This abridged log intends to detail discoveries made during multiple journeys from Portsmouth, England to Cornwall, between the Years of Our Lord 1995 and 2018. Generous internal funding allowed me to fully integrate with the natives and observe their daily routines by living alongside them. For twenty-three years, I have eaten, slept and conversed with the Cornishfolk in their own dwellings, and traversed the land with local guides.
N.B. There exists a debate on whether Cornwall is an incorporated territory of England or an independent state. Facts on the matter are inconclusive, but for the sake of comprehension and coherency with my findings, consider it to be a separate colony. Regardless of beliefs, one thing is not to be confused: a Cornishman is not an Englishman. By Sian Doherty.
The Cornish wild is no place for a baby. Jutting, eroding coastlines that people lose their entire houses to, shark-infested seas and the notorious Beast of Bodmin Moor are perilous to the most robust of adventurers. Regardless, I sought the knowledge that waited to be discovered, that beckoned only the boldest baby in the South.
‘Mother,’ I dribbled. ‘We’re going.’
To be truthful, I shall admit to not recalling much of the journey, tending to let my faithful valet deal with the unpleasantries of motorway traffic. Once arrived, she introduced me to a pair she called ‘Pa and Granny’. The Pa was a short but sturdy bearded chap in a grey cardigan and a flat cap, which would be a recurring combination despite (or perhaps, because of) the couple not owning a washing machine, preferring to do things by hand.
The Granny also donned a consistent uniform of purple skirt and green cardigan, bringing to mind images of aubergines – not that anything so exotic was known in those parts. Extraordinary; who or what but a cartoon character recycles the same outfit so unfailingly? It meant one of two things: either these folk were ostentatious to the point that consciousness of fashion was simply beneath them, or quite the opposite – that they were entirely plain and reliably simple. If I’d had teeth, I would’ve clenched them in embryonic anticipation.
Five years passed abidingly. After much effort dedicated to observation, I finally have a vague idea of Pa and Granny’s routine. Their palate is restricted to a revolving menu of beige. Monday is battered cod and mash; Tuesday, frozen hamburger (no bun); Wednesday, a taste of Italy with canned ravioli on toast; Thursday, cremated gammon steaks that the dog refused; Friday, pasty; Saturday, moisture-free bacon and egg pie and Sunday, a roast, which doesn’t comply with their overall rejection of English culture.
Each meal is followed by a dessert, something like tinned fruit and clotted cream, iced buns and occasionally blancmange. I persevere, though one day I may enter the kitchen to another meat-and-potatoes dinner and grab Granny by her apron strings, thrusting spice mix into her pocket. Like rings on a tree, I date her wrinkles back to the days of the Raj.
All one needs to know about Cornwall is that it passively witnessed one of the most infamous colonisations in history, and still insists the pasty to be more flavoursome than the biryani. The pasty is the lifeblood of the people. A crescent-shaped, browned shortcrust comestible encasing beef and root vegetables, it comes complete with a handle in the form of a rolled edge, originally to stop miners getting their grubby hands on the consumable parts with the intention of discarding the crust. That idea seems to have been cast as lore; now, the Cornish eat the entire thing, and their hands are no less filthy despite the mines having been closed since 1998 after 4000 years of industry.
I daren’t admit it to the locals as not to offend, but a pasty is the most depressingly bland thing I’ve ever smelled, touched and consumed. It tastes of poverty, and makes such a mess of one’s fingers and clothes. One Friday, I pulled a lint roller out of my pack to blot flakes of pastry from my person, and they looked at me as though I were the uncouth one.
It emerges that this place is in fact a popular tourist destination. People come here by choice, for jollity and relaxation. Some even bring children. It seems unfathomable that they might be able to participate in merriment whilst mingling in close quarters with the natives, but the strategy from both sides appears to be to entirely ignore the other’s existence. As the adage goes: deny, deny, deny. Holidaymakers and locals simultaneously employ this flawlessly. Interaction is restricted to a monosyllabic exchange of goods and services, though the Cornishfolk refer to the incomers as ‘Emmets’ in private. Bearing the authority of a foreigner deeply integrated with the culture, I feel qualified to dictate accurately on the parallel dimensions that exist concurrently in Cornwall.
