Sue Ellery-Hill is back with another fascinating story in her Brenda Wootton mini-series. Following last month’s biography of Brenda’s penpal Nina Katorza, this month we focus on Nina’s grandmother – Sybella. Sue again utilises Nina’s letters, which combined with historical archives and records, provide a rich source of information for this melding of fantasy and realism. You can read last month’s Nina Katorza story here.
Some of this is true… ‘Lamorna Wink’ is part fact – part fantasy. Which is which?
The facts come from correspondence in the late 1980s between a Penzance woman, Nina Katorza, then living in the south of France, and my mother Brenda Wootton. Nina – formerly Evelyn – was in her late 80s at the time, and remembering her childhood in West Cornwall, and her grandmother, Sybella.
Sybella Henrietta Giddy Trembath had been a wild child – wild, rebellious and free. Throughout her life, she was the target of much ‘talk’ – local folk were wary of her strangeness, chary of being seen to endorse such an apparently godless character. “She dawn’ think no small taties of ‘erself”, was the consensus… “She’s no better’n she oughta be…”. And there were dark stories of some added oddness – did she have witchy qualities? Rumour had it that in her youth, she’d danced with the devil, and it had turned her head – made her mazed – and folk didn’t hold with such things. ‘Pile o’ awld nonsense’, they would claim firmly, in an effort to convince themselves as much as others… but still they averted their eyes and turned over the coins in their pockets when she passed, to be sure. The evil eye was never mentioned, but much feared.
Indeed – had Sybella herself been a victim of the evil eye?
All of this passed Sybella by. She was unique – a genuine ‘broke-the-mould’ eccentric aristocrat, she knew that the normal rules and social niceties of country life were for others. So said her grand-daughter Evelyn, to my mother, over 100 years later.
For a while in her youth Sybella lived with her parents in Lamorna valley. Possessed of a fertile imagination, Sybella, though often alone, was never lonely. She had the freedom to use her creativity, and employed it to the full with her art and her music, even her appearance.
There were many colourful strands to the complex tapestry that was Sybella.
Throughout her life, she painted: bold, dangerous paintings, alive with colour, ragged… well, those she finished. So many more she started, and impatient, angry, began again, or threw them out like wilting, fading flowers. She painted not what she saw around her, but what was in her head – and that was dangerous territory for sure. There be dragons. Fantasies, stories, played in her head, like a flickering zoetrope. One painting, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’, was taken by the Royal Academy, but then vanished without trace. Evelyn often wondered what inspired that theme.
Certainly rats held no fear for her. As an adult she lived in what some would see as squalor, as cleanliness and domesticity were not her forte, not part of her life plan – if she ever had one. Sybella cared not a jot for her appearance –her clothes and her hair got just a lick and a promise. Her maid of all work, Tryphena, often remarked she looked like she’d ‘been dragged through a ‘edge backwards’. She had little patience with her mistress’s slovenliness – the place was always like ‘high jail’ she said – but her wage was such a pittance, she had not the luxury of time to spick and span every corner, or to do anything other than just tend to her mistress and ‘keep things going’. Nevertheless, she was loyal, and would defend her employer hotly from the harsh criticisms of unkind neighbours, should the need arise. Once a week she baked Sybella a pasty, hopeful that that one solid meal at least would keep some flesh on the woman’s bones.
Sybella knew what she wanted from life: life, life itself, she wanted. So she took it, embraced it like a long-lost lover. She had been an impossible, wilful child, and grew into a passionate, wilful adult. For the longest time she never paid a bill, relying on her husband, the responsible headmaster Joseph Thorne, to somehow cope with her eccentricities.
That was in her youth. But in later years, when age had calmed her passions somewhat, and foreign as it was to her, she was forced to take over management of the household, and of the school’s, budget – a question of necessity, as Joseph seemed to have given up caring. Eventually, he was declared bankrupt, and fled to Bovey Tracy of all places, returning soon after, a ruined man.
