A royal bombinator

I was browsing my shelves a couple of weeks ago for something new to read, and picked up my OWC copy of The Eustace Diamonds – the next in the sequence of Palliser novels after Phineas Finn (which I posted about HERE last summer). After skimming through the foreword by the text editor, WJ McCormack, and the first few pages of the introduction, I decided I wasn’t ready in this enervating lockdown for an 800-page, small-print whopper. Maybe when the weather perks up later in the spring.

There was an expression in that foreword, however, that stopped me short. McCormack is writing about the book trade and the business of producing new, modern editions of Victorian novels like this one in OWC’s Centenary Edition of the Palliser novels. Here’s the whole sentence:

[This Edition] has not entered into the fabulously expensive business of establishing new texts which, with bombinating minutiae, often retards or replaces the reader’s engagement with literary history.

‘Bombinating’. The context makes the meaning fairly clear, but I still had to look it up. Here’s the entry in the OED online for ‘bombinate, verb, in current use’ (as always, I’m grateful to Cornwall’s library service for making this resource available free to members):

To buzz, make a buzzing noise.

[a1553    F. Rabelais ii. vii   Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones. (In ridicule of the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen.)]

1880    A. C. Swinburne Study of Shakespeare (ed. 2) iii. 199   As easy and as profitable a problem to solve the Rabelaisian riddle of the bombinating chimæra.

1880    Daily News 21 June   The power of a chimæra bombinating in a vacuum to eat second intentions is scarcely less suggestive of a..solution.

Etymology: < reputed Latin *bombilāre, an erroneous reading (commonly accepted in medieval Latin) of bombitāre to hum, buzz, < bombus hum, buzz

The pejorative (and slightly pompous) sense in the McCormack sentence clearly chimes with that of the Rabelaisian citations here (I’ve resisted the temptation to explore that enigmatic quotation further; more detail is found at the Merriam-Webster site HERE: M-W links it to Greek ‘bombos’, from which derives the English ‘bomb’) – the (over-)subtle (or stringent?) textual forensics of academic literary scholars in editing texts by Trollope, giving too much information and thereby occluding the force of the text itself.

I was aware that the Latin bombus also signified ‘bumblebee’ – a word imitative of the buzzing or humming sound of winged insects in flight. Or so I used to think. Until I came across the Dec. 20 – Jan. 21 post on the OUP Etymologistblog by scarily erudite Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), which queried the sound-imitation notion (in a post that started off looking at the sounds and origins of the words kid, cub and bunny – it’s a brilliant blog for taking you down etymological rabbit (or bunny) holes), pointing out that the word possibly derives instead from ‘humble-bee’. OED states that another variant is the Harry Potteresque ‘dumbledore’.

Bufftailed beeCoincidentally the next morning ended a long spell of cold, wet weather and dawned sunny and warm. When I stepped outside my front door I nearly trod on a large bee. It was very somnolent – or sick. Anxious that it would be squashed by someone, I coaxed it onto a leaf and carefully placed it out of harm’s way in a flower bed. When I returned an hour later it had gone – so I hope it had revived its spirits in the early spring sunshine and taken off to do whatever it is queen bees do in the spring: start a new buff-tailed colony?

I contacted the excellent people at our local wildlife trust, who have helped with identification of various critters for me in the past (the last time I posted about it HERE: a magpie moth). A very helpful man called John emailed back the same day with the information that my picture was of a buff-tailed bumblebee queen (bombus terrestris), adding ‘one of our most familiar bumblebees and one of the first to emerge each spring. As you discovered, they can be very sluggish when it’s chilly and they are still warming up.’

