California Literary Review

Beyond the Hedgerows of Cornwall

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March 26th, 2007 at 3:36 pm

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Land’s End, Cornwall

It is of all the Celtic kingdoms the greenest and most beautiful. Palms, wisteria, and camellias grow in Cornish gardens. Bluebells and small wild orchids bloom beside the coastal path, that winds along meadow edges above the cliffs and surf. One can imagine King Arthur’s cavalry, fifteen hundred years ago, trotting along these narrow lanes between high hedgerows. What I cannot imagine is me driving any sort of vehicle up these lanes. I leave that happily to our hosts in their Land Rover. There are passing places, but sometimes we must back a long way down the hill to reach one.

Cornwall today is not quite England; nor was it ever. Cornish lanes are even narrower than those farther east. The human faces are mainly white, unlike multiethnic London. There are no great depressing cities, and only a few really ugly parts of towns. And, to be sure, a lot of old abandoned industry, notably the tall smokestacks and sturdy stone engine houses of tin mines. These were closed down even earlier than the works one sees rusting elsewhere in England–and in America.

It was years since I had seen any place in England but London. I had read worrisome reports about housing developments sprouting in the quiet countryside, and industrial farms breaking down hedgerows to consolidate small fields. In the event, after our express left Paddington westbound, my wife and I saw some appalling urban drabness on London’s edges. But in half an hour we were cruising at 125 miles an hour through an unspoiled country of small fields–and many hedgerows. We saw two developments of new houses that reminded us of suburban Virginia; we did not see the unrestricted strip development that spreads far out the roads, in our country. Three hours from London, we crossed the River Tamar on the great iron bridge built in 1859 by that great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and we entered the Duchy of Cornwall.

At our hosts’ home we meet over drinks some natives of the Duchy, as well as new Cornishmen and Cornishwomen. There are younger people, an architect and a psychologist and an investment counselor, and others who have been bankers and colonels and executives and have retired in Cornwall. They help bring a new post-industrial prosperity to Cornwall, as well as driving up the real-estate market. It reminds me a little of Crested Butte, our town in Colorado. This green peninsula is the geographic antithesis of Colorado’s Elk Mountains, but the sources of each place’s well-being are not dissimilar.

The British have been doing better than the Americans in updating their services sector, but I worry about the decay of industry in both countries. Somewhere (we all know where) people are working skillfully at low wages in new factories to make the goods we want. Where will this leave Cornwall, or Colorado, in another half-century?

I think, as we walk west from Gorran Haven on the coastal path, that there is not much more I can do, in my seventies, about outsourcing or American know-nothings. I will write more letters to editors and e-mails to friends. So, says our host, will he, a Liberal Democrat who is as distressed as I am about the state of government in both our countries. (His party is still third in size nationally, but all four Members of Parliament from Cornwall are Liberal Democrats.) For now, though, it is time to forget politics and greet a dozen great white cows–and a well-tempered bull–by Chapel Point, and watch the day turn quickly from rain to sun.

If Cornwall has always been sui generis, perhaps it was less so in that time, four thousand years ago, when the dark-headed people came out of the Mediterranean, sailed up the western coasts of Europe, and reached Ireland and Britain. The great stone monuments they built here in Cornwall are not unlike those they left behind them in Brittany and Corsica. More than a millennium later, when the Celts came, language as well as stonework may have become standardized here, even if there were still remnants of whatever preceded Indo-European.

Cornwall was never a very Roman part of Roman Britain. There was a villa or two built by a rich man, but no bustling towns like those eastward. A grassy way with milestones led westward toward the Land’s End, but it lacked good stone pavement like Watling Street north of Londinium. The Cornish people kept herds, raised grain, fished a rich sea, cut the last of their old forests–and mined tin. In the old days tin was so abundant that it was dug out of stream beds; it was being shipped from here to the Mediterranean world centuries before Christ.

I sit on the headland of Tintagel, on the low wall left from a Dark Age house. I imagine the year 540. An aging Arthur stands here, back from his successful campaign in Gaul. He watches with satisfaction a Byzantine two-master gliding slowly into the quiet water of the haven below him, protected from Atlantic winds. The ship will take tin home, for the pewter works of the Empire. It has brought amphoras of red wine for Arthur and the Cornish nobles, and the work of better artisans than Britain possesses: sharp knives, bright mirrors, spurs, files, scissors–the gamut of products that were made then not just at Alexandria or Constantinople but in Rome, as I have seen in the museum at the Crypta Balbi.

That night Arthur gives a feast for the Byzantine captain, who admires the king’s silver service. It is the last time it will be used. The Saxons are advancing again from the east, and Arthur goes to meet them near Bath. As often before, British cavalry will rout Saxon foot-soldiers; Arthur himself will kill many with his fine sword Caliburn. But the king hears that his young wife has betrayed him, going to bed with his nephew. Just five miles east of Tintagel, in the water-meadows along the little River Camel, Arthur’s force meets Mordred’s and both men fall. Lewis Thorpe, a reputable scholar, thought the Latin that is carved on an old stone by the Camel might mean Arthur lies here.

