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Day 2: Liskeard to Penzance

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

The traveller enters a lost kingdom

The blind at the window of the sleeper clattered shut to reveal that the train was crossing the Tamar. The broad river, silvery in the dawn light, is the oldest frontier in Europe – its eastern bourn having been declared by Athelstan in the 9th century to be the border between England and Cornwall.

The crossing appeared to work its magic on the Great Western steward, a young woman named Margaret who had seemed brisk and efficient when the train left London the night before but who had now become friendly and forthcoming. She leaned out of the window after I stepped from the train at Liskeard and smiled. “It’s a different country here – slower and more relaxed.”

Indeed it was. I was on my fourth mug of tea in the tiny station buffet when Paul Naylor arrived. The diminutive figure, with wild hair and a curly beard, gave every appearance of having just leapt out of bed. For all that he launched straight into an instant history of the Duchy of Cornwall and the succession it has maintained, technically independent of the British monarchy.

Naylor, the owner of a local vineyard who stood for parliament in the general election for the Sons of Cornwall party, Mebyon Kernow, continued the history lesson as we toured the ancient Cornish sites of the area in his battered Volvo. It spluttered and wheezed, but from its radio aerial there proudly fluttered a black pennant with a white cross, the flag of St Pirrin, patron saint of Cornwall.

There are more miles of winding country lanes in Cornwall than anywhere else in Britain, he explained as we tramped across the rough wet grass of Fowey Moor, because the distinctive settlement patterns of the Celts had survived, along with their place-names. The culture was the island’s most antique: Celts had sacked Delphi in 400 BC and Rome in 300 BC. The Galatians, to whom St Paul epistlised, spoke Celtic until the 4th century AD. With delight he pointed out the mistakes in the official signs at the monument of the 9th century king, Dungarth, and gloated over how the “English” Heritage symbol had been obliterated by Cornish nationalists from many of the historical sites. “The English are like dogs,” he said. “They go round pissing on everything.” There was a salty turn to all his aphorisms. The day before he had been “popping in and out of the house like a fart in a colander”. His sense of disbelief was conveyed with, “If that’s true then my cock’s a bloater.”

That sense of incredulity was exercised most forcefully on Tony Blair’s notion of what constitutes devolution within the UK. For devolutionary purposes Cornwall has been lumped in with Devon and various points east as far as Swindon. It is to be administered from Bristol, which is farther from Cornwall than you might think. “Bristol is nearer to Dover than it is to Land’s End. We need a separate Cornish Development Agency,” said Colin Lawry, a nationalist councillor on both the district and county councils.

There are some serious economic issues here. “The GDP of Cornwall is less than three-quarters of the UK average. We have more in common with Merseyside than a wealthy place like Torbay in Devon. Our economy is almost colonial: so much of the raw material extracted here – fish, tin and china clay – isn’t processed here. Almost pounds 100m a year more goes out of Cornwall than comes in.”

It is an argument which clearly has some potency in Cornwall where the flag of St Pirrin is today everywhere in evidence, on buildings and bumper- stickers alike. Many insist on entering “Cornish” under “nationality” on official forms. They have revived the Cornish language enough to get it declared an official living language by the European Union.

Yet it is an uphill struggle. That evening I sought out, in the non-touristic back streets of Penzance, a pub called The Old Vic, where the landlord, Trev Lawrence, is a Grand Bard of the Gorsedh, the Cornish equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod. There, I was told, Cornish speakers gathered to talk, sing and play a traditional card game called euchre. The landlord was an expert in the archaic sport of Cornish wrestling.

Indeed it was so. In a dark snug, devoid of one-armed bandits, jukebox or pinball machines, Trev held court from behind a well-worn mahogany bar, dispensing pints and quips in equal measure. From a cupboard he produced a jacket of heavy yellowed linen with waxed rope buckles, like a fasten- it-yourself strait-jacket. It was the essential equipment for the oldest form of wrestling known on these islands, dating back to the games recorded in County Leith in the 18th century BC. A stickler (as in rules) is, he explained, one of the three judges in Cornish wrestling.

But there was something melancholic about it all. True, there were Cornish speakers in the corner of the pub, five of them. But only one was Cornish, and she had crossed the Tamar aged two and only recently returned. The group were otherwise middle-aged, middle-class English incomers indignant at how the local authority had demoted the GCSE in Cornish from a language to a hobby course, thus raising the cost of their classes. Of the hundreds of reported native fluent speakers there was no sign. Still, they were jolly, full of badinage and song – some of it in Cornish.

“The trouble is,” said an increasingly morose Trev as the evening drew to a close, “that though the words are in Cornish all the old traditional harmonies have vanished.”

Perhaps someone wrote them down in a book, I gamely suggested, and then doubtless some self-conscious young enthusiast will try to revive them.

“Maybe,” said Trev. But he would be leaving the pub soon, and his life- long struggle to retain one indigenous hostelry in the town would end. He was 58 and his wife was ill and having to give up her job. It was her wage which subsidised his celebration of the community of nationhood. So they would be selling up soon. The Old Vic would then presumably be taken over by a brewery and converted into a chrome and Perspex lager drain or, worse still, a Scruffy Murphy’s heritage pub.

Trev looked glum, and then lifted his voice and began to sing a lilting lament about the Cornish village of Lamorna. “Time now,” called Trev’s barman, as the landlord finished singing. “Time please. Let’s be having you.”


Tomorrrow Day 3: The traveller foils a Cornish conspiracy


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