Essentially, Sybella was a Manouche at heart… a French Romani, and these were the people she made her own. Every week, on a Thursday morning, she took her little jingle into the Market at Penzance. More like a fair than a market, there would be acrobats and cheapjacks, hawkers and jowsters… and Romanis. The visiting Romanis performed all sorts of tricks, sleight of hand, juggling and leaping – but it was their wild music, their dancing and their singing she loved… the fiddles, the pipes and the tambourines played by the exotic women and the darkly handsome young men. And Sybella, friend to them all, would gather seven of them – always seven – into her jingle and drive the little pony and cart back through the muddy lanes, lit by gorse flowers in every kissing season, to Lamorna valley, or to Newlyn, or wherever she was living at the time. She spoke their language. They would stay for hours, amusing her, drinking and dining, but mostly making music. Untamed gypsy music it was, and the beautiful Sybella would dance, her long skirts swirling, her red hair flying, laughing.
In later years, two of the Roma families, with the unlikely surnames of Smith and Taylor, were even allowed to site their horse-drawn caravans permanently in the field behind the family home, by the trout stream. They were basket-makers who sold at the Thursday market in Penzance – and so close to the family were they that their daughter, Leah Smith, became wet-nurse to the baby Evelyn, and her husband Sylvanus her sometime guardian.
Sybella wore silks and satins – expensive hand-stitched long-fringed shawls from Spain, with a crude hole cut in the middle for her head. Long jade and amber necklaces clattered from her neck, the latest luxury Liberty fabrics of her skirts trodden in the mud, spattered in chicken shit.
Music was her great love. Sybella played piano and the zither, beautifully, and taught the young Evelyn Schumann’s Arabeske. Her son Alan had toured Britain at the age of eight, at his parent’s instigation, playing Bach’s 48 Fugues and Preludes. Eight years old, wearing Little Lord Fauntleroy velvet suits with lace ruffles – and he’d learned all 48 by heart!
When Alan had grown to become the well-respected organist and choir master at St Mary’s in Penzance, Sybella would attend the weekly musical soirees at his house in Alverton, The Hollies, and they would play duets on two grand pianos. Many of the district’s glitterati attended, including some from Newlyn’s fledgling art colony: Stanhope Forbes was a regular, who came to play the violin, and Mrs Norman Garstin sang ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’, in a booming contralto, while young Evelyn – a model for these great artists – hid under the table and watched. At luncheon parties, Evelyn was often called on to perform… “Come, little birdie, come and sing for us!” Granny Sybella would cry… but the birdie would only sing from under the table, squatting amongst the feet.
This was a family driven by music.
But you will want to know what drove Sybella – why this obsession with the Roma people, why was she was so eccentric – did she really have the ‘evil eye’? What was the true story behind her ‘dance with the devil’? For that, we have to go back… much further back…
How did this adventure begin? She was able to identify a specific time and place where her life’s path had forked. Her memories hung about her mind like cobwebs, dewed with pearls of misty distance.
Easter was early that year – the 29th March 1861, Good Friday in Lamorna – or Nantewas, as was. The day when all and sundry walked, from wherever, from Buryan, from Newlyn, from Penzance – to Lamorna. Why did they do it? Why does any Easter festival take place? The bluebells are blooming, the air is fresh, the sun is hot – sap is rising. And once risen, in the woods at Lamorna was the place to be on Good Friday, with your sweetheart, kayeekin’, as her granny called it.
Sybella had enjoyed the ‘festivities’ at Lamorna more than once, with a succession of sweethearts. Her passions fuelled by a few tots of brandy in the Wink, she had joined in the revelries with riotous abandon. This year, to her annoyance and frustration, the current potential sweetheart she hungered for was nowhere to be seen. Disgruntled, Sybella wandered off alone through the trees, away from the crowds of revellers, heading up the valley, deeper into the woods. She ploughed through swathes of nodding bluebells, self-absorbed, unconscious of their colour or their delicate scent. She passed by without a thought the stone her grandfather had always lifted, to show her the judiciously placed ‘fairies’ treasure’ of a few dusty pennies.
