Harbor Falmouth Cornwall
There’s a centuries-old saying that observes, “A Cornishman is a Cornishman first, and an Englishman reluctantly.” Cornwall has always been a land, and a people, apart. History and geography melded 1500 years ago to make it so.
The principal highway down the spine of Cornwall from Exeter is the A30. The market town of Launston to the east of Bodmin Moor proudly announces that you have arrived at the ancient capital of Cornwall. Other English shires have county towns, but Cornwall tells a different story entirely.
Tucked onto the end of England’s southwest peninsula, Cornwall juts into the North Atlantic with northern and southern coasts both facing open ocean. Until the comparatively recent miracles of modern transportation and communication, Cornwall remained isolated from the rest of England—a world away from London and the power centers of English life. The Cornish people had never cared. After all, they weren’t “English, ” any more than the Welsh or the Scots. And they still aren’t to this day.
The most detailed DNA mapping of Britain’s genetic ancestry ever done, released this spring by Oxford University researchers, found that even today there is a clear genetic divide at the Devon-Cornwall border. In brief, Cornish blood is Celtic. It has been for a long time.
When the Romans effectively abandoned Britain in the 4th century, Cornwall had little difficulty identifying itself as a Celtic kingdom as such regional powers emerged throughout the island. Over the next 200 years, however, illegal immigrants invaded and overwhelmed much of England. Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes crossed the North Sea for “living room” and farming. They took increasing land, and, of course, had to fight for it. The 5th and 6th centuries saw the Celtic tribal alliances finally overwhelmed by Anglo-Saxon armies. Bit by bit, Britain became Angle-land.
Scotland and its tribes remained independent Celtic lands north of the wall Emperor Hadrian built. To the west, the wild Welsh were walled out with Offa’s Dyke by the Saxon king of Mercia. The Cornish were left alone—an isolated Celtic colony on the tip of the island. Over the centuries, Cornwall evolved into a “county, ” and was absorbed into the organization of post-Conquest England. It learned English and to function in the English world. At the same time, it maintained its Celtic and local culture—as did every region of England before the BBC began homogenizing English life.
Nothing evidences the uniqueness of Cornish identity as does its language. The Cornish language (a close Celtic relation of Welsh and Breton) was a living, native tongue until the 18th century. Efforts have been active in recent years to promote the language and its recovery. Last year, the Government officially gave Cornwall and its language status as a Celtic minority identity equal in recognition to Welsh and Scots Gaelic.
Has all of this attention been felt in Cornwall? Is there a nascent resurgence of Cornish pride in its Celtic identity? Inquiring British Heritage readers want to know, or at least an inquiring editor does. So, this spring I went to find out what’s happening in Cornwall.
Of course, Cornwall has been a happening place for more than a generation. Its very distinctiveness in landscape and local color, as well as its dominating and defining coastline draws weekenders and holidaymakers from across England. Many a Cornish headland and river estuary is blanketed with cavern parks and camp grounds. Harbor towns and well-known fishing villages are lined with hotels and guest houses.
In centuries past, Cornwall’s economy ran on tin mining and the sea. Today, Cornwall’s cash crop is tourism. Some farming remains along the peninsula’s narrow interior, but the tin mines have long closed. Small fishing fleets still put out of harbor towns like Newlyn and Falmouth, but many of the fishing villages are now that in name only, and cater more to leisure craft than working boats.
Why do they come to Cornwall? If people by the tens of thousands are willing to endure hours-long traffic tailbacks on the A303 or the A38 to get to Cornwall on any Bank Holiday weekend, there must be an attraction or two—and Cornwall has plenty. The climate is one that exerts a magnetic force on all Brits. The peninsula’s southwesterly exposure yields more sunshine and milder temperatures than elsewhere on the island. Subtropical vegetation grows along Cornwall’s coasts, and flourishes in a treasure-box of public gardens. Small beaches in secluded coves are sandy sun traps far removed from the crowded strands of Bournemouth or Brighton.
Explorers of all sorts find Cornwall is blessed with an embarrassment of destination-quality visits to fill as many days as a visitor can devote. Its gardens alone flourish with blooms and foliage not found anywhere in Britain. The National Trust maintains magnificent landscape gardens, formal plantings and explosions of color throughout the year. Trengwainton Garden, Trerice, Trelissick and Glendurgan Garden bloom with exotic shrubs, flowers and trees. National Trust estates such as Cotehele and Lanhydrock compliment their stately homes with outstanding gardens. The Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project draw visitors from across the globe. Cornish vegetation blooms in public gardens as well. Take a stroll through the Morab Subtropical Gardens in the heart of Penzance.