Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Cornwall - my favourite place on the planet

Once upon a time, all Cornwall meant to me was Straw Dogs, Rebecca,Derek Tangye books and Poldark. I didn’t even have a particularly clear idea where it was. Now, there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be. 

We’ve just returned from a week there. I’ve been a few times since my first visit 26 years ago – at least 55 times, in fact (could be as high as 60). That’s over 25,000 miles of driving just getting there and back, let alone tootling about within the county when we’re there, which probably adds up to the same distance again. That’s twice around the globe. 

It all started when I was courting my wife-to-be. No sooner had we become an item than I was sent there for a few days to set up a live programme for Radio 2 to be broadcast from the concourse of Penzance Station, whereupon I learned that my girlfriend’s father had been MP for Truro for 20 years (Conservative, naturally) and that several members of her family lived there. There was no time for socialising that first time, as the in-laws all lived at least an hour and a half’s drive away from my operational base (the Queen’s Hotel, Penzance, as you ask) but we whizzed around the immediate vicinity in a hired Ford Fiesta so I could pre-interview suitable guests and check out some of the things we’d be discussing on the show – tin mines, St. Michael’s Mount, Land’s End etc. There was even a plane and boat trip to Lundy. The star guest was Medallion Man, Justin Hayward, and yes, “Driftwood” and “Forever Autumn” both featured.

Despite the cosmic awfulness of the hotel (no phones in the rooms – great for a researcher trying to set up ten interviews in the era before mobile phones) and the extreme variability of the food (in many ways it was like revisiting the crappest aspects of the 1950s), I liked the place, and was happy to return to visit my future mother-in-law in Padstow a few months later. 

By the end of that second visit, which included visits to one sister-in-law’s farmhouse just outside Wadebridge (during which I leaned that wellies are better suited to muddy river walks than Italian leather loafers) and another’s 13th Century cob cottage equidistant from Camelford, Wadebridge, Port Isaac and Bodmin Moor, plus cliff-top walks, beach strolls and a trip to Tintagel, I was stunned by the sheer, glorious, shaggy, romantic otherness of the place. I remember thinking – not realising that several million people had reached the same conclusion over many centuries – that I was no longer in England. 

I felt more at home in Cornwall than I did anywhere else I’d ever visited – without knowing quite why. It certainly helped that the North Coast was less touristy and a bit more real than the southern end: people here made a living from farming and clay mining and proper pot-making – they weren’t all involved in selling tat to trippers. 

Second, the places we visited – Constantine Bay, Tebarwith Strand, even Daymer Bay – weren’t utterly overrun by sullen oiks with psychotic Alsatians and whining children, complaining about the rain and a lack of “facilities”, and all wishing they could be in some Costa del Sol hellhole instead: these were the destinations of people who wore lots of navy blue and owned black Labs and children named Tarquin and Letitia. The only proles were locals, and they and their rich burr bloody well belonged

A year later, on a blazingly hot, sun-drenched day – ironically, Independence Day - we were married at the church of St. Petroc in Padstow, across the road from my mother-in-law’s house, with a reception to follow on the front lawn of my sister-in-law’s farmhouse overlooking the Camel Estuary (one of the most beautiful views I have ever enjoyed). From that day on, we’ve visited North Cornwall at least twice a year – often more frequently – without fail. One day, I hope to visit permanently: returning to London is always a wrench.

I was reflecting on my Cornish history two days’ ago as we sat sipping tea on a cliff-top above the tiny village of Port Gaverne (pr: Gay-verne, apparently), having eaten halibut and chips at the local hotel, gazing along the six-mile sweep of cliffs and coves and bays stretching towards Tintagel to the north. Cloudless sky, blazing sun, wheeling gulls, a slight, chill breeze making the cowslips, violets and thrift shiver, and a faint heat haze turning the whole green, blue and gold scene into the world’s most perfect water-colour painting.   

When I talk about my love of Cornwall, I feel a bit of a fraud. I don’t hunt, shoot, fish, swim, sail, surf, ride, make pots, sculpt, paint or even own a dog. I’m not even sure that I know any genuine Cornish people (apart from my in-laws): every petrol station and shop appears to be staffed by people from Essex, and most of the tourists we encounter at our favourite haunts appear to be from West London. But none of that seems to matter. I’m not eager to buy into an authentic, ancient lifestyle – there are pockets here and there, but it’s mostly long gone, destroyed by generations of incomers, the economic unviability of the region’s traditional industries, lack of affordable housing for locals, and (to be quite frank) a strain of Celtic fecklessness and fatalism which hasn’t been helped by a tsunami of central government and European subsidies encouraging rich locals to make out like bandits by building ridiculous, ugly wind-farms whose sole purpose appears to be to destroy every pleasing prospect in the county. Recently, I even learned that the traditional activity most associated with the natives - wrecking - is actually a myth: never happened!

No, what we’ll be buying into is astonishing natural beauty. Let’s hope it hasn’t all been destroyed by the time we eventually get there. 

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