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Cornwall: the dark side of a British tourist haven

November 9, 2020

Last night I watched the first episode in a series of documentaries about Cornwall by Simon Reeve. It was an eye-opener.

I know Cornwall pretty well. From childhood memories of holidays in a hotel just down the coastline from where Marconi first sent radio signals across the Atlantic. From more recent holidays near Padstow, where Rick Stein has created a gastronomic empire.

The public face of Britain’s favourite holiday destination is well known: breath-taking coastline, surfing, terrifyingly narrow lanes, clotted cream, pasties, ornamental gardens, sandy beaches, tiny coves and harbour towns.

Oh, and weather you can never rely on. When the sun shines in Cornwall, it’s summer heaven, even if half the population of the country wants to enjoy it with you. And when the wind sends sheets of horizontal rain across the cliffs, it’s hell for parents of small children who have forgotten (or never learned) how to amuse themselves indoors. Though for me, even the rain gives the landscape a rugged charm. Perhaps that’s because I’m a golfer.

But then again I don’t live in the county. I don’t have to scratch a living over the long winter months after the tourists have taken their money elsewhere. And I’m not a young person for whom, as Reeve observed, there are only jobs, but no careers.

Simon Reeve did us Cornwall-lovers a favour by pointing out that this is a region that has suffered more than most from the hollowing-out of our industrial heartlands. We might think that Wales and the north, with their disused coal mines, run-down factories and crumbling steel mills are the ultimate symbols of industrial decline – parts of the country where many people get by on welfare and the efforts of volunteers who run foodbanks.

But we don’t often spare a thought for the people of Britain’s most westerly county, whose tin and copper mines have closed, whose china clay industry is a fraction of what it once was, and whose fisheries have been as near as dammit wiped out by competition from super-trawlers who are scooping up the lobsters, crabs and other fish that used to be there in abundance for small fishing boats operating out of the tiny stone harbours that we love to visit.

Reeve took us to Camborne, once one of the centres of Cornish mining. It’s now a town crippled by poverty, with crumbling industrial relics and a large part of the population sustained, just as in other deprived regions, by foodbanks.

Worse still, if he’s to be believed, the regeneration promised by successive governments for post-industrial wastelands elsewhere has never gained traction in Cornwall. Is that because of poor transport links, the remoteness of the area or simply because there aren’t enough votes to attract the attention of central government? I don’t know.

For whatever reason, the county is more dependent on tourism than ever before. And when lockdown struck, tourism collapsed. Despite people returning in huge numbers in the late summer months, there are still concerns over whether small businesses that depend on visitors will survive.

I have been to other parts of the world that are equally dependent on tourism, but don’t have the benefit of furlough schemes and other forms of government support. How the people of Bali and Phuket are coping at the moment, goodness knows. My heart goes out to them.

But we British do have the power to look after our own. The young people of Cornwall have always had an option that potentially allows them to build secure futures for themselves. They can leave. And many, it seems, are doing just that. Is that what we want for our most beautiful region? Depopulation, hollowed out communities of the middle-aged and elderly? An area that lies fallow in the winter and springs to life in the summer?

On the one hand, you might think that’s inevitable, just as the west of Ireland was long ago depopulated by the ravages of poverty and famine. And if you believe in market forces, sink or swim and the virtues of self-reliance, you will no more advocate saving the inland communities of Cornwall than you will try and resist the erosion of coastlines in other parts of the country.

On the other hand, why do we trumpet the value of a United Kingdom if we’re not prepared to intervene on behalf of those who need a helping hand, just as we’re trying to do, with varying degrees of success, in other regions whose problems are more obvious? And if we let down populations that are far away from the centre of economic gravity in south-east England, can we blame those who call for greater devolution of the power to control their own destinies, even to the point of separation?

Where Scotland goes, and potentially Wales and Northern Ireland too, why not Cornwall?

This is not a serious argument for the independence of Cornwall, because it relies so heavily on the safety net provided by the Union. But are we to be content for such a gem of an area to remain a seasonal haven for people who own houses that stay empty in the winter while those who remain struggle to afford, at best, to live in dilapidated housing estates and at worst, in sheds and mobile homes?

I know there are no easy answers to Cornwall’s problems. But I also know that if we have pretensions to become a vibrant and entrepreneurial trading nation after Brexit, we must surely have the wit to find solutions to the tough problems, not just the easy ones.

We must surely try harder.

  1. A typically marvellous piece of writing from you Steve. As Michael Caine would say “Notta lotta people kno’ this.” adding that there’s long been a Cornish Independence Movement, not least inspired by the fact that the Cornish language is one of the most pure of ancient Celtic languages, and one that’s easily understood by Welsh people like me, alongside Breton (totally different to Scots or Irish Gaelic). Problem is, as you’re pointing out really, is that you’re hard pushed to find a young adult Cornish person living in Cornwall these days, as you’ll struggle to find a young adult Welsh person living in all the most beautiful parts of Wales. There’s nobody to “blame” for this really — it’s just the kind of thing that happens, and has always happened throughout human history — the main thing is though to ensure that human history just keeps happening, and that humans don’t blow the entire deal. Thanks once again for such a thoughtful, well-written and entertaining blog.

    • Thanks Ronnie. Yes, I could just as easily have talked about parts of Wales, especially North Wales, which I also love. Can anything be done? I can only say where there’s a will there’s a way! S

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