kindly uncle in Cornwall. The story harkens back to an earlier time as the children find a map tracing back to the time of King Arthur and a chance to search for treasure. Cooper, of Buckinghamshire, is best known for her novel The Dark is Rising.
In another children’s classic, The Mousehole Cat was written by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Nicola Bayley. It is based on the legend of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock and the stargazy pie. About a cat on a fishing trip on choppy seas, the book won the 1991 British Book Award for Illustrated Children's Book of the Year. The story has been adapted into an animated film, a puppet show and is currently being adapted as a stage musical.
And, just for good measure, a “Cornish” nursery rhyme found its way into a Hollywood sitcom. The writers of The Big Bang Theory helped carry the torch of the county’s literary tradition when they penned: “There was a tall man from Cornwall whose length exceeded his bed. ‘My body fits on it. But barely upon it. There's no room for my big Cornish head!’"
Spoken by the character of Sheldon Cooper, the poem was credited in the program to the fictional E. M. Snickering and called "The Tall Man from Cornwall".