What is Cornish Culture?


An opinion piece by Craig Weatherhill

 I WAS once asked to define Cornish culture and the only realistic answer I could give was this:  “Read the three-part work Cornwall and Its People, written by A.K.Hamilton Jenkin between 1932 and 1934.  Read every word and, once you’ve got through its 487 pages, you will have at least scratched the surface and given yourself a general idea of what it is.

 “And never make the mistake of thinking that, because the book is 80 years old, it defines something that only existed in the past. Cornish culture is still here, virtually intact, and that is a wonder in itself when you consider how very greatly the Cornish population has been diluted within the Duchy’s own borders since then through relentless inward migration.”

 Cornish culture cannot be defined or even adequately understood by anyone whose blood is not Cornish, in the same way that only a true Welshman can ever understand the deeper meanings of the word hiraeth.  It has been 12,000 years in the making, and an integral part of every Cornish person for the whole of that very long history.  These facts are only shared by the Welsh people in the whole of Britain, as these two cultures are not English, but exclusively Celtic and of the same matchless antiquity.  Members of other, younger, cultures external - and, indeed, foreign - to those Celtic lands cannot ever be expected to come close to comprehending the depth, content and meaning of Cornish culture to the Cornish psyche.

 Historic “England” has amply demonstrated this lack of understanding at Tintagel, with its controversial decision to brashly market the site’s externally originated legends at the expense of its history, and with flagrant disregard for Cornish heritage and the sensitive nature of the site.  The agency expresses bafflement at Cornish fury against this decision because its officials are simply incapable of comprehending the deeply ancient significance of the site to the Cornish people, which has little to do with the brashly presented emphasis that their decision has tastelessly imposed.

 Not that Historic “England” can cite this lack of native insight as a viable excuse for their insensitivity regarding this iconic location.  As long ago as 1233, another outsider, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in his successful quest to be crowned “King of the Romans”, was quick to capitalise on deep-seated Cornish reverence for Tintagel.  He sought to establish a tangible link between himself and those very real kings of the post-Roman centuries half a millennium earlier, for whom the site was indeed a royal seat for 300 years, in order to elevate his own importance among the local populace.  It is true that Earl Richard also seized upon the fanciful and wider fame given to the site by Geoffrey of Monmouth a century earlier, in order to gain an even more widespread promotion, but even Geoffrey’s choice of site for King Arthur’s magically aided conception had been informed and decided by that very same history that still meant so much to the Cornish people.  Of course, Earl Richard’s intentions were deeply cynical, as the castle, useless in strategic terms, was not put to any practical use once he’d gained his lofty ambition, and was left to fall apart.

            To say that Cornish culture has as many facets as the Koh-i-Noor diamond would be to greatly understate the fact.  It is everywhere.  It is on every signpost, it is there in the way that Cornish people greet and regard each other, it is in their work and the way that work is carried out.  That even the Cornish mindset, and the way they think, differs from their neighbours to the east of the Tamar is not a fanciful notion, but a reality that is little understood outside the Duchy.  Independent minds with a deep longing to regain the independence they once enjoyed.  Hiraeth is as much a part of Cornish culture as it is for the Welsh.

             Cornish culture is there in the way every village and farm is designed, built, laid out and placed within the landscape.  It is in the landscape itself and the ever-present sea that have both shaped and created an affinity with the Cornish persona for 12,000 years.  It is in the silent monuments of that landscape, it is in song, dance, drink and meal.  It is in the voices that once echoed from a thousand feet underground, whether they be speaking in the 5,000 year old Celtic tongue that is native to them, or the much later Germanic one that invaded, and was imposed on them from the east.  It is in the vast reserve of legend and folklore, and in the creativity and ingenuity of Cornish artists, writers, poets, boatbuilders and engineers.  It is present in the grunting efforts of pilot-gig oarsmen and women.

             It is contained within the continuing understanding of nature and the capricious moods of the climate that the Cornish people possess.  It is in the decorations that adorn the trees around our many holy wells, it is present in the hilltop solstice bonfires and dances, it booms out in the breathtaking harmonics of our massed community choirs.  It is in every ancient or revived festival from Land’s End to the Tamar.  It is there in the sense of magic that Cornish people feel whenever certain place-names are mentioned:  Tintagel, Carn Brea, Trencrom.  It is there in the ability of Cornish people to stand on a granite hilltop, reach to the ground and feel the beating heart of their land; and it is there in so many forms.

             Cornish culture shows in the lusty enthusiasm given to public renditions of Trelawny, Camborne Hill and other truly Cornish anthems.  It’s there in every Yeth an Werin.  It’s there in our unique brand of humour.  It’s there in our churches, chapels, pubs and knackt bals.  It’s in every Cornish home and every Cornish gathering.

             In short, how is Cornish culture to be defined?  The simple answer is that such a definition cannot be achieved in any lesser form than Hamilton-Jenkin’s 487 pages, and even that still invites omissions and oversights.

             How is Cornish culture to be conserved, cherished and given an assured future?  That is harder still to answer, but the approach adopted thus far by the tourism industry, and those who exploit it, has to be avoided at all costs and abandoned sooner rather than later.  Cornish culture does not exist to be shamefully trivialised, distorted, anglicised or rammed into people’s faces.  The whole essence of Cornish culture is that it is subtle and has developed in its own way, and at its own rate, until its effect on the visible landscape has not appeared overnight, but in a gradual way that becomes an accepted part of the landscape itself.  An effect rather than an impact.  Subtlety and sensitivity have to be essential watchwords when dealing with the myriad facets of Cornish cultural heritage, and it must never be placed into the hands of external agencies that have neither understanding nor experience of it.  Cornish culture cannot be slotted into a handy pigeonhole, and that simple fact needs to be both understood and underlined from the outset.

 That the whole of official and commercial approach to tourism in Cornwall desperately needs to be radically rethought was brought home to me on a visit to Ireland’s Blarney Castle.  I had expected to find a brash Tintagel-style overstatement of a world famous site and its attendant village.  I was astonished to find nothing of the sort.  Not a single  “in your face” gaudy signboard, or equivalent of the ludicrous “King Arthur’s Car Park” was anywhere to be seen.  Instead, it was all very laid-back and very low-key.  Subtlety was the name of the game at both Blarney Castle and its beautifully maintained attendant village.  Even the village gift shops were low-key, and quietly invited the customer inside rather than bellowing at them to do so.

 Is it not time that Cornwall’s tourism officials and operators began to use the example of Blarney as a model of excellence by which they should aspire to transform the whole of our own tourism strategy into something that is tasteful, inviting and always respectful of local distinctiveness?  After all, this is Cornwall, not Clacton.  While we’re about it, let us also discard the services of “Visit England”, as the fact that Cornwall is neither legally nor culturally part of that land is a positive attraction to visitors, and reduces that agency to an irrelevance.  Let us also elevate our standing by re-naming “Visit Cornwall” to “Visit the Duchy of Cornwall” (in bilingual Cornish-English form, of course).  After all, if marketing Cornwall as “The Delectable Duchy” was good enough in the 1930s, why should it not be considered good enough now?

 And can we please redesign our whole system of road signage?  The plethora of ugly Euro-standard signs and characterless fonts jubilee-clipped to several even uglier grey-clad posts do not have the elegance of the old finger signposts on a single pole that are retained by (for example) South Hams District Council.  Let us have those back, and put an end to the despoilation of our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is wrought by these hideous modern signs.



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