The Folk Archive’s Lally MacBeth lifts the lid on the Meadery: a uniquely Cornish exercise in imagined Medieval folk culture.
Meaderies are a form of restaurant that are almost completely unique to Cornwall. They are in the most simple sense Medieval-themed restaurants that sell mead, but really they are so much more than this; they are deeply nostalgic. The preserve of birthday parties, anniversary dinners and Christmas parties, you would be hard pushed to find someone in Cornwall who has not spent at least one significant occasion in a Meadery.
Usually they have been entirely ‘homemade’ with appliqued banners and hand-painted crests, often in buildings that look like 19th century follies; the exterior walls thick with cream cake 1970s-style plaster, drawbridges and swinging candle-lit chandeliers. Sometimes they are bathed in a warm red glow, somewhere between Lady MacBeth’s castle and a school disco, with soft drapes of fabric and banners swinging over your head as you tuck into ‘chicken in the rough’ and a glass of elderberry or blackberry-flavoured mead. A soundtrack of ’80s and ‘90s pop serves to further enhance the experience.
The Cornish Mead Company begin in 1960, brewing up batches of mead in their Cornish kitchen. Initially marketed as a gift for tourists, playing on Cornwall’s rich Neolithic past and mead being the drink of the ‘ancients’, its appeal grew widely. In 1964 a local businessman bought up the disused Gaiety Cinema in Newlyn and converted it into a medieval-themed restaurant. Here people would walk across the drawbridge, enter the arched doorway and eat with their hands, slurping Cornish mead to their hearts’ content.
This was the beginning of the cultural phenomenon which is now so ingrained in the history and culture of Cornwall it is hard to believe there was a time before their existence.
The Meadery calls to mind medieval pageantry: it tries incredibly hard to impart a sense of history but the devil is in the detail. As with all revivals the Meadery sits in a place all of its own; part folk culture, part revivalist, part surreal dream. Meaderies are the place of memory and folklore. A very distant past that never existed now sits firmly in our recent past as a place imbued with memory and meaning.
Here — under the soft red glow with Britney blaring from the speakers as you get back up from your chair to visit the salad bar one last time — is where true folk culture lies. It is here that memories and traditions have been forged. Where place and people have found what it means to be alive. Nostalgia within nostalgia. This is memory as revival, and revival as memory, and what is more folk than that?
Lally MacBeth is an artist, writer and researcher living in Cornwall. She founded The Folk Archive in 2020, and co-founded Stone Club with Matthew Shaw in 2021.
She runs a regular night at The Social, and has programmed and curated events for London Short Film Festival and the British Museum. She has produced costumes for Gwenno, Pillars of Wonder and Hector Nit, and is a board member of Bosena Films. Lally is currently writing her first book. Visit her website here.