Walking Between The Worlds: The Village Wisewomen of St Buryan

Laetitia and Cassandra Latham Jones

Laetitia and Cassandra Latham Jones

I’ve long been aware that witchcraft was alive and well, not just in Britain but around the world in various forms. When I lived in London there seemed to be a significant link between women and magi(c)(k) (however one spells it) – especially amongst lesbians/Queer women – but it wasn’t until I moved to Cornwall that I discovered that Wisewomen and Cunning Folk still existed in the UK. The crafts are reported to have been used since around the middle of the 15th Century but it was wrong to assume that they’d long since died out. I first heard of Cassandra Latham (as she then was) several years ago; she’s a well-known local figure in the far west of the county, not just in Pagan circles but in the general community. Around three years ago it was announced that she was formally retiring from being a full time Wisewoman and had taken on an apprentice to pass the craft onto. Laetitia Jones, a Spirit Medium, originated from Kent but had felt a real pull towards Cornwall. Not only is she a Village Wisewoman, she also became Cassandra’s partner and now the two work together (Cassandra having given up on the idea of properly retiring!). The Latham Jones’ (as they now are) invited me to their cottage in the village of St Buryan, principally to interview them for Curve magazine. This is some of the conversation we had that won’t be appearing in the article. More will appear on this website as I transcribe it. As you can see, there was a lot to talk about…

JT: I was wondering how you felt now about all the Golowan hoo-ha? How long were you both involved in the festival? (A quick history: Golowan is Penzance’s midsummer festival, culminating in Mazey Day. Cassandra and Laetitia were involved until a few years back, when they were suddenly banned from it, in a surge of anti-Pagan hysteria with a fair chunk of homophobia thrown in. My first contact with the pair was a letter of support I sent them at this time.)

Laetitia: I did it for two years.
Cassandra: Nearly twenty years before being booted out. Wow. That’s a long time.
JT: I remember seeing a photograph of you two at your handfasting, on the front page of the local paper, which I thought was really progressive of them to do that, but perhaps a bit naïve as well. Did that have anything to do with it?
Cassandra: That was just weird timing. There was a specific chain of events. Our handfasting was on Hallowe’en – not too surprisingly! – and we had no idea what was about to happen. Other people did, but they didn’t want to ruin our day, which I’m grateful for. About an hour before we were due to leave for our honeymoon the next day, we got an email from Andy Hazelhurst, Director of Golowan at that time, sending a copy of the letter he was sending to The Cornishman [local paper] and a note with it saying we – and the ‘Oss (Penglaz) – were not welcome at the Golowan Festival. When we came back from our honeymoon – we knew we’d had photos taken at our handfasting by the paper. The photographer asked if we’d be happy with it going on the Wedding Page; when we saw it on the front page we thought ‘Oh, my God!’ and knew it was going to create a huge hoo-ha on top of everything else. Andy Hazelhurst was banging on about an article that had appeared the week before about Laetitia taking over as Wisewoman and she’d got misquoted in it. He was accusing her of saying that Penglaz was Pagan, and there’s no mention of it in the article.
Laetitia: The article said that I’d stated that one of my duties as a Wisewoman was to ‘teaze’ (dance with) Penglaz. I never said that. The next week the paper printed a retraction from the journalist but the ban wasn’t lifted.
Cassandra: There was the Pagan stuff, there was all the stuff about the ‘Osses and then we got a lot of homophobia. We know for a fact there were quite a lot of letters in support of us that never got printed in The Cornishman. I had letters published that were all edited and I was… (growls) because there’s nothing you can do. And they were starting to let letters in that were just nasty, especially towards Laetitia here, which I thought was really unfair, because she hadn’t been here long.
JT: So there was bias against her as an ‘incomer’?
Laetitia: Yes, and there was also a lot of jealousy because Cassandra had been on her own for forty years and then suddenly she’s with me. It seemed to cause a lot of upset with people and we found out who our true friends were.
JT: This always seems to happen. Whatever community I’ve been a part of, be it an anarchist housing co-operative, the lesbian scene in Hackney…people you’d expect to be a bit more evolved. It all goes really well for a while then it fractures. Seems to be human nature, to create trouble where there is none.
Cassandra: I’ve never understood that. It’s so much easier to get on!
JT: Going back to your duties on Mazey Day, you used to cast a spell for good weather?
Cassandra: Yes. Especially after the first year, which I didn’t attend anyway, where there was such a downpour on Mazey Day and I felt sorry for all those children who’d worked so hard [on the sculptures for the processions] and the people who’d put so much effort in. I wanted to be a part of this so I was looking at performing street theatre but I thought ‘what can I do using my skills magically?’ so I thought I’d perform some weather magic so it doesn’t rain on the kids’ parades and spoil their sculptures… their little faces! It’s not an easy to do, weather magic, at all; it takes huge, huge amounts of energy so you need to find some way of keeping that energy high all through the day and I found that, through my own experience, dance was a way of doing that and there’s a magic – still – about the Golowan Band, I just want to dance all the time, and there it was, perfect place. And for years I didn’t make a big thing about it, but it became accepted that that’s what I do. People would say, ‘It’s not looking good for Mazey Day’ and I’d tell them, ‘Ah, just you wait!’. I have to say, I’m very proud of my 100% record over nearly twenty years. So that was why I danced at processions. It kind of takes you over, it’s trance-like, dancing in the midsummer energy, and it’s wild. It’s not measured steps or choreographed, it’s wild and it took a lot of that energy to teaze the ‘Oss as well. It’s almost like a magical possession. The character takes you over, the character’s supposed to be between the worlds, the character’s supposed to make a way for the ‘Oss to get through all those hordes and that’s difficult, believe me. Also to interact with the ‘Oss, get it to stop, start, run at people. It’s not something I tell the ‘Oss to do, it’s a rapport between the teazer and the ‘Oss. It’s totally improvised. There’s only move that stops the ‘Oss and that’s to stand right in front of it and stick your arms out. In emergencies – because the ‘Oss can’t see very well, especially little children. Our one (Penkevyll) is very good with kids. The old (‘Oss) Penglaz was very wild and I spent most of my time running after her! But since I created the new ‘Oss, she’s very different, she interacts a lot.

