Having just returned from several days in Cornwall over Christmas, it’s a good moment to gather my thoughts about the southwest. I married a Cornish girl, so the furthest flung corner of England was always going to become part of my life to some extent, but despite having travelled to and fro to Cornwall for the best part of a decade, I still can’t quite get my head around the place.
On one hand, the landscape where my in-laws live near the Devon border is staggeringly impressive. Dramatic cliffs and broad sandy beaches blend into wind-blasted copses of hawthorn and hazel. The sea roars incessantly, and the ready salted fields are bound loosely together by a web of “hedges”; agricultural boundaries which bring together all the most formidable aspects of Scottish dykes, English hedges and the fortifications at Verdun, festooned with brambles and twists of old barbed wire. The countryside is wonderfully rough and scruffy, and I hugely enjoyed a day’s shooting woodcock at Kilkhampton in 2013 – a real glimpse behind the curtain. Later that year, I purred with delight to find peregrines hunting golden plover and teal on the Torridge at Bideford, but these were hard-won glimpses through a collage of camp ’70s seaside culture and bleach-blonde ’90s surfer “dudes”. There is so much on offer from sea bass to puffins, but I still haven’t really been able to get under the skin of the place and develop my “like” into “love”.
Fundamentally, I can’t resist an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia in Cornwall. When the “right to roam” was introduced in Scotland, landowners reacted with wails of misery. Many still grumble about “bloody ramblers”, but I never really knew the countryside before open access was granted to everybody north of the border. I now take it for granted that I can mooch around anywhere I choose, and it’s a liberating experience. By comparison, I find many of the access restrictions in England are downright stifling. The concept of trespass is wholly alien to me, so I can’t help curling my lip at signs on gates which read “No Entry” – as if there was honestly any good reason why I couldn’t walk across some rough pasture to find out what was on the other side. While Scottish landowners are pilloried in press and parliament if they fail to demonstrate sufficient engagement with communities and tourists, English landowners can put up signs which say “Keep Out” in a style that would have been familiar to George III. It’s not an exclusively Cornish issue, but for better or worse it’s extremely noticeable for a Scotsman passing through.
In the same way, Cornwall attracts many more visitors and inhabitants than my quiet corner of Scotland, and in lots of ways it almost feels “full”. You’re never far from other people, and I’ve found it hard to feel properly isolated in a countryside which hums all day and glows all night. The network of footpaths and bridleways serves to actively channel people into a few distinct locations, so that perhaps they feel disproportionately busy, and time I’ve spent on Bodmin or Exmoor has always been jostled by others. I was probably born with a pair of rose tinted spectacles, but I can’t help feeling that the best of Cornwall has been swallowed up over the past twenty five or fifty years by tidal waves of tourists, second-homers and sun-seekers. The real, beating heart of the place is surely still there somewhere – I love the red cattle and the herds of wigeon browsing in the short grass beside rich, bloated riverbanks – I just need to work harder to join the dots and see through the mounds of plastic tourist tat to what I know is surely a genuinely valuable place.
As an aside, I was equally appalled and amazed on this most recent trip to find that someone had picked up their dog’s shit and put it in a bag, then hung the bag in a tree and wandered off. I had heard of this before, but having never seen it and being unable to imagine the mentality behind such an act, I always thought it was a joke. Subsequent enquiries have revealed that this is not uncommon and it’s certainly not exclusive to Cornwall, but it has made an enduring impression.