“And the rule is jam before cream!” the café owner told me as she put the scones on the table. A diktat, or enabling me to avoid a faux pas? Or a loud declaration to locals within hearing that this café owner, sans Cornish accent, knew the norms. This was in the gorgeous little port town of Mousehole (pronounced ‘mowzel’, not ‘Mouse Hole’ as I said) on the south Cornwall coast.
At another table a middle-aged man in touring shorts and multi-pocketed waistcoat asserted to his friends, “I’ve got links here, family going back eon”’. Walking back to the car I heard a non-Cornish sounding woman talking at an elderly neighbour about outsider traffic overwhelming the village’s little streets, “I’ve been here long enough that I’m local, I’d happily set up a community committee to lobby the council about this.”
So keen to make their mark as ‘locals’, in a village like so many in Cornwall where most porches have key-safes, denoting not legions of doddery old fishermen seeing out their days, but holiday lets. Wealthier outsiders have been buying up these places for eons, an apartment block called Lobster Pots made me laugh remembering Posy Simmonds’ 1970s’ social satire Mrs Weber’s Diary, where Home Counties types priced out entire fishing communities then renamed their second homes Crab Pots.
Hence the younger locals born here will never live there, yet working in the industries of tourism and fishing have also been affected by the Brexit most locals voted for, foregoing all the investment from the EU in a county home to so many staunch Tories. It is a paradox of a place, as a friend over from Plymouth told us. An identity where, as our guide – an ex-miner in his 70s, though as strong as an ox to look at – at Geevor tin mining museum said, “it doesn’t matter how long you live here, you’re only Cornish if you’ve been born here.”
But can’t live here, as work don’t pay.
It used to, he told us, into the 1980s men at Geevor were taking over £350 a week, from mining tin and copper, industries that dated back to the Bronze Age (literally, as Bronze is tin and copper), and boomed in the late 18th and 19th centuries – and also bust, hence the scores of solid granite chimneys and ruined millhouses all around the Cornish coast. Geevor only closed in 1990 when the 80s’ boom bombed.
The museum tells of the incredible engineering and hardiness of the industries, the miles walked to the pithead, the terrifying descent of a half-dozen men with kit stuffed into a metal locker and lowered hundreds of metres down into sweltering tunnels, along which they walked for miles, far out under the sea, along seams still laden with ore.
But neither Westminster nor investors see the value in it or our region, our guide said, “never have”, though they were more than happy to tax the tin in which they’d invested nothing, as did the Crown, taking royalties of ore from under a sea it simply claimed its own. Hence it’s ‘hateful Westminster’. But of support for independence, he lamented, “there’s simply nowhere near enough support for independence. Nowhere near enough.”
Mining may return to Cornwall, for lithium for batteries in a rapidly greening world, sources of power, mining tailings, and battery disposal notwithstanding, and green issues dominated the G7’s so recent meeting in St. Ives. Of course Cornwall is home to the amazing Eden Project and its fly’s-eye like biodomes housing flowers, plants, trees from the world over, with the story of how they’re used by indigenous peoples, and abused by the First World (compare with the Victorian wrought-iron magnificence of Kew with its plants the Empire nabbed from all over the world …). The Eden Project, built with EU investment, and we know what’s come of that.
Our guide continued: “We’re the oldest of all the peoples in this country, we’ve always been a nation,” evading even the spread of Anglo-Saxon culture but not its power. A nation with ancient links with Brittany, hence St. Michael’s Mount off Marazion is Cornwall’s response to Brittany’s Mont St. Michel, and so many place names begin ‘St …’, including St. Just where the 14th century Ordinalia plays can be seen, musical re-writes of Bible stories written to spread the Word to the people, beautiful productions with hundreds of local artists and musicians, set to a backdrop of gorgeous Cornish sunsets. Many places though also begin ‘Pen’, as per the Celtic link up with Wales and Cumbria.
Then again, much of Cornwall could be anywhere: Holy Island, just like St. Michael’s and St. Michel’s, even its causeway that daily washes fools from its path; the big red pit wheel outside Geevor is identical to that in our former coal mining village in the Tyne Valley, as far from Westminster as all the little terrace rows, which in red and yellow brick could be in Lille, the winding country lanes hemmed in by hedgerows, Normandy.
Our guide’s Cornish accent was the first we’d heard since arriving in St. Ives, itself taken over decades ago by artistic types and tourists, that still ram the place through September, art galleries outnumbering shops selling ‘kiss me quick’ hats and saucy postcards, but there’s lots of ice-cream.
The Tate St. Ives is good if you know your modern art and St. Ives’ place in its story, with a few dozen works from notables connected to the town, e.g. Barbara Hepworth (with a gallery of her own) and Patrick Heron, amid successive waves of artists who came for the ‘St. Ives’ light’, a hazed sunshine that glows the sea aquamarine green and blue, a Caribbean-coloured sea yet cold enough to knock the air out of you, and swat you onto the floor with a wave, and suck your feet from under as you struggle to stand.
A sea we were told turned the pretty (and very hilly) port of Helston into an inland town in a single storm that dumped a bank of sand and pebbles across the estuary and cut town off by some miles. A sea that created so many layers of sea bed, over time, that glaciers then crushed, but once melted, the land sprang back up, leaving coral fossils, beach pebbles and sea-eroded boulders inland and far above the waterline as seen at Cot Valley, and it’s along the delineated steps of these layers that so many roads now wind.
So before heading for Bristol, we took in the spectacular cliff-top walks behind the tumbling cliffs and coves continually battered by the Atlantic along Land’s End (although beware the £7 car park and arcade of tat) and England’s southern-most point at Kynance, to where another local directed us instead of Padstow which he said was full of ‘Rangerovers and kids called Rupert’. We did see Padstow en route to Brizzle, and pretty much got our money’s worth for the hour on the parking meter …
Part 2 coming soon…