A Cornish mile and a Cornish saint

Chris White asked what a Cornish mile is, and since I’d never heard of it, I turned to Google and then asked around.

Let’s start with the asking around bit: According to J., it’s one of those flexible distances people use when a car stops and the driver rolls down the window and asks how far it is to Saint Whoosit.

Cornwall has lots of towns named Saint Whoosit, and Saint Whoosit is always a mile from wherever that car stops. At least that’s what J. tells me. Or else the turn to Saint Whoosit is a mile away, right by the bent tree (we have even more of those than we do of St. Whoosits), and St. Whoosit itself is a mile after that.

And ten minutes later, when the car still hasn’t gotten to St. Whoosit, the turn, the tree, or another person to ask? It’s traveled a Cornish mile.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: Flower from our back yard. The bee's blurred, but if you look closely you'll see where the snails hide--something I didn't know until I looked at this on the screen.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: A flower from our back yard. The bee’s blurred, but if you look closely you’ll see where the snails go to hide–something I didn’t know until I looked at this on the screen.

On the other hand, according to Wikipedia (never mind a link—the contents will have changed by now), the old Cornish mile measured 3.161etc. to nine decimal points miles. And in case you need to know this, a Cornish gallon was 10 pounds, but a Cornish apple gallon was 7 pounds.

How do you measure a gallon in pounds when you don’t know if it holds a gallon of water or a gallon of honey? It’s a unit of weight, not volume, that’s how. You have to admire the English language. It’s not only inventive, it’s downright hallucinatory. Maybe it was something in that honey they were weighing.

The entry also defines a Cornish lace, which is 18 square feet. Or 18 feet square. I can’t see why there’d be any difference between the two, but since I’m mathematically incompetent we shouldn’t trust me on the subject.

According to the Financial Dictionary, though, a Cornish mile is 1.5 miles. Why a financial dictionary’s defining an out-of-date measure of distance is beyond me, but it may tell us something about economists that its definition doesn’t match the other definitions. Not that everyone else’s agree, but they might want to report that other opinions exist. (I don’t seem to hold Wikipedia to that standard, which tells you something about my expectations.)

The two sources do agree on the Cornish gallon, in case that’s relevant.

The Cornish mile could also be (and sometimes is) taken to refer to any number of places in Cornwall where road signs tell you it’s, let’s say, 3.5 miles to Saint Whatsit and then a mile or so later you find another sign saying you have 3.5 miles left to go. Exactly what that tells us about the length of a Cornish mile isn’t clear, but it’s one of the things people talk about when the topic comes up. Some can even cite exact locations for the signs. I can’t, but I did find one when Wild Thing and I were on the way to Saint Whatsit last year.

On the VWT4 Forum (no, I have no idea), Lord of the T4s wrote, “At the junction at the top of Port Isaac, the village which is used for the Doc Martin TV series, there is a signpost on one side of the road which reads, “ ‘St. Teath 5 miles’ and ‘Wadebridge 9 miles.‘

“Don’t move from where you’re standing and look to the other side of the same junction, and another signpost indicates that it’s now 5 1/2 miles to St. Teath and 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge.”

Two comments down, Maude explains it all. “It’s basically 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge from there—but if you hurry you can do it in 9.”

Maude, whoever you are, I love you.

St. Teath, by the way, is pronounced teth, not teeth. She lived in the fifth century (and once again I’m drawing from Wikipedia) and was recognized as a saint in Cornwall and Wales. She was also known as Saint Tecla and Saint Tetha, as well as by a variety of other names (Tethe, Thecla, and so on to another nine decimal points). She was a virgin (why anybody had any business asking I don’t know, but folks back then did seem to be obsessed with a small and useless bit of the female anatomy) and one of the missionary companions of Saint Breaca, who jointly brought Christianity to Cornwall. She may have been the daughter of a Welsh king, which also says that she may not have been. Unlike some of her companions, she wasn’t martyred, and according to one theory her name was inserted into the list of companions by accident.


If you’re considered a saint but you got saintified by accident, are you still a saint?

Regardless, it’s still pronounced teth. And she got a town named after her. Take that, all you other companions of Saint Breaca.

What does this have to do with a Cornish mile? Not a thing, but I felt like I owed you a few more paragraphs. And now that you have them, I’m entertaining suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about. In a perfect world, they’d be related to life in the U.K. or U.S., but you never know what will get me going. If you expect anything sensible, don’t ask about physics, math, astronomy, or anything that looks like it might fall into that same category. I also wouldn’t suggesting asking about lace making, carpentry, fashion, hair, car repair, or raising children–especially that last one, because although people who don’t have kids offer lots advice it tends to be useless in real situations.

However, if you don’t expect anything sensible, it’s open season.

I don’t promise to write about your topic. Some things work and some don’t, and I don’t always know in advance which is which. I haven’t written about either stiles or tipping. I’ve tried, and they’re perfectly good topics, but so far they haven’t gone anywhere. I’ll give them a bit more thought and see what happens.

So ask me questions. Or make suggestions. I’ll address as many of them as I can. And I appreciate getting a push in whatever direction. As long as the train isn’t coming.


 The Cornish Saints

Cornwall was Christianized by a raft (and I’m using that word metaphorically, but you’ll see why it comes to mind) of saints that most people outside of Cornwall never heard of. I’m guessing the best known is St. Piran—Cornwall’s patron saint and a favorite saint of Cornish tin miners. He sailed over from Ireland on a millstone. (“As you do,” as people here say in just that kind of situation.) He’s said to have liked his drink, and to have died of it. Memory insists that he got drunk and fell down a well, but memory—or the version of it that lives in my head—isn’t reliable and may be making that up. So don’t trust me on that. None of the web sites I’ve checked mention it, although they do mention a lot of drinking on St. Piran’s Day.

Whether or not he was a heavy drinker, the saints in those days weren’t prissy. St. Brychan came from Wales with three wives, twelve sons, and twelve daughters, many of whom became saints themselves. I’ve never heard how they got here—probably a VW beetle—but transportation seems to have been a big thing among them: St. Ia floated over on a leaf and St. Budoc floated over in a barrel.

later may 2015 001