‘I first came here nearly seventy years ago,’ said Aubrey. ‘It was the Golowan Festival. Course, they don’t have it now. Bleddy health and safety.’
Aubrey Hollingsworth - Safe House
I have to admit that I had never heard of the Golowan Festival until I started doing research for Safe House. I'm relatively new to living in Cornwall, though my husband is a born and bred Cornishman, so I'm still learning things. (I'm even attempting to lean a bit of the Cornish language). For those of you who have read Safe House, you might have wondered what the festival is all about. So here you go...
What is Golowan?
Golowan (or Gol-Jowan) is the Cornish language word for Midsummer. Gol is from gool – Cornish for festival – and Jowan is the Cornish name for John, so it’s technically the Feast of St John. These celebrations were widespread in Cornwall until the late 1800s.
According to William Borlase in 1754, ‘At these fires the Cornish attend with lighted torches, tarr'd and pitch'd at the end, and make their perambulations round their Fires, and go from village to village carrying their torches before them.’ But it was a bit more than that.
This description states - ‘Then the villagers, linked in circles hand-in-hand, danced round them to preserve themselves against witchcraft, and when they burnt low, one person here and there detached himself from the rest and leaped through the flames to insure himself from some special evil." As you do.
In 1875 The Cornish Telegraph wrote … “pandemonium is witnessed. Spite of the stifling smoke a band plays ; hobble-de-hoys, with occasionally a female partner, but more frequently in couples of their own sex, waltz and polka ; in every direction the bonfires blaze, the hand-rockets hiss, squibs flit hither and thither, and fall in unexpected places, sky-rockets and Roman candles send their many coloured scintillations into the air ; the cry of “Fire, fire!” resounds, but it only means that some fair one’s petticoats require a vigorous shaking or she would soon be skirtless ; all is rough and unmannerly, yet no offence or harm is meant.”
As revelry got out of hand, windows were broken, and there were reports of lit rockets (produced from homemade gunpowder) being stuffed into pockets. Seeing as the locals didn’t pay much attention to the Explosives Act that was passed in 1875, the Penzance authorities had to take matters into their own hands and outlaw the festival. By 1883 there was a 10 o’clock curfew and in 1884 people letting off fireworks in the street were made examples of by the police. And so it ends… UNTIL…
In 1991, The Golowan Festival was revived in Penzance and has now become a week-long community and arts celebration. They elect a Mock Mayor of the Quay, let off fireworks on ‘Mazey Eve’ and, on years not blighted by the pandemic, have processions and parades of giant sculptures through the streets of Penzance with a special appearance by the ‘Obby Oss’. Banners and flags fly across the town and the marketplace is bustling. Alas, as far as I can tell there is no leaping through flames to protect yourself from the devil.