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Rural Cornwall is right to be anxious If the duchy is to survive Brexit, something must be done about its not-so-splendid isolation

Bedruthan Steps, near Newquay. Credit: Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Bedruthan Steps, near Newquay. Credit: Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

January 23, 2020   4 mins

It is a truism that in Newlyn, west Cornwall, no help is coming. During the Brexit shortage panic, it seemed clear that we — and Scotland, which is blameless — would be the last to get bagged salad and antibiotics in the coming dystopia. I worry about medication, but I don’t fret about food shortages. Those cows on the cliffs aren’t ornamental.

Cornwall is a spit of land reaching far into the ocean. It is the only English county — or duchy for purists — that you can drive across in ten minutes, from Marazion to Hayle. To be remote is our burden, and our pleasure; the Cornish are phlegmatic like that. When the fishermen of Newlyn seek attention from government, they tend to sail to London and wait outside the Palace of Westminster on the river, waving signs detailing their wants.

The threat of the closure of Flybe, the regional airline based at Exeter, meant little to London readers, who can be in New York City within eight hours, Beijing in 12, and travel from Euston to Westminster in the time it takes to read this piece. They don’t need Flybe, which offers a mixture of holiday and business travel to the small Cornish elite, tourists and people who want to go to Spain. Transport means something different to those who live in great cities, who have such a glut of transport they come to hate it, and even watch horror films about it for pleasure.

But Cornwall needs it if it is not to be a Poldark dash Du Maurier dash pasty theme park filled with over-renovated holiday cottages and gruesome poverty. The average full-time salary is less than £25,000 a year. The average child will be priced out of its parents’ pretty village and consigned to a housing estate — if it is lucky. It is normal to work three jobs, or not at all, and the prosaic indicators of poverty — immobility, drug addiction, depression — are much discussed in the pages of The Cornishman.

I have used Flybe only once, to fly from Newquay to a Rolls Royce press weekend in Speyside, but there are more serious people in Cornwall than I; if you do have to go to London and back in a day, then Flybe is your only answer, unless you are prepared to take the Sleeper train, on which you might have to share a berth with a Christian fundamentalist who might call the victim of the Cyprus gang rape “no better than a prostitute”. And, still, that is a luxury. The ordinary person cannot afford the £118 walk-on off-peak fare.

Transport is both expensive and irregular. When I lived in Carnyorth — you will not have heard of it — there was a bus every two hours on Sunday to Penzance for £5 return. Here, if you want to go anywhere, you must have a car. Even the committed activists of Extinction Rebellion have cars, or they could not call themselves activists, because they would be marooned at home. It’s an hour by car to Newquay, where Flybe flies, or three hours by public transport. The train from Penzance to Paddington is regular, but it takes five hours and 20 minutes to reach London.

At least the A30 is almost all dual carriageway now; but I fancy that is for the benefit of tourists. In my childhood, the journeys from London to Padstow could take ten hours or more, if you were caught behind the tractors. Cornwall has no motorway, but it is not alone. Neither does Dorset, Northumberland, Suffolk, Norfolk, East Sussex, Rutland, and the Isle of Wight.

The weather isolates us further. It rules here; perhaps that is why paganism endures. At Christmas, so much rain fell that I couldn’t get across the Penwith Peninsula to St Just; even when it doesn’t rain, the fog hangs on the moor, and you have to drive at 20mph for self-preservation.

At night, it’s the most frightening journey I know: a series of sharp bends across a landscape so windswept there are no trees taller than six foot, and no structure taller than the engine houses of the old mines, which look like wizards’ towers. As it write, it is hailing in Newlyn, and the chimney stack is shaking. Sometimes the Coombe River rises to the top of the garden steps, but it hasn’t this year.

Wind closes the promenade in Penzance; the waves contain stones which can drop on your head. There was a famous flood in Newlyn on Valentine’s Day in 2014; further along the coast, in Dawlish, a 100-foot section of Brunel’s railway just fell into the sea and the whole duchy was cut off for months. When it snows — which is not often, but it did in 2018 — the text came instantly from the school: school is closed. Collect your child. I laughed at the time — I was an incomer — but now I know: if they had hesitated, the parents would not have made it to the school.

My friend, who lives high above Newlyn Harbour, saw the snow cloud approach the peninsula. It blotted out St Michael’s Mount. She says she dropped her coffee, grabbed the toddler, and sprinted to the car to rescue her schoolchild, as if in a film. Even so, some children were stranded until a farmer came to pick them up in a tractor. Chywoone Hill, the road to Lamorna, has a gradient of 12.4%. Cars were abandoned and children sledded down the hill instead.

It is worse for the Isles of Scilly, which can be cut off for weeks. Fog and wind stop the helicopters and the freight ship the Gry Maritha getting through. This constituency — St Ives — declared last in the general election of 2019, due to the weather and, later on the mainland, because the counting hall had to be cleared for badminton. The Isles of Scilly are feared by mariners. Four naval warships foundered in October 1707 on the Western Rocks, the Crim Rocks and Bishop’s Rock, killing almost 2000 sailors.

I don’t mean to romanticise Cornwall; there has been too much of that. It is, rather, that a culture has grown up around the isolation and the poverty: a culture of consolation, individualism and pride. We tell ourselves that we do not need a functional transport infrastructure; if we did, we would have to share Cornwall. But that is a romantic — a phlegmatic — view.

If we are to grow our economy after Brexit, we need a motorway, cheaper and more regular public transport, and we need some variant of the horribly named Flybe which the Government has saved, at least for now. Let people who are less close to poverty share the burden of reducing carbon emissions. It is easy to mock rural anxiety from London; but you know where such laughter has led before.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.


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