In one, which we’ll call the ‘Real World’, natives live below the poverty line. Specifically in Redruth, where Pa and Granny are firmly rooted, which is bafflingly considered urban despite being populated by hicks and being mostly farmland for growing pasties. Children own only one pair of shoes (formal), crime is recreational and Pa and Granny have yet to acquire a telephone. In the other, which I’ve taken to referencing as the ‘Dreamland’, tourists from far and wide experience an ignorant delusion of their surroundings. It is the most bizarre thing! One wonders if they have ever been truly abroad as they treat Cornwall as though it is the English Riviera.
Weather matters not; rain? Parasol. Blustering gales? Windbreaker. High tides? Jolly good fun on a dinghy from Tesco!
‘Me and the missus are from Stockport,’ a hefty balding man informed me unprovoked. ‘We’re hoping to see a dolphin!’
After eyeing him curiously for a beat, I offered a polite nod.
‘Best of luck.’
A decade of study documented seems like the natural point to pause and reflect. I fear I’ve become complacent, accepting the feral ways of the natives as normalcy and forgetting my civilised upbringing. I now expect to see the woman next door to Pa and Granny rush out to hand the bus driver a cup of tea in a ceramic mug. The creature in the high street clad hair to clogs in electric purple does not turn my head twice. These characters are most likely of little threat to me, but I keep my distance anyway and certainly never initiate a dialogue with them.
There’s something about the Queen’s English that unnerves the Cornish. Perhaps it’s that every word is instantly understandable, and conversations don’t require processing time. They are genetically coded to be hardworking people, so I deduce it’s the lack of a challenge that repels them from an eloquent Southern accent.
Marvellous! I have uncovered a confounding relic dating back to the 1930s. The item is a small brown journal written in fountain pen, itemising Morrish family births, deaths and, most passionately, the activities of bantams. Creatures of this name are chickens, specifically a miniature variety, and not Cornish phantoms as is the natural assumption.
Throughout, the author briefly details her family’s full names alongside dates of birth and passing in just one or two lines, then dedicates entire pages to recording the most minute detail about bantam yields and how they fared in various storms. A ghastly tale passes through the generations whereby a bantam pecks out a person’s eye, inducing a phobia of poultry in some members. The priorities of these people are quite unlike anywhere else in the world.
The gentrification and modernisation of the land occurs more swiftly than one can keep up with. Last time I bid them farewell, the folk were churning butter for their supper. Welcoming me back this time were the behemothic golden arches more familiar in the colonies.
‘Everywhere, these are,’ my valet grumbled.
‘Chilli chicken snack wrap?’ I asked, rolling down the car window.
‘Ooh, lovely, thanks.’
The Cornwall Services are rather befuddling: once you have gone so far to reach the property, you may as well carry on to your destination. When you are leaving Cornwall, you have no need for the amenities, being at the start of your passage. As well as fast food, new-build housing estates are being raised like pages of pop-up books. One can drive past a bare, bracken-filled plot en route to a beach, and on return an hour later find 200 identical three-bedrooms on the market for a lick more than Gregg’s pays in a lifetime. Nevertheless, the oldest of Cornwall’s dynasties remain stolid in the face of reconstitution. With some organisation, it would be possible to have them all stand in a line at the border, tin coursing through their veins as they face off against an incursion of diggers. I can hear them now, gravelly voices thick with assuredness.
‘Stand aside, please. We’ve come to price you out.’
‘Yer bleddy not, me ansum.’
The more time goes on, the harder it is to be objective. How is it that an explorer might simultaneously stay impartial whilst assimilating with the culture to gather accurate and useful data? By my estimation, it is quite the impossible task. With that at the forefront of my mind, it is this year that I cap my pen and retire my journal.
The Cornishfolk are small, yet too big to be believed. They are unmovable, unchangeable and, to a Southerner, quite unpalatable. I will eternally be in awe of their refusal to incorporate with the mainland, and will not be to the slightest degree surprised when they fashion the longest tin saw in the world and quite literally cut themselves off from the rest of the our small island.
Missionaries and travelling salesmen be warned: the Cornish have no need for your gods or wares. They are a utopian model of self-sufficiency and containment. Only a Cornishman, or one who has devoted a lifetime to study of the place, can come to an accurate conclusion about conserving the future of the land: the Cornish are not to be disturbed.
Image entitled ‘Sunset and Mine Chimney’ by Tom Corser reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales (UK) Licence.