For centuries the rugged Cornish coastline was a haven for wreckers and smugglers as well as providing a livelihood for those fishing communities dotted along the shoreline. Life was never easy and exacted a heavy human cost over the years. These dangerous waters were not only the breeding places for fish, but became the spawning grounds for legendary tales and traditions.
One such story tells of Tom Bawcock who lived in the west Cornish fishing village of Mousehole ( pronounced “Mowzel”) in the 16th century. Like many other local people Tom made his living from fishing, but things became desperate one festive season for the village. Storms had raged for many weeks and the usually busy fishing boats remained idle in the harbour. The villagers depended on fish for their main diet and faced famine unless help came.
Suffering continued until 23rd December when the village reached starvation point and Tom Bawcock decided to brave the appalling weather and take his boat out to try to catch fish. The violent weather remained unabated and threatened to capsize his tiny craft, but Tom managed to cast his nets and hauled in an immense assortment of fish. When he returned, all the fish were baked in a huge pie which has become known as Stargazy Pie.
Since then, Tom Bawcock’s Eve has taken place annually on 23rd December to commemorate the courage of one man who saved his village, as well as all those who have risked or lost their lives at sea.
Every year, since 1963, people have come from far and wide to see the Christmas lights switched on in the harbour. “It’s massive,” says Barry Davey who runs the Ship Inn along with his partner Kate Murray. “You’ve got people from all over the UK wanting to see these lights, because there’s nowhere else that does it as well as Mousehole.”
This isn’t an idle boast when you behold the Christmas illuminations; it’s a dazzling multi- coloured display and it was started by Joan Gillchrest, a local artist who came to live in Mousehole for many years and whose vibrant paintings belong to the Cornish tradition of naïve art. Two strings of coloured lights were initially hung on either quay. Little did the villagers know how popular the festival would become. Year by year, the heralding of the Christmas lights has grown to become a major festival with more than 40 stellar exhibits made by local volunteers. Thirty thousand people from all over the UK throng the village in the three weeks leading up to Christmas once the lights are switched on.
Everything centres around the harbour which is a natural amphitheatre, where 20 to 30 volunteers have worked most weekends from September to bring this incandescent spectacle to life. As well as fixed lights there are floating lights, such as the whale and the
sea serpent, in the harbour. The whale, has over 40 circuits and can both smile and create a convincing spurt through his blowhole. The sea serpent has been remade several times because of the destructive ravages of the weather. A major storm in 1989 damaged and wrecked many items in the harbour and at the side of the quays, yet within a week all the lights were up and running again. Only once have the Mousehole lights failed to shine and that was in 1974 due to national power cuts.
The statistics about this event are mind boggling: over 7,000 bulbs are used, 51⁄ miles of cable, 20 strings of lanterns in addition to all the huge exhibits. A Celtic cross ( once powered by a wind generator) is now powered by solar power cells on St. Clement’s Island. This lies just outside the harbour wall and has to be serviced by a brave volunteer paddling out on a surfboard, as the harbour is closed during this period. The biggest item is a sign measuring 160 feet long ( half the length of a football pitch) wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” and containing 1,000 light bulbs.
The 2017 switch on will take place on Saturday 16th December at 7pm. An open- air Carolaire service will be held at the North Quay. The Carolaire Choir, composed of the Methodist Choir and members of the community, will lead the singing accompanied by the Pendeen Silver Band. The lights will remain on from 5pm to 11pm every night until 16th January 2018.
On 19th December the lights are dimmed between 8pm and 9pm to remember the Penlee lifeboat, the Soloman Browne, and the bravery of the Mousehole crew who all lost their lives that night in 1981 going to the assistance of a stricken coaster the Union Star.
The stunning harbour lights bewitch this picturesque village as excitement builds and crowds gather for the festivities on Tom Bawcock’s Eve. A procession usually takes place in the early evening when children carry lanterns through the narrow backstreets to the quayside. The sound of accordions and other musical instruments rings out, carols are sung on the beach, while the aroma of mulled wine is caught in the breeze.
There’s something for everyone. Last year, a magical puppet and live- action production of Antonia
Barber’s classic, award- winning children’s story The Mousehole Cat, based on the story of Tom Bawcock and his famous cat Mowzer, was performed in the Soloman Browne Memorial Hall to great acclaim. Guy Watson of the Dream Team Theatre tells me they hope to do the same this year.
Tom Bawcock’s Eve wouldn’t be complete without the Stargazy Pie. This is baked at the Ship Inn and is more than a fish pie. Fish heads deliberately poke through the shortcrust pastry as if looking at the stars and tails protrude, so that the fish look as if they are leaping in and out of the water. Recipes differ, but up to seven types of fish including hake, cod, haddock, pollock and sardines can be used, along with herbs, spices and seasoning, with soft boiled eggs to garnish. “It’s just a big, big celebratory day,” Barry Davey tells me. “Everyone comes in and wants to have a drink, especially the local people in Mousehole.” Even people who don’t drink on a daily basis gather to join in the celebrations. You can’t move in the pub when the pie comes out.
A local fisherman ( born and bred in Mousehole) dresses up as Tom Bawcock in a bowler hat and dark beard, navigates through the crowd serving the pie to customers with his helpers. It is all for charity and people give generously. Four large trays are made, which equates to eight large pies. Not everyone may be partial to the delicacy of a fish head, but as one local told me, Tom Bawcock’s Eve is the real start of Christmas for her family and is an event they all look forward to at this time of the year.
Merry places you may believe, Tis Mouzel ’ pon Tom Bawcock’s Eve, To be there then who wouldn’t wesh, to sup
o’sibm soorts o’ fish When morgy brath had cleared the path, Comed lances for a fry And then us had a bit o’cad an’ Sarrygazie pie
Last year, all the donations from the Stargazy Pie, went towards the RNLI which seems very appropriate as Charlie Greenhaugh ( the former landlord of the Ship Inn) was a member of the courageous Penlee lifeboat crew who were lost on that tragic night.
Mousehole’s harbour becomes a shimmering spectacle, brightening the winter nights.
Left and below: The festive lights are a joy for locals and visitors alike. ASPECTS HOLIDAYS
The church and Christmas trees are central to the display.
A summer’s day in Mousehole; The Ship Inn and the famous Stargazy Pie.
In between hearty mouthfuls the villagers sing:
As aich we’d clunk, E’s health we drunk, in bumpers bremmen high, And when up caame Tom Bawcock’s name, We’d prais’d unto the sky.