Cornwall: England's most south-westerly county

by frankbeswick

Cornwall is a land here a jagged coast meets the ocean, and is a place with a unique character.

I think that it would be hard to tire of Cornwall, for its coast is replete with small coves [bays] each of which has its own character. Often sited in these coves are small villages from which fisherman used to sally out to scoop up shoals of sardines and a wide variety of other kinds of fish. On the cliffs above the ocean you can still see the remains of engine houses, which drove the giant pumps that kept the tin mines dry. There is also the Celtic identity of a land that is in England, but whose inhabitants often refuse to be called English.A great place to visit.

Image courtesy of Sharpshot

The Fourth Identity

Most people are aware that the island of Britain is home to three ancient identities, English, Scots and Welsh,  each with its own cultural traditions, language and flag. But fewer know that recently there was a successful campaign to add a  fourth identity, Cornish. The inhabitants of Cornwall have long been aware that they are distinct from the English, and many refuse to call themselves English, preferring the term Cornish. As you can see in the thumbnail above the Cornish identity has its own flag, the cross of St Pirran, and there have recently been successful moves to resurrect the Cornish language as a cultural resource. The language, a Celtic tongue,is  spoken as a  second tongue by some people and is distinct from both Welsh and Irish. 

Cornwall was a Celtic kingdom distinct from Wales that came to be dominated by England in the tenth century. Under the Normans it was a crown possession distinct from England, but which was eventually absorbed into England for administrative  reasons.  

The county is replete with archaeological sites, such as dolmens [remnants of stone tombs] and stone circles. These reflect the ancient Celtic culture of the county. There are many abandoned tin mines, for mining reaches back into the depths of Cornish history. The ancient Phoenicians even made the long and dangerous journey from Lebanon into the Atlantic to the place that they called the Cassiterides, the Tin Isles, to purchase this metal essential to smelting bronze. The last mine eventually closed in 1983 though there is a possibility of their re-opening to exploit rare earths. You can still see the giant granite engine houses that contained the engines that kept the massive machines used to pump the water from the mines. So essential to the Cornish identity was mining that it used to be said that a mine is a hole in the ground with a Cornishman in it. 

There is a thriving agricultural economy based very much on beef and dairy cattle, and in recent years the Cornish apple industry has developed with the production of craft ciders, often with one farm as their source, which gives each cider a distinct character. Fishing is not as strong as it was, but the industry still survives, and the famous chef Rick Stein has a very well-regarded sea food restaurant in Padstow on the south coast. 

The Norman castle of Tintagel, a ruin overlooking the sea, was linked in Cornish myth with the legend of king Arthur, but that is all it is, a legend. I believe that there was a real Arthur, but he was from North Wales.  


The Cornish Coast

Cornish Coast
Cornish Coast

Some Cornish Attractions

I can only give a brief sample of the attractions of Cornwall. One of these is "The Lost Gardens of Heligan," which is off the south coast. Heligan had been one of the greatest gardens in England, but by the 1970s the stately home to which it belonged had been sold off and turned into apartments, and the once beautiful gardens had decayed into a weedy jungle. When Tim Smit set out to explore the ruined  garden prior to his restoration he found a clue to why the gardens had decayed, for the gardeners' names he founds scrawled as graffiti in the ruined toilet building were the names that he had previously seen on the local cenotaph. Eighteen out of twenty two gardeners had perished in World War One, and the financially and emotionally damaged owners had given up hope. Tim began a massive project of restoration and now Heligan is a beautiful garden once again that runs as far as possible as it did in its heyday. I have visited it once and to wander through its revived grounds is to walk through a botanical heaven.. 

Tim was later to move on to the Eden Project, which I have also visited. This was the creation of several giant biomes using the site of an abandoned china clay pit for support. The biomes display plants of all sizes  from across the globe and are a wonderful experience for the visitor. Prepare to be awestruck by the combination of horticulture and engineering. The biomes are so large that the project employs rock climbers as window cleaners, and these people abseil down and clean the panes as they go!

Another attraction is St Michael's Mount, which I visited this year. It is the castle of Lord St Leven situated on an island in Mount Bay and accessed by a causeway accessible only at low tide. This year I had hoped to take the boat across as a novelty, but the wind was blowing from the south east, and no Cornish boatman likes to go out when the wind is from that direction. The castle now is in the hands of the National Trust. You enter and climb up a stony path to the keep, where you can then wander through the living quarters and see antique furniture and weapons. There is  also a chapel, which I enjoyed visiting. This island castle was essential as a defence against the North African Barbary pirates, who raided and enslaved along that coastline until the British navy suppressed them. The views from the castle's ramparts are wide and impressive.      