John provided a link to his organisation’s website entry on this bee (link HERE), which included this lovely bit of information about it:

Buff-tailed Bumblebees are known as ‘nectar robbers’: if they come across a flower that is too deep for their tongue, they bite a hole at its base and suck out the nectar. Afterwards, other insects looking for nectar will also use this handy hole. [This entry also has a lovely picture of a worker bee in this family, which instead of a buff-coloured tail has a sort of grubby white one]

Although I decided against starting this Trollope novel in my present disengaged reading state, I’m gratified for this small but (to me) fascinating piece of information about the only true and original ‘bombinator’. And a queen, a royal bombinator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A crab for St Piran’s Day

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of Cornwall, Piran (Peran in Cornish). I’ve posted HERE about the remains of his oratory on Penhale Sands near Perranporth (named after him – it’s also a popular boy’s name in the county).

He’s said in his legend to have arrived on the Cornish coast strapped to a mill wheel, having been consigned to the sea by the king of Leinster, whom he’d angered with his Christian piety. He’s not the only legendary saint to have arrived in Britain by this unconventional means. Piran lived here in Cornwall as a holy hermit in the fifth or sixth centuries; he later became an abbot.

Piran is also said to have rediscovered tin-smelting, by lighting his fire on a black hearthstone which turned out to be rich in tin ore. The tin smelted to the surface to form a white-silver cross on a black background – which accounts for the design of the Cornish flag. Mining – principally at first for tin – was for centuries the dominant industry in this county. Remnants of this industrial activity are found everywhere here – even on the rugged coastal promontories.

Picture: Stemonitis, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In March 2016 a small species of hermit crab was rediscovered on the Cornish coast during a survey by Shoresearch Cornwall – a volunteer programme of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. The species (clibanarius erythropus) had not been seen here for fifty years. After a viewers’ survey on the BBC ‘Springwatch’ programme, this apt name was chosen for it – both the saint and the crab are hermits, and survive the perils of the sea.

I’m indebted to a post on Facebook for knowledge of the existence of this handsome little red-pincered crab. There’s an even better photo of it in that FB post, if you care to search for the Cornish Wildlife Trust page, and today’s entry there.

 

From Devoran to Portreath: the Bissoe cycle trail and Mineral Tramway.

Devoran

Devoran quay, looking out towards Point; Feock and the Carrick Roads, then the English Channel beyond

Yesterday we took our bikes to the Bissoe Trail and did the coast-to-coast trip, from Devoran on the south coast (well, up Restronguet Creek a little, but that’s where the trail ends) via Bissoe to Portreath on the north coast – and back. 24 miles in total; not bad for oldies like us…

When the granite massif of nearby Carnmenellis was produced 300m years ago, the cooling rock left vapours and deposits that became rich veins of metals, principally tin (cassiterite) and copper (chalcopyrite), with some gold, arsenic (technically a ‘metalloid’, a by-product of tin and copper smelting in the later mining period) and other minerals. The Carnon Valley cuts at right angles across these veins, which explains how it became the base of some of the oldest mining activity in the western world.

Devoran

Devoran

The trail follows the route of the old Redruth and Chasewater (now spelt Chacewater) narrow-gauge mineral railway (or Tramway), which opened in 1825, and included several branches. Other lines later completed the route all the way to Portreath. When mining declined in the latter part of the 19C, so did the railway; it closed in 1915. Devoran ceased functioning as a commercial port at that point, and the tidal estuary had already silted up badly.

Devoran was, during the heyday of Cornwall’s mining industry in the 19C, a busy port. Mined minerals,

Devoran

Devoran

mostly tin and copper excavated in the nearby Gwennap area inland, were exported on the ships for smelting in S. Wales. Imports were largely coal to fuel the mines’ steam pumps and other materials to keep the mines operative. Its wooden wharf has largely disappeared, but there survive the remains of ore-storage bins, granite mooring-bollards and various former port buildings.

For a diagram map of the Gwennap mine sites, from ‘Fortune’ to ‘Busy’, ‘Maid’ to ‘Jane’ and ‘Unity’, and many others, with their quaint-sounding but deadly serious Cornish prefixes ‘Wheal,’ see HERE.

