Cornwall, one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations, experienced a very hectic holiday season this year: with many holidaymakers reluctant to travel abroad due to Covid-19, the region took on vast numbers during the summer months, and will continue to well into the autumn. With an economy largely dependent on tourism, the financial injection that this provides is crucial to the survival of local businesses; however, the climate of fear surrounding Covid-19 has increased a feeling of hostility towards ‘outsiders’ (or ‘Emmets’, meaning ‘non-Cornish’ in Cornish slang) felt by many local people before the pandemic.
Among the counties of England, Cornwall has a distinct history and identity. One of the six Celtic ‘nations’, Cornwall possessed a spoken language until its death towards the end of the 18th century following years of injury by English government policy. Even today, Cornwall maintains certain traditions and speech patterns that distinguish it as unique. Though many people, given the considerable extent to which Celtic influence in the region is now diminished, view these habits as either mere oddities, quaint relics of a bygone era, or possibly as inauthentic products of the 20th century Celtic Revival movement, it is nevertheless true that many Cornish people feel themselves to be separate in some efficacious way, and pride themselves on this distinction.
Despite its glamorous image, Cornwall remains one of the poorest areas in the UK. The collapse of its industries during the 20th century (notably tin mining, fishing and china clay) have resulted in a low-wage economy, with the average annual household income around £6,000 below the national average. Meanwhile, a rise in second home ownership has dramatically increased house prices. As the most economically powerful region in England, much of the blame for this is directed at the South East: having lived lives separate in quality and location from the booming economy of London and its surrounding areas, people in Cornwall are now forced to compete with a formidable incoming power.
It may be argued that introducing people to a region has a diversifying and enlightening effect on the inhabitants of the region itself, and often this is true: immeasurable value has been added to my life, for example, by people who have come to Cornwall from elsewhere, whether on holiday or to live. However, it cannot be denied that a substantial portion of Cornish culture has been lost in recent years. Among the most notable is the decline of the regional accent in the county’s younger generations. Though to some extent a result of the connectivity of modern life, when a region loses its accent, it arguably loses much of its colour; a unique strand of humour and warmth that has characterised the lives of many thousands is then forever lost. This tragedy seems not to be fully appreciated: even among young people who have spent much of their lives in Cornwall, there is a sense that being Cornish is slightly ridiculous, that local pride felt is an antiquity rendered irrelevant by the introduction of more ‘liberal’, middle class ideas.
Evidently, this is patronising: as the economic influence of the wealthy spreads, it should not be forgotten that regions like Cornwall have something more industrious to offer than the promise of a quaint coastal property. Several Cornish towns now lie almost entirely unoccupied during the winter, the kind of tragedy that occurs when neoliberalism is taken to its natural conclusion in a place with limited financial defences. It has been painful for local people to witness the decimation of their communities, as well as the triumph of a kind of appropriated nautical aesthetic in place of authentic local industry.
Post-lockdown, antipathy towards outsiders in Cornwall noticeably increased, with many concerned that tourists would bring an insuperable wave of Covid-19 cases to a county with fewer than 20 intensive care beds in its main hospital. I have heard it said that, as a tourism hotspot, Cornwall should have been more “welcoming”. Both currently and historically, Cornish life has been construed as somewhat ‘backward’ by those outside, and while there may be some truth in this, such an argument surely comes from a place of entitlement: local people have a right to be concerned about their lives, instead of being forced to bend to the whims of those able to pay.
The Bafta award-winning Bait (2019) brought attention to these issues, and was declared by the Guardian to be “one of the defining British films of the decade”. As the gap between rich and poor widens, other areas of historic and natural interest will likely become similarly afflicted. Inevitable though it may be, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether our ruthlessly market-orientated society is bringing about the kind of change we desire.
Photograph: Charisse Kenion via UnSplash