The daffodil fields on her right were mostly finished now – drab green spikes, waiting to be deadheaded. The sun had long since hidden behind streamers of cloud, and there were swirling tendrils of chilly mist and fog between the trees… but Sybella was lost in thought as well as space and time. The busy chunter of the stream, swollen with spring rains, barely registered, and soon she left it behind. At last, dispirited, damp, tired, she curled up in the crook of an ash tree, and dozed.
While she slept, the creeping mist had turned to rain, and she woke, stiff, alarmed. She lost her bearings for a moment, then realised she must have walked further than she thought. She was right beside the entrance to Boleigh Fogou, and crept in for shelter, looking to escape the heavy drops that were soaking her to the skin. At the end of the creep there was just enough light to make out the large rounded boulder with a cushion-like seat, and she rested there, waiting for a break in the weather to make her way back.
But then she noticed the light filtering through from the entrance looked strange. Sybella gradually became aware of a faint gauze curtain that was constantly shifting, moving with the current of suddenly colder air. Maybe the mist had followed her in… maybe it was simply cobwebs… but she could see flowing shadows beyond it, and she could hear the faintest hint of tinkling laughter.
She sat very still, silently watching, waiting, waiting for something to make sense. Then came another sound, on the edge of hearing – pipes, playing a wild, haunting tune she could barely catch. Maybe some of her friends had followed, and were looking for her? She was nervous of trying to pass the shadowy veil that still hung in the passage – not like her, to be cautious! – but she steeled herself and strode forward, pushing the insubstantial screen aside with her arms, and ran out into a different scene to the one she had left scant minutes before.
The light was different – golden, and old. The trees were different – festooned with lichen that hung like the silver beards of old men, but glowing, sparkling. There was no rain, nor no sun neither for that matter, and her clothes, soaked with mist just minutes before, were dry. All around her, holding hands and dancing in long grey gowns, slender women were weaving in and out, round and round in a ring. At first, as in a dream, they span almost lazily, floating, it seemed – a leisurely soft-focused, slow-moving circle of merry maidens. Then the music picked up, and the maidens too gathered pace, their forms sharpened, leaping and stamping to the complex rhythms, heads swaying, hips swirling. Now they danced joyfully, they danced like Sybella herself always danced – arms up, waving, hair flying, green eyes flashing – what could she do but join them?
They made space for her, moving aside, and so she danced with them to the pipes she had faintly heard – but now, alive and lively, urgently, two pipers wove the tune that made her feet and her blood leap, made her laugh with the wonder of it all, jigs and reels spinning them faster, faster – so that all became a blur, a whirling dervish of arms, faces, laughter, movement. She threw herself into it, loving the rush, the excitement, the gaiety and the sisterhood. The willowy maidens accepted her as one of them, unquestioning. She, too, spun and whirled. She, too, leaped and laughed. Her feet barely touched the ground, yet her hands touched the sky. As she swept past, she caught sight of the pipers – dressed in colourful rags, their faces brown and weathered, etched with character – but smiling, laughing too. They looked so familiar, but from where? She couldn’t call them home…
Then one held her gaze – dark eyes intense, but smiling – and winked.
The world turned black.
Sybella was on the ground, in damp, dark silence. No golden light, no music – just a soft glow of moonlight filtering through the trees to the side, from a low, late Sabbath moon. She struggled to her feet, aching and stiff. She wondered how long she’d been lying there. Slowly she made her way back down the valley to her home, not so far now.