Bissoe trail

Bissoe trail passes beneath the viaduct

When tin streaming declined, coinciding with the fall in the price of tin, resourceful mining companies dug under the estuary to extract the remaining subterranean tin gravel. While the laden ships sailed above them, miners toiled 30-40 feet below.

The principal family behind Devoran’s industry was the Agar-Robartes, whose huge estate was at the sumptuous Lanhydrock House near Bodmin – now a National Trust property open to the public.

Carnon viaduct

Original Carnon Viaduct, with wooden supports on granite ‘stumps’ (Wikipedia image)

Halfway between Devoran and Bissoe stands a magnificent viaduct, carrying the line from Truro to Falmouth.  Brunel’s original stumps are still visible below the later, wooden Victorian arches.

It was started in the 1860s. The foundations had to be dug through over nine metres of mine waste material, aka ‘tailings’. These had built up over the

Carnon viaduct today

Carnon viaduct today

decades of expansion from streaming to later deep ‘hard-rock’ mining, and from the construction of the County Adit drainage system.

 

Bissoe is from the Cornish for birch trees. In the 1600s it was a small port at the head of the estuary. Tin streaming activity, using at that time a complex system of leats and sluices, produced so many ‘tailings’ that the valley silted up with this waste material, cutting the place off from the sea.

Nearby is the Point Mills Arsenic refinery. Some imposing building fragments remain, as my picture shows. It closed after 100 years of production in 1939. Arsenic was used principally as a pigment in dyes for the Lancashire textiles industry, and as an alloy with other metals. It was exported for use in sheep-dip, an insecticide and for glass-making.

Bissoe

Mining has scarred and transformed the area near Bissoe

The land itself in places remains scarred and pitted by mining activity, or piled high with waste heaps – now further scored by the tracks of mountain bikers. This wild, bleak moonscape is weirdly beautiful – a far cry from the ‘Cornish Riviera’ images about which I’ve written in recent posts. Yet this is as authentically ‘Cornwall’ as the more famous and picturesque Charlestown or Portloe.

This part of the trail has since 2000 formed the Bissoe Valley nature reserve, 7.5 acres of wetland, heath and post-industrial land. There’s

Old mine buildings nr Bissoe

Old mine buildings nr Bissoe

Old mine buildings nr Bissoeplenty of information, maps, photos, videos, etc. at this website.

It’s teeming with wildlife and flora: dragonflies, damsel flies, birds. No fish, though. The river Carnon is still so polluted by mineral contamination that its mud shines unnatural orange, and the water is eerily coloured as a consequence.

Our dog Bronte, when we were walking here some years ago, didn’t realise there was a river: it’s so overgrown that it looks like a ditch, fell in and was swept away. She was lucky, my wife and I were able to save her. Other dogs since have drowned.

Portreath beach

Portreath beach: my helmet on the wall as evidence we made it

Portreath derives from the Cornish for sandy cove. Tin streaming was recorded there as early as 1602. The mining port’s construction started in the 18C, and expanded considerably in the second half of the 19th. Its purpose was similar to that of its rival, Devoran.

The first ‘railroad’ in Cornwall was the Portreath Tramroad, originally with horse-drawn wagons (steam engines only arrived in the mid-19C), started in 1809, to link with the copper mines at Scorrier and Poldice, near St Day. By 1812 it stretched to Scorrier House, owned by the Williams family who later occupied Caerhays Castle, about which I wrote last time. This family, along with the Bassets (whose Tehidy estate is vast, and now a popular park), made a fortune as pioneers of the Cornish mining industry.

To the south is the site of the old cable-worked, steam-fuelled incline, which linked the harbour with the main rail line at Carn Brea, near Camborne, another busy mining zone until the 20C.

The link between the grand estates like Lanhydrock, Tehidy and Caerhays, the mines and industrial archaeology is constantly apparent when one travels through Cornwall. All along the cycle trail we saw old engine houses, chimneys and ruined buildings.

IMG_4578When we got home this handsome dragonfly was basking in the sun over our front door lintel. I tweeted it to Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who kindly identified it as a female Southern Hawker.