Happy 800th Birthday, Penryn!

Josephine Walbank interviews the Mayor of Penryn on the 800th anniversary celebrations

Photography: Eleanor Washington-Jones
Photography: Eleanor Washington-Jones

Penryn is one of Cornwall’s most ancient towns, and it has an exceptionally diverse and extensive history for one so small. The ancient town was founded and named Penryn, which translates to ‘head of river’, in 1216 by the Bishop of Exeter. 800 years later, the people of Penryn are celebrating the founding of their town, and the milestones that helped shape it, with a year of events and festivities.

Medieval Penryn owed its existence to its harbour, which exported granite and tin to the rest of the country and the world. The stone was used in various locations including Gibraltar, Singapore and Buenos Aires overseas, and in Britain it was also used to construct London Bridge and the South Bank. In 1265 Glasney College was built in Penryn for the Bishop of Exeter to develop the church’s influence in the area, and the institution became the main seat of learning in Cornwall. Glasney College was very significant because it made Penryn notorious as its reputation as a centre of learning spread throughout Europe. However, in 1548, as England changed from Catholic to Protestant worship, the building was dismantled. Yet some of the stone from the building was incorporated into buildings around Penryn and still survives today.

By the late 16th century, when Falmouth was only beginning to develop, Penryn was thriving as a port, with markets held on a regular basis and vast amounts of foreign trade. As a result of this, in 1327 half of Penryn’s population were foreigners. Interestingly, Penryn received a royal charter as a borough in 1621, mainly as a government attempt to cure the town of piracy: at least three mayors of Penryn were convicted of piracy between 1550 and 1650. However, during the 17th century Penryn lost its custom house and market rights to Falmouth after supporting the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War, so the older port of Penryn declined as it lost trade to Falmouth. Today Penryn has retained a large amount of its heritage, and has been designated as an important conservation area because a large proportion of its buildings date back to Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian times.

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding and naming of Penryn in 1216 by the Bishop of Exeter, a vast variety of events has been planned to take part throughout the year in the town. The celebrations include: May Day celebrations, ‘The Big Borough Bake Off’ (a challenge to make an 800th birthday cake), a ‘Mock Mayor’ Ceremony which had a real “feel good factor”, an evening at Penryn Picture House featuring short films made by Falmouth University BA Animation students and inspired by the Penryn 800 celebrations, Son et Lumiere and Penryn Kemeneth. Also later on in the year, there are other events including the Christmas lights switch on and the ‘Mayor’s Carol Concert’ in December.

In late September, the ‘Son et Lumiere’ event took place, which was a unique light and sound show collaborating with Penryn’s residents, which projected lights and images onto the Church, Clock Tower and Town Hall in Penryn Town Centre. The event was created by the group Luxmuralis, led by Sculptor and Artist Peter Walker, who is a previous resident of Penryn, and composer David Harper. Luxmuralis create artwork such as this throughout the UK and in Europe, but this was their first ever presentation in Cornwall. Throughout the summer, residents worked to contribute to the project, with community animation workshops taking place in the town, and then in September the organizers went up to the Primary Academy and Penryn College schools in Penryn, and the students got involved in the event, creating artwork and having their photos taken which became the feature of the show, and was a really special way to unite the community.

Penryn Kemeneth is a huge Ordinalia-themed celebration taking place throughout Penryn on 8 October 2016 to celebrate 800 years of the town’s heritage and culture.  Penryn Kemeneth (meaning ‘community’ in Cornish) will include an opera on a sailing ship with a multicultural stage and trading market celebrating Penryn’s rich trading past. The event also enables visitors to find out about Penryn’s international connections, gained thanks to the historic trading port, with performances based on cultures from around the world. At Glasney in the 15th century, miracle plays were written in Cornish at the College. The Ordinalia were plays depicting the life of Christ, with the aim of teaching religious subjects to illiterate people, and these plays may have taken up to three days to perform. Some of the original manuscripts from Glasney College still survive today and are currently in the British Museum in London.

All these celebrations are a fantastic achievement, and so far have been a great success for Penryn, as the Mayor said “for a small town with a small budget, it is incredible that we have managed to do all this on a shoestring with volunteers. We have been both celebrating and making history, which will undoubtedly leave a legacy”.

Throughout Penryn, glimpses of the past can be found wherever you look, in a town which has such strong connections with the past. However, the history is “only one element of what the town is”, and this is reflected in the vibe of the town, as it embraces its history whilst simultaneously changing and modernizing as a contemporary art community and as a town popular amongst its many tourists. 800 years later, Penryn still has a very exciting future, as the Mayor says: “as part of the 800 year celebrations I wanted to make a difference, change things up and do things differently”, but he hopes this trend will continue into the future “I want to move with the times and bring fresh ideas in”, have more festivals and “give people something to come to”. He said that “being a small town means it has a great community spirit”, and the Students from the University “breathe life” into Penryn as it continues to change and they are an “asset to the town”. Yet the best bit about Penryn throughout the ages has always been its’ residents, because “the people make it unique” and it is the community groups which are the “backbone of Penryn” and the “glue that brings it all together”.