She told no-one. Who could she tell? Who would believe her? Her mind kept turning the memory over, like a dull beach-stone in her hand, hiding a hint of druzy gems; was there a glint, a flash of a sparkle maybe? What was the tune she’d heard? She thought she could almost catch it… Who were the women? How did it start? Why end? Why her? Was it a good thing, or a bad? She was quite clear on that last point, when she analysed it. This was not the evil eye – it was good… more than good, it was amazingly, breath-takingly, exciting. She wanted it back – she wanted more, she wanted it at her beck and call, to come when she called, to leave when she tired of it.
Her parents noticed nothing unusual… she hid it well: the feverish beating of her heart, the quickening of her pulse – the disturbing hidden memory of that ‘crise mystique’, as Evelyn would later have called it. But over the next few days, she knew her life had somehow changed. She sensed she was not the same person, but in a way she could not define. She yearned to know more, to understand what had happened to her.
The following week, she went with her parents as usual to the Thursday market in Penzance. She’d always enjoyed the gaiety and colour, the noise and bustle, but today, it held no interest for her. It felt like a pale and shoddy imitation of her powerful, life-altering experience of the previous week, and she felt it a chore, a duty. Sullenly she followed them around the stalls, sucking listlessly on a chunk of tooth-breaking whacko while they exchanged pleasantries and gossiped with friends, lingered over silk ribbons, bought spicy fairings and skirt beef.
Then, above, beyond, the general hustle and bustle, a tune caught her ear. The Roma who always came to the weekly market were playing and dancing, the women in bright swirling skirts, singing, dancing; the children leaping and dodging for pennies; the men leaping and twisting to the tune – thattune… like a drum, beating out a rhythm in her veins. It felt to her like the sun came out, every colour blazed, enhanced, it entranced her every sense – and she suddenly came alive. She quickened her pace, ran down the street to Market Place, pushed through the crowds…
In front of her, amidst all the activity, were two pipers, dressed in pied, colourful ragged clothes, with brown, wizened faces, smiling and laughing. She recognised the faces now. Roma she knew – she’d met them often before – the tall Sylvanus, and Connen…
…who caught her eye, smiled – and winked. And like a fish drawn by the wriggling bait, Sybella was hooked and caught by the Lamorna wink, for evermore.
And so it was that the village folk, prim lips pursed in disapproval, would later watch her as she passed, and murmur amongst themselves… “She! Wha’s she like, ever! Alright for some s’pose, but tid’n right, all these ‘ere goin’s on…”
Sybella Henrietta Giddy Trembath was born in 1842 in Penzance. She was the daughter of Sybella Henrietta Nancollas and Edward Giddy Trembath, and had a brother Henry, or Harry, who was also an accomplished pianist – his niece described him as a great womaniser, quite mad, and wearing a smoking cap. Sybella married schoolmaster Joseph Alan Thorne in 1862, and died in Brentwood in Middlesex in 1912.
‘Lamorna Wink’ won an award in the ‘Short Story in English’ Creativity Awards at the Esedhvos Festival of Gorsedh Kernow 30/8/2018. You can find out more about the Esedhvos Festival here.
LAMORNA WINK – NOTES
‘Lamorna Wink’ can stand on its own, but if further explanation is needed, it is below. This is not intended as part of the story, but an explanation of some of the local references.
In this story, I have hypothesised a possible explanation for Sybella’s unique eccentricity and her fascination with the Romany people. Was she pisky-led as a girl? Is this an answer to her mystery?
The names, the places, the people, are all very real. In 1861, Sybella would have been 19, a year before her marriage. Sybella is a very unusual name, which comes from Sybil, the oracle or Greek prophetess. Evelyn (later Nina) called her Granny Isa, from Isabella, but the birth and marriage records name her, and her mother, as Sybella. The musical soirees and family friendships with the Newlyn artists are also true – Evelyn, born in 1900, posed as a model for several of them, including Stanhope Forbes, Norman Garstin and Walter Langley, from around the ages of 6-10 years old.
Evelyn states that Granny Isa ‘ruined’ Grandpa Thorne, who fled to the Isle of Man; newspaper archives however suggest he remained as a headmaster in Penzance for most of his life, but did become bankrupt in 1894, mostly through poor money management, it seems – then fled, briefly, to Bovey Tracey, and died back in Penzance in 1911.
