Amid the cute cottages and lush river valleys there is a county with a distinct identity and challenges of its own
“A county where, it must be remembered, a stranger is doubly a stranger, in relation to his provincial sympathies; where the national feeling is almost entirely merged into the local feeling; where a man speaks of himself as Cornish in much the same way that a Welshman speaks of himself as Welsh.” Wilkie Collins
From an outside perspective, a rural Cornish childhood can seem like something from an Enid Blyton story. But holes in that idyllic narrative begin to form after moving to civilisation, accentuated by memories of walking half a mile up a hill to send a text, and of busses that only pass once a day. Some shops even continue, in an archaic fashion, to close at midday on Wednesdays. Life in a land of technological exile may sound familiar to anyone who’s experienced a rural upbringing, and who may wonder what makes Cornwall any different.
Despite sometimes being caricatured as a land of backwards bumpkins, being overlooked and less integrated has helped Cornwall to retain its character. Its ancient language and heritage is especially relevant in light of the acquisition of national minority status under European legislation, which dredges up debates about what being Cornish actually means. The question of Cornish identity is a controversial one: there are those who feel it has little relevance in the modern world, and others who believe it’s been deliberately suppressed. Sceptics may question what differences really remain between the Cornish and English: Cornwall has long been considered an English county. The idea of a separate ethnicity may therefore seem farcical and unwarranted in a predominantly white county, known for drawing wealthy city-dwellers who have romantic notions of living a quiet country life.
On the other hand, their new status will allow the Cornish to be acknowledged in the same way as people from other ‘Celtic’ nations, such as the Scots and Irish. It seems equally farfetched to suggest that a Welshman is Welsh but a Cornishman is English, despite the close linguistic and historical links between both Celtic nations. The population of Iron Age Britain originally consisted of individual tribal territories, and Cornwall is a remnant of this shared past.
Tens of thousands of people declared themselves Cornish in the 2011 census, despite no specific tick box allocation. In light of this, a distinction between the English and Cornish should be acknowledged, rather than offhandedly bundling together two groups who have historically considered each other foreign. To reject the idea of the Cornish as a British sub-group would misrepresent their heritage and their own self-identification, thus treating them as less significant than the UK’s other recognised groups.
Indeed society can be strengthened by its diversity, so minorities of any kind should be taken seriously. The campaign for a Cornish Assembly works towards a similar system to Wales, also faintly echoing Scotland’s impending referendum on independence. But with rumours of Britain pulling out of the EU, as well as the rising voice of right wing and separatist movements in the UK, insular thinking and further isolation would be unlikely to work in Cornwall’s favour.
Once considered the world’s most skilful miners, Cornishmen quarried their landscape for over 40 centuries. Yet with the assault of modernity and unification with England, Cornwall’s claim to local autonomy crumbled along with its redundant mines. The enduring engine houses now stand like empty skeletons on the horizon: iconic spectres of a more economically sufficient time.
Cornwall is known for its mysterious standing stones, prehistoric burial mounds and tales of smuggling, piracy and rebellion. It’s problematic to discuss the history of England and Cornwall as if they’re the same. The Tudors considered the Cornish a distinct nationality, many of whom did not speak English. This slowly diluted over time through the influence of Britain’s various invaders, Cornwall’s industrial decline and the emigration of much of its workforce. By the 18th century, the use of Cornish was taking a westerly retreat towards the Celtic sea, eventually drifting away on the tongues of elderly fishermen.
Its last native speakers may have died generations ago, but the language has since seen a gradual resurrection, with a growing number of schools now offering Cornish lessons. This revival was part-funded by the EU’s ‘Objective One’ programme, which aimed to reduce regional disparities in some of the poorest parts of Europe. Although there are those who feel there are more important projects in need of funding, the progress of the Cornish revival clearly demonstrates a flourishing interest in preserving its use.
These days, Cornwall is targeted by well-off second home-owners, while at the other end of the scale, local people scramble at the bottom of the property ladder. Cornwall also has the second worst rate for homelessness in the country, next to the borough of Westminster. Cornwall and the Welsh Valleys are now considered the UK’s poorest counties, ranking them as some of the most deprived areas in Western Europe. There are also serious limits on health care, despite the prevalent issues of drug abuse and mental health problems in Cornwall. Inhabitants can’t always get adequate medical treatment locally so end up travelling elsewhere, sometimes as far afield as Birmingham. In addition, low youth retention, high rural poverty, and a population that is both ageing and growing means that some people continue to work past retirement while the health services are pushed to capacity. Despite being a popular retirement spot, Cornwall’s councils pay some of the lowest rates towards residential care for the elderly, as well as recently ceasing funds for a number of care charities.
Earlier this year, major repair work took place on the storm-torn railway tracks which had effectively severed Cornwall from the rest of the country. David Cameron finally declared the South West ‘open for business’ in April, ahead of his annual Cornish holiday. But Cornwall and its 532,600 residents don’t just shut down as soon as the tourists disappear. Perhaps it’s easy to imagine the whole county as a whimsical holiday park that ceases to exist past July and August, while the inhabitants of its twee tourist traps retreat into a 10-month hibernation. Sir Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, described Cornwall as ‘one of the hubs of the creative industries in Britain’ but stressed the need for a better infrastructure.
Along with plans for large-scale rail improvements, additional funding is now working to improve ‘higher education infrastructure and better employment prospects’ which has led to ‘reductions of younger people leaving Cornwall’, according to the Council. It should be seen as a privilege to grow up in Cornwall rather than a detriment, so a boost to the economy may begin to change negative perceptions.
If its new minority status is taken seriously, this may help to highlight Cornwall’s place on the map and show that the county contributes something more to Britain than the legacy of the pasties that continue to grace the service stations of the nation. It’s easy to appreciate why Cornwall is an attractive holiday destination, serving people’s need to escape to somewhere evocative of a slower, simpler time. If Cornwall became too modernised it might compromise that appeal. So while this singular pocket of the West Country struggles to sustain itself in a limbo between its past and future, it is vital to establish a balance between preserving and improving it.
Image from: http://www.cornwalls.co.uk/
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