The Granite Kingdom: a Cornish Journey

by frankbeswick

Author Tim Hennigan explores his Cornish identity by walking an original route through the Cornish landscape.

The standard route through Cornwall, England's most south-westerly county is to follow the coastal path that runs along the two shores of this peninsula, but Hennigan deviated from this tried and tested way by going inland. The book explores the way in which the landscape and history have contributed to identity. The book is a detailed study of the history, geography and geology of this peninsula, and bit is well-written and informative.

Photo of a Cornish seaside village, courtesy of Falco, of Pixabay

Engine House
Engine House
Benja79, courtesy of Pixabay

Paths not commonly trodden

The South-west footpath runs along the Peninsula that is Cornwall, and it is the longest stretch of the path that runs along the whole coast of Britain. But though the path gives walkers access to the most scenic areas of South-west Britain, the inland parts of Cornwall remain neglected and often unpopular, though these parts have contributed to the history of the county/duchy and have their own stories to tell.

The author's route involved criss crossing  from south to north beginning near the border between Cornwall and Devon, occasionally deviating into Devon. The journey's purpose was to explore his Cornish identity, so he journeyed from the coast through an area seldom walked to seek the source of the river Tamar, the iconic river that delineates the historic lands of the Cornish from the English, from whom they are a separate, Celtic people. The route was difficult with the footpaths that are evident on the tourist-frequented southern coast in short supply and often in poor condition. On reaching the North Coast at Morwenstow he came to the conclusion that the wide Tamar of the south was an indistinguishable trickle in the north, and its route occasionally meanders into quintessentially English Devon in places. Clearly the-Tamar is not an authoritative marker of Cornish identity.

The possibility of using Cornish place names ,which are derived from the ancient Cornish language, soon failed. The distribution of Cornish and English place names in the county is haphazard, and some names are a mixture of both languages. Take Morwenstow, for example. Mor and Wen are Celtic words for big and white, but Stow is English, denoting a stockade.  Clearly, there is a mixture of languages here.

He reached the northern coast and came to Tintagel, a ruined castle linked to the King Arthur and important in Cornish myth, but you cannot base an identity on Arthur, whose story is a mixture of fact and legend, more of the latter than the former. While Cornish are very protective of their Arthur myth, they have little or no basis in fact for it. But blue in the hazy distance were the granite moorland of Bodmin Moor and Penwith, the latter a treasury of Neolithic sites Might there be the basis of Cornish culture here?

History and Culture.


After he reaches Tintagel the book enters a new phase, in which the author goes into some detail on the history of Cornwall. This section gives a good account of Cornish history, but there is always the danger of its losing focus on the central question: that of identity. Not that it is ever completely lost, but the history can obscure the question posed in the book. There is a good account of Cornwall in the Reformation period which reveals the imposition of the reforms at the Reformation. The author goes into historical detail of the Cornish risings of that period, which are sometimes overlooked by the history books, which concentrate upon English history, which is focused in the south with northern forays needed to explain national issues. 

But local risings cannot provide a satisfactory basis for the Cornish identity. There was only a small proportion of the native Cornish involved, and they provided no enduring political consequences. The rebels were thoroughly defeated, leaving us with the usual legacy of failed heroes and a popular folk song, The Song of the Western Men. Nothing to celebrate really. Mining and fishing have been considered components of the traditional Cornish identity, and it is true that Cornish people often gained a sense of identity from their mining traditions, but neither is a major player in the economic game these days, so what would be left of the traditional identity these days.. Abandoned tin mines crumble in the rocky landscape, their engine houses standing with the chimneys of their engine houses standing  defiantly against the sky. China clay is still  mined, but it is not the basis of the whole economy. Fishing is still a Cornish staple, but the fishing fleet is much smaller than it was and only employs a small proportion of the local populace.  

Hannigan's hike took him over the granite upland of Bodmin Moor, where the famous Jamaica Inn, renowned for its place in literature and feted as a den for smugglers, is sited. The reputedly haunted site is associated with participants in another of Cornwall's historical customs, smuggling, makes its impacts on Cornish historical tradition, but smuggling is not a socially acceptable activity these days and no one would admit to being involved in it. 