According to Evelyn, Sybella was beautiful, red-haired and green-eyed, and wore lavish, luxury Bohemian outfits, Liberty fabrics, fine jewellery, and so on – beneath elaborately embroidered Spanish shawls crudely cut as ponchos. She also painted, loved music and was a fine musician. Evelyn declares Sybella’s ‘Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ painting was accepted by the Royal Academy, but I can find no reference to it as yet. The Pipers Sybella sees are also ‘pied’, and entice the unwary girl (and indeed the Merry Maidens) to follow their music.
The weekly trips to Penzance to collect seven gypsies in the jingle (a pony cart or trap) are also clearly remembered by Evelyn – but why seven gypsies? Maybe she was recalling the old folk tune (of which there are many regional variations):
There were seven gypsies and all in a row, And one sang high and one sang low, And they sang so sweet and so complete, That they stole the heart of a lady-o…
The golden gorse blossom lining all the country lanes throughout the year gave rise to the saying ‘if gorse is in flower, kissing is in season’ – as gorse is never out of season. The local tradition of walking to Lamorna on Good Friday has been going on for time out of mind, and still continues today. My own grandparents are rumoured to have first met at Lamorna on Good Friday, where many young couples were known to be ‘kayeekin’ – or ‘fooling around’. Kayeeking was generally understood in my family to mean young people engaging in mischievous play or foolishness, in other words, canoodling – but in any event, something frowned upon by their elders (who had probably long forgotten their own youthful kayeekin’).
The ‘evil eye’ was an age-old belief in many cultures. “I do not exaggerate when I affirm… my own persuasion that two-thirds of the total inhabitants of the Tamar side implicitly believe in the power of ‘mal’ occhio’, as the Italians name it, or the evil eye” – so said the Rev Robert Hawker of Morwenstow in Cornwall in Mrs Whitcombes “Bygone Days in Devon & Cornwall” 1873, p139.
The old inn in Lamorna is called The Wink – a name most likely derived from the fact that the site was used by local smugglers, and ‘tipping the wink’ to the landlord might get you the contraband goods, or a signal to the landlord that you wanted – and were willing to pay for – a shot of something strong and illegal in your drink that couldn’t be mentioned by name. A ‘kiddlywink’ was the common term for a Cornish alehouse licensed to sell only beer or cider, as opposed to an inn or tavern, but they were often known as sites used by smugglers to hide or to sell on their goods in secret.
Sybella falls asleep at the foot of an ash tree – the ash was symbolised as the ‘world tree’, which spans the gulf from the underworld to the upper, known world and on to the heavenly realms. It is one of the three ‘fairy’ trees of the Celtic ‘sacred grove’ of oak, ash and thorn, and is often connected with enchantment – sleeping with ash leaves under your pillow (which Sybella effectively does) was believed to promote prophetic dreams.
The Cornish word for the Ash tree is Connen – the name of the Romany who winks at her, twice. Sylvanus is a Romany male name – but also a Roman deity, the protector of forests, woods and hedgerows, and a lover of music, being associated with the god Pan; the pan-pipes, or syrinx, are sacred to Sylvanus.
In Sybella’s time, as now, there were daffodil fields on the slopes of the valley, and further up to the left is the entrance to Boleigh – an Iron Age monument with the rare underground feature of a fogou. This is a little understood and often immaculately constructed underground passage, with an inner chamber, or, in this case, a ‘creep’, which has at its end a rounded chair-like stone, fallen long ago from the roof. Given the care taken in their construction, there is much speculation as to their original purpose – storage cellars for food or animals seem a very prosaic use for such elaborate structures, and the theory that they served a more spiritual purpose as sacred spaces, possibly with feminine overtones such as birthing or transformational chambers of some kind, is now gaining ground.