After Arthur–if there was an Arthur–the political decline of Cornwall came slow. The last king of independent Cornwall was not defeated until four centuries later, in 936. The Cornish language did not reach its highest literary development until the sixteenth century. Thereafter its use declined quickly.

The last few centuries have made of Cornwall a kind of green palimpsest. In 1644, with the Cornish language fast dying, war sprang up: England’s civil war. In Cornwall the forces of King Charles I got the better of the parliamentary army, which retreated to the pre-Roman earthen ramparts now called Castle Dore. The ramparts are not easy for us to find, up on a ridge near the pretty port of Fowey. They were not in good repair, not easy to defend, even in the 17th century. After a day’s fierce fighting the king’s men broke in. Six thousand parliamentary soldiers surrendered, and were soon paroled to start eastward toward Devon. They were starving and freezing in cold rain and wind. The Cornish peasants were not strong for the king, but they saw the parliamentary infantry as the ancient Saxon enemy and they killed them as they stumbled east. Of the six thousand, only a thousand got out of Cornwall alive.

As Peter Tremayne has shown, the last native speakers of Cornish died sometime in the 19th century–not the 18th, as the encyclopedias say. In recent decades, a number of Cornish people have taken heart from the Welsh revival as well as from Israel’s resurrection of Hebrew, and they have brought Cornish, too, back to life. Today, they say, several hundred speak Cornish fluently; there is a weekly radio program in Cornish; in 2002 the British government officially recognized Cornish under the Council of Europe’s charter for minority languages. In 2005, the newest Member of Parliament swore allegiance to Elizabeth II in Cornish, perhaps the first time that language had ever been heard in the House of Commons. Still, few think this revival will go far. It is perhaps more a case of Cuntelleugh an brewyon us gesys na vo kellys travyth, as the Old Cornish Society first urged in 1920: “Gather the fragments that are left, that nothing may be lost.”

There is however a small Cornish Nationalist Party that wants much more: full independence. Impractical, no doubt, but not absurd. Some years ago a Scottish friend of mine, a Member of Parliament, went over from Labour to the Scottish Nationalist Party. I suggested to him that this was romance and not practical politics. Not at all, he said. Scotland was an independent kingdom for over eight centuries, from Kenneth MacAlpin until 1707, and it can well be independent again. This time, he said, it will be protected not by a French alliance but by a far better shield, membership in NATO and the European Union. He almost convinced me…and then he lost his seat. Nevertheless, even as Europe strives today to create a more perfect Union a number of smaller ethnic and linguistic groups keep striving for rights within the EU.

In recent decades the media have focused on IRA and ETA violence, while neglecting the mainly peaceful Scots and Cornish people–or the prosperous Ladins who inhabit five valleys of Italy’s Dolomites, and who although divided among three provinces have gained the right to schooling and broadcasts in Ladin.

In Spain, the central government has yet to come to terms with the ETA, but ETA represents only a minority of the Basques, who already enjoy a measure of autonomy. The more numerous Catalans have just gained more. As of August 2006 they will have their own police and court system, and the Generalitat de Catalunya will have exclusive government jurisdiction in a number of fields including communications, culture, environment, and transportation.

In Corsica, another land my wife and I admire, a small independence movement still sets off bombs but, more importantly, the university at Corte that the French closed in 1781 was reopened two decades ago, and has become the center for a non-violent sort of Corsican nationalism. Stand in a church in Ajaccio, listening to a choir of young Corsican professionals singing traditional polyphonic music, and you will be struck by the unique spirit and beauty of this green island. Corsica is perhaps too dependent on France economically ever to regain the independence it enjoyed under Pasquale Paoli, the friend of Boswell and Johnson; but a Corsican professor has lately suggested that with autonomy and good planning it can become the Eden of the Mediterranean.

Perhaps the Russians could learn something from the Europeans about how to deal with the Chechens. They will not easily subjugate the Chechens, who in the mid-1800s, under their leader Shamil, held off for a quarter-century a Tsarist army much larger than the Russian force in Chechnya now. Why not give the Chechens as much autonomy as, say, the Catalans have gained?

True, the Russians have their own domino theory: give autonomy to the Chechens and the Volga Tatars will want some, and even the Mordvins and Udmurts. I think Putin exaggerates the dangers. America’s as well as Europe’s experience shows that people, even Texans or Cherokees, can enjoy being parts of larger entities if given proper terms.

Our hosts take Mary Jane and me sailing, across Falmouth Bay and up the Helford River. He has been British ambassador to several countries, the Queen has awarded her the MBE, and they fly the Union Jack at the stern. But they also fly on the masthead the Cornish flag, white cross on black field. We land, and walk up Frenchman’s Creek (this is DuMaurier country) through a sunny grove of big beeches, a remnant of Cornwall’s ancient forest. I think of another old country’s anthem–”Jeszcze Polska nie zginela”–and say, Cornwall is not yet lost. Far from it, comes the response.

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