Hannigan toys with Cornish identity's being tied up with granite, for a batholith of this enduring stone underlies Cornwall, but it only breaks through to the surface at six places, not all of them large. 

His route takes him through tourist towns, Polperro, a popular resort which still has a fishing fleet of inshore boats. He finds a liking for Polperro, and feels that it is preserving something of traditional Cornwall while still recognising the importance of tourism. But even at delightful Polperro he is forced to refer to the problem endemic to the county, the problem of second homes, which are squeezing local people, native Cornish, out of the housing market. He sees these as a threat to the enduring population of Cornwall, which is being driven elsewhere by rich people buying up properties. This is undermining the Cornish identity by destroying the longstanding community on which ethnicity depends.  

Cornish Language

The journey took Hannigan as far as Land's End, the southern tip of Britain, the hard rock tip that juts out into the ocean. Along the route he took in a visit to Penwith, the Neolithic landscape that proclaims the  antiquity of habitation in the county. But identity does not reside in stone edifices thousands of years old. 

He focuses on  the Cornish language, as a nation's language encapsulates its identity, containing its literature and providing a unique medium through which the nation can express itself. But Cornish is a language that died out, existing only in literature, not that there is much of that. Cornish was  not suppressed, as happened in Welsh schools at one time, as Cornish did not need suppressing. It died naturally and was later revived by enthusiasts, who also provided Cornwall with a national flag and a tartan accepted by the appropriate authorities for tartans, despite the fact that tartan does not feature in Cornish tradition. 

Hannigan points out that there is evidence that English has been filtering la into Cornwall sincete Anglo-Saxon times and that many locations within the county have names that derive from both English and Cornish sources, and he observes that English was the significant language of trade within the county. So if we are to locate Cornish identity in the language we are doomed to fail.

The author's love for his native county is apparent, but he comes to know clear and distinct answer to the question of identity. Perhaps the best answer is to dispense with hard and fast answers to questions of identity and realize that we are all human. Racial identity is changing all the time as people interbreed with people of other ages and cultures. What matters here is whether the book is worth reading. It is well-written, well-informed and interesting. There is significant detail on Cornish history in the text. I recommend it to readers.  


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Updated: 01/23/2024, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 28 days ago

No one has spoken Cumbric for over a thousand years, so the only knowledge we have about it is from the counting systems still used by sheep farmers, of which there are several across Northern England. This indicates that there was a wide variety of dialects of this lost tongue.

frankbeswick 28 days ago

I don't think that there were very many dialects, certainly Cornishbwas not as dialectbdiverse as Welsh or Cumbric.

DerdriuMarriner 29 days ago

Thank you!

There are probably any number of Cornish dialects historically, correct?

Has the Cornish-language revival selected one over others or has it perhaps sought to use as many as possible?

frankbeswick 29 days ago

Not really, it is just how variant spellings have grown up.

DerdriuMarriner 29 days ago

Thank you!

English Wiktionary acknowledges Kernow as the current place name for Cornwall.

It associates it with *Kornowī (“people of the horn”).

It considers that place name as possibly indicative of -- original? -- inhabitants self-addressed as Cornovii.

Is there a pronunciation reason for switching back and forth between the letter "c" and the letter "k"?

frankbeswick 29 days ago

Not at all. The association of wealh with slave was just a bit of arrogance by the English, we are quite capable of that. The people of Cornwall are as much descendants of the first settlers of Britain as the Welsh are

DerdriuMarriner 29 days ago

Thank you!

English Wikipedia associates the place-name Cornwall with proto-Celtic kamu- ("horn") and Old English wealh ("Brittonic-speaker, foreigner, slave").

Does that mean that the Cornish headland originally was settled by people different from the immediately surrounding area or by slaves?

frankbeswick on 01/26/2024

You would hear the English word.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/26/2024

Thank you!

So British Isle-ers -- ;-D -- no longer know what Wlas means!

Might -- if I moved around from Cornish city to town to village -- I hear the Cornish name?

Or would I -- perhaps 99.9 percent recurring of the time -- only hear Land's End?

frankbeswick on 01/26/2024

Penn an Was. Or Pedn an Wlas. Penn means hill or high.WLAS, pronounced oolas, I do not know

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