Living in the beautiful County of Cornwall I am frequently immersed in the many tales and legends that surround the place and enrich our lives.
Today, the 23rd of December, is very special in the West Cornwall fishing village of Mousehole. For today is “Tom Bawcock’s Eve.” (It also happens to be Mrs Dookes’ birthday, but that is another story!)
Mousehole, locally pronounced “Mouwzel,” is a picturesque fishing village situated about three miles West of Penzance on the shore of Mount’s Bay. Until recent times the village has owed its existence and survival to the sea and the fine fishing grounds off Cornwall’s rocky shores. Indeed, until the late 1600s the only way of getting in and out of the village was by sea!
Cast yourself back to the early 1500’s; a terrible storm has been pounding the coast for weeks and the fishing boats have been marooned in harbour, unable to get to sea. Food stocks are dwindling and because of the weather no visiting boats can make it through the narrow harbour entrance which has been closed with large baulks of timber to protect the village from the ravages of the storm. The villagers face starvation.
Each day the local fishermen trudge wistfully to the harbour and look-out at the fierce foaming sea, they know that to even try to launch their boats would be suicide, but they have to look.
One such fellow was Tom Bawcock, who one day after gazing at the wild ocean withdrew to his cottage near the harbour and sitting in front of the meagre fire fell asleep with his cat on his lap. It was two days before Christmas. After a while he woke with a start, a voice was calling him.
“Hey Tom, wake up!” Tom looked around, his eyes still heavy and sleepy. “Who’s that?” He stammered.
The cat looked him in the eye, “It’s me Tom, now get up and go fishing, quickly!” At first Tom was shocked, but then again this was West Cornwall and all sorts of strange things and people come and go here.
Tom looked closely at the cat, “Did you just say. . .” Before he could finish his sentence the cat spoke again. “Yes, yes, I did, now hurry to your boat and get fishing!”
“But you’ve never spoke before!” exclaimed Tom, “Why now?”
“It’s never been necessary before!” Replied the cat. “Now the whole village, including me, is starving and only you can save us, go fishing Tom Bawcock, go fishing! The sea will calm for you, go fishing!”
Tom stood up, astounded and headed for the door. He paused and looked back at the cat, ” Hurry Tom, hurry! I’ll purr the sea calm for you!”
Running down to the harbour Tom threw on his sea-coat, could that wind and fearful surf be easing just a bit?
He readied his boat and gathered some other fishermen to assist with the sea-baulks, this was crazy! Once the last of the timbers was cleared from his path he leaned into the oars and rowed out into the swirling maelstrom of spume and spray.
Passing the harbour wall he could swear that he could hear a cat purring.
As his little boat cleared the harbour entrance, strangely the wind eased, then turned to the North West – the best direction of all!
He raised his boat’s small sail up and Tom Bawcock sped out into the darkness.
Soon, he could hear a voice on the wind, it was his cat!
“Cast your net to the Starboard, Tom, cast to the Starboard!”
Despite the stormy sea and howling wind he cast the net and brought in fish after fish, seven types in all. Soon his boat was full of shining silver fish and he turned his head towards the distant lights of Mousehole. At that moment the wind eased and spun again, now it blew from the South East and straight back towards the village.
Surfing the mighty rollers, Tom Bawcock shot between the solid harbour walls and ran his boat safely up onto the sand. He brought back enough fish to feed the entire village and they were baked in a giant pie with their heads sticking out to prove that there were fish inside. The fish were gazing at the stars, hence “Stargazy” Pie.
Ever since that day, the festival of Tom Bawcock’s Eve is held in Mousehole on the 23rd of December every year. In procession with home-made lanterns a huge Stargazy Pie is paraded through the narrow streets and alleys of the village, it is then consumed with much merriment and quite a bit of ale and cider! Mousehole is a wonderful place to be today.
The village is still indelibly linked to the sea, though today it is more inclined towards accommodating holiday makers. It is also tragically famous for providing the crew of the ill-fated, 47foot long, lifeboat “Solomon Browne,” which on 19th December 1981 was lost with all hands whilst attempting to rescue the crew of the coaster “Union Star.”In all sixteen people were claimed by the sea that stormy night, eight of them the volunteer crew from Mousehole’s Penlee Lifeboat. Within 24 hours enough people in the village had volunteered to form a new lifeboat crew.
Every year at 20:00hrs on the 19th December the lights of Mousehole are extinguished for an hour to remember the crew of the “Solomon Browne,” at the exact moment that she was lost.
This post is dedicated to their memory.
Have a great “Tom Bawcock’s Eve!”
Oh yes, the cat.
The cat never spoke to Tom again, but every now and the Tom was sure that it winked at him! 😉
Mousehole – Keith Moffatt.
Stargazy Pie – Krista.
Penlee Baothouse – Geof Sheppard.