Having seen Cassandra at Mazey Day for several years and Laetitia at two of them, I can testify that the energy created by the spell casting is amazing. They were an integral part of Mazey Day/Golowan and the festival, in its attempts to be more sanitised and ‘family-friendly’, is far poorer without them as far as I’m concerned.

Focus on infinity


A few more things are falling into place now: after several months of sitting in the ‘slush pile’ (a term I always thought pointlessly derogatory), Ellen Datlow’s new horror anthology Fearful Symmetries has finally rejected The Ferocious Night. I have no way of knowing if anyone even read it, but at least I’ve been notified. With over 1,000 submissions to wade through, it was probably inevitable that the process was impersonal, but my polite query regarding the timescale on their tracking system got a huffy reply that the tracking system was basically useless. In which case, folks, why have it? It must have created a lot of unnecessary angst among authors and editors alike. Anyway, the story has been snapped up by Storylandia for their Spring 2014 issue. Just when I thought the story would never see publication. Bless them and their fine journal.

The ‘Two of Us’ feature on the St Buryan Wisewomen has been finished and sent to Curve magazine, together with a couple of photos (not taken by me, I should add). It’s tempted me to do more interviews. The thought of getting the stories of local 21st Century witches (and there are a fair few of them around) down on record could be an amazing project and important for historical and social reasons. I no longer have the tape of the interview I did in 2005 with Cheryl Straffon but the article is elsewhere on this site (‘The Cornish Witch’).

As for fiction: Widdershins is awaiting its second full draft, while I steamroller my way through the first draft of Grave Goods, a proper horror story, which is proving quite fun to write. Not as ‘deep’, perhaps, as what I usually write, but hopefully it’ll have a nice twist at the end and some interesting characters. I’ve been playing Kitty Jay, probably Seth Lakeman’s greatest album, full of dark Dartmoor tales and it’s undoubtedly an influence. From The Bones, meanwhile, has been rejected a few times, most recently by KZine. Editor Graeme Hurry has always offered wise and constructive criticism, so I’m going to have another look the story as soon as time allows.