The fogou at Carn Euny, a few miles away, has some rare fluorescent moss on the walls of the inner chamber which glows most eerily, and I’ve found some very strange photos of intangible misty light effects in the passage at Boleigh, taken in recent years – this is one of the most convincing:
“A very strange light effect in Boleigh fogou. I promise the camera was totally still all the way though the shot, As can be seen by the rocks being pretty much in focus in the background, We had a very strange feeling at the time the photo was taken, and were a little taken aback when we saw this photo later.”
In 1861, when Sybella entered the fogou so unwisely, the antiquarian and artist J T Blight had only just published the book of his travels in West Cornwall, ‘A Week at the Land’s End’ which included references to Boleigh (then ‘Bolleit’); the nearby house of Trewoofe was not built until 1910. He mentions Bolleit as being the scene of a decisive battle when Athelstan’s forces defeated the Cornish under their last King, Howel, around 925 AD. Blight was the son of a local schoolmaster, as Sybella was the wife of another, and it is quite likely she would have known of his publication.
Localised legends of fairies, sprites, piskies, (pixies), spriggans (mischievous imps) and knockers (mine spirits), abound in West Cornwall. Many of the stories relate to individuals being ‘pisky-led’… placed under a temporary enchantment by mischievous spirits or fairy folk. The Romanies also had a strong relationship with, and belief in such stories. Victims who had been pisky-led were often said to be transported into an altered world and timescale, and to witness the fairy folk or spirits conducting their revels, later to awaken back to harsh reality. Similarly judiciously-placed ‘fairies’ treasure’ was shown to me beneath a stone in a lane in Paul by my own grandfather in my youth.
Just past Boleigh Fogou is the Merry Maidens stone circle. This circle of 19 rough-hewn granite boulders (probably 20, originally) was also called the ‘Dawns mên’ in Cornish, the dancing-stones, but they are more commonly known now as the Merry Maidens. The legend relates that they were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath Day, as were the two musicians who were playing the music for the dancers, who became the two large standing stones or menhirs visible in fields at nearby Boleigh Farm, The Pipers. When Sybella awakes in the dark woods, it is Friday evening or early Saturday morning, and hence, the Sabbath, when dancing is forbidden.
Penzance Marketplace, as painted by Stanhope Forbes ‘Marketplace’ was defined as the area running from the side of the the Market House building, around to the front and the far side, and down to Queen Square, almost to the top of Chapel Street. This was painted around the turn of the 19th century.
Penzance’s Thursday Market arose from a Royal Charter granted by Henry IV of England in 1404. Thursday is still Market Day in Penzance, over 600 years later.
‘Whacko’ was the large round striped pinwheel of sticky boiled mint humbug confectionery, always seen at fairs and markets.
‘Fairings’ are Cornish-made spicy ginger biscuits, so named because they too were to be got at the fair.
‘Skirt beef’ is a juicy cut of beef marbled with fat and traditionally used to make proper Cornish pasties.
A Jowster was a hawker of butter, eggs and fish.
“She couldn’t call them ‘ome…” – she couldn’t place where she knew them from.
Evelyn (then Nina) reports having a ‘crise mystique’, or a spiritual crisis, many years later when living in France.
Throughout, I have had two sources to refer to: Evelyn’s (or Nina’s) own letters and memories, written some seventy years after some of the events described – so, far away in both time and distance, but nonetheless personal and valid – and the historical and archival records available from my own research. Sometimes they concur, at other times, there are subtle differences. For the purposes of my story, I have used both sources at different times. Nina’s own story is at least as sensational.
© Sue Ellery-Hill
Sue’s biography of Brenda Wootton is being launched at the Acorn Theatre in Penzance on Friday November 16th at 7.30pm, entry is free with donations… The book will be available for sale, and signings will be taking place. Those who helped with the Crowdfunding can also collect their copy. There will be entertainment such as live music, a short film of Brenda and readings from the book.