Heligan Gardens
Heligan Gardens

Eden Project

The Eden Project Biomes
The Eden Project Biomes

St Michael's Mount

St Michael's Mount
St Michael's Mount

Walking in Cornwall

There is plenty of space for walkers to wander along country lanes with the traditionally high, earth-banked Cornish hedges. I can recall walking down one at night between the dark hedges with their high trees and seeing swarms of  bats flitting around me. All this on a warm night lit by   a silvery moon. A magical experience. 

Several of Cornwall's rivers arise from Bodmin Moor,a granite pluton that has sprung from a batholith deep below Cornwall. There is much walking on the moor with walkers being able to climb to the summits of the tors, rocky granite protuberances that stand above the landscape. There is a variety of well-marked routes across the moor, but as a general rule walkers should stick to well defined paths, as the moor can be quite boggy. The wide vistas of  moorland with its tough grasses swaying  in  the wind are a taste of wilderness that can be enjoyed along with the music of the wind, the call of the curlew and snipe and the churring of the grouse,  all to the background of the deep silence of nature. 

The coast provides many walks. I can recall one day walking from Fowey to Polperro. Fowey [pronounced foy]is at the mouth of the river Fowey which has surged down from Bodmin Moor, and Polperro is a popular fishing village now a tourist  attraction. We had walked down from our cottage and begun the route at Polruan, walking eastwards along the coast above the cliffs. We met few people and could enjoy the peace of nature. To our right cliffs tumbled down to the sea and at places we spotted the occasional seal basking on the beach in an inaccessible cove. We skirted a herd of cattle, as neither of us was particularly keen on getting jostled by  a beast weighing several hundredweights, but they were tame. The route is about seven miles  along a path that rises and falls above the cliffs. We did not talk much, but shared enjoyment of nature in mutual silence, stopping once to break open the lunch pack, which was ham sandwiches, crisps,a chocolate bar and a banana, washed down with bottled water. 

We eventually descended to Polperro, a place full of character and well worth seeing, with droves of tourists thronging the shops and cafes. I am very British, I like my cup of tea, so we found a pleasant cafe near the harbour and took tea and cake. I chose my favourite, Earl Grey tea, and had a cream cake. After that we took the bus back to Fowey and returned on foot to our holiday cottage, The end of a pleasant walk. 

Updated: 05/28/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/07/2024

Damaged is the wrong word. Some tin was closer to the surface, but as the years went by the miners had to go deeper

DerdriuMarriner on 03/06/2024

Thank you!

But some tin must have been less damaged and more easily mined than others, correct?

Was there some such characteristic of Cornish tin?

(That news would spread like wildfire any place, any time, wouldn't one think?)

frankbeswick on 03/05/2024

Tin was very valuable. People took the risk of going long distances to obtain it.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/04/2024

The third paragraph to the first subheading, The fourth identity, advises us that "The ancient Phoenicians even made the long and dangerous journey from Lebanon into the Atlantic to the place that they called the Cassiterides, the Tin Isles, to purchase this metal essential to smelting bronze."

Is it not extreme wear-and-tear on Phoenician sailors and ships to load up on British-Isles tin?

Might Cornish tin have had some unique qualities that mustered up such long-distance patronage?

Otherwise, should there have been tin sources much closer to Phoenician customers?

frankbeswick on 11/13/2019

Well, Richard never got the throne, so what became of his efforts?Nothing really.

Geoffrey may have promoted a Cornish Arthur because the Normans were in conflict with the Welsh, so a Welsh Arthur would have been a propaganda gain for the Welsh.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/12/2019

frankbeswick, Oh, I can't believe that I forgot about all that, especially Richard, earl of Cornwall, king of the Romans and son-in-law of William Marshal. The latter is represented on this side of the pond as having integrity but also street smarts in serving five kings without losing job or status.
I remember Richard's surviving bloodline as through Joan de Vautort, but nothing about Cornwall. Were his efforts for naught, and why was Geoffrey of Monmouth so intent upon promoting a Cornish Arthur?

frankbeswick on 11/09/2019

Earlier! The supposed historian Geoffrey of Monmouth,now deemed unreliable,invented the tale of a Cornish Arthur in the 1200s. Later on Richard,a prince who was brother of Henry the Third, promoted the legend. Richard was lord of Tintagel castle, which was the supposed birth place of Arthur, and so he sought to boost his prestige through his Arthurian connections.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/09/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the explanations. Cornish aristocratic claims to properties and titles? Was this around the time of Cornish support for Perkin Warbeck as one of the two Princes in the Tower, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York?

frankbeswick on 11/08/2019

The Cornish legend of Arthur arose because certain aristocrats wanted a legend that would be used to legitimate their claims.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/08/2019

frankbeswick, That's a most compelling and interesting reason. It passed me by, perhaps because of having read of repeat battles that have been represented more as power plays -- U.S. forces were doing better so they decided to take back something not necessarily all that strategically important that they'd lost, Vietnam forces were doing better so they likewise decided to take back what they'd lost -- between the United States and Vietnam than as perhaps forces from the area not wanting to let go of the particular part of Vietnam that they called home.

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