June 9, 2021

Carbis Bay isn’t really a place: it’s a tourist resort. A generic, if bejewelled, suburbia, dependent on its close neighbour St Ives for culture.

There are pale terraces selling cocktails to people wearing cashmere cardigans, private dentists and an estate agent (everything advertised in the window is sold). The Carbis Bay Hotel, which is hosting the G7 summit this week, long ago outgrew its placid Victorian villa and sprouted a parade of ugly beachside villas that rent for many thousands a week and are regarded, in Cornwall, as a bad joke. It exists for people from beyond, who travel with their own fantasies, which rarely involve Cornish reality.

If you are cynical, or truthful, you would call Cornwall a business, not a place; house prices rose 48% in St Mawes in the last 12 months. You buy a house, rent it out (but not to locals, that is unprofitable), and either enjoy the income or sell it on. This is normal.

Cornwall may be a land of myths – the Merry Maidens at Boleigh, Merlin’s cave at Tintagel, the giant’s heart on the mountain at Marazion — but they are now increasingly — and depressingly — financial. The duchy is squeezed as full of myths as people; spiritually it is beginning to resemble a cruise ship. There was Daphne Du Maurier and Manderley; Winston Graham and Nampara; now Boris Johnson and the G7 at the Carbis Bay Hotel.

Cornwall is interesting for itself and as a paradigm, squeezed into a granite finger on the edge. It’s an old story: rich and poor competing for the same space, which is why I think Cornwall, looking for anything that looked like autonomy, voted for Brexit. The G7, at least partially, is the unwanted consolation prize. But it is also here, and not in Manchester, because of security — and views.

There is only one road in to Carbis Bay and on it I find a sign, which I suspect will shortly be removed: “St Ives Foodbank Welcomes You (Food Poverty has Quadrupled Even in This Area)”.

Why the poverty? The two traditional industries – fishing and mining – have declined or disappeared: the only miner left at Geevor is a tour guide now, sitting in a mine shaft with a lamp telling tales to children. Few things have risen to replace them; there is no motorway in Cornwall, and the only airport, Newquay, is barely a hub. Tourism brings in 12% of GDP (though it is spun as higher) and at great cost. Living costs are high, but wages are low; work is often seasonal, zero hours and without benefits. If the average Cornish salary is less than the national average, housing costs are explosive. The average house now costs eight times the average salary: and prices are still rising.

It is normal to be evicted for the summer: people camp in fields or, if lucky, squat in campervans. One third of children under five live in insecure and privately rented accommodation, which is some of the worst maintained in Britain. A scandalous 36% of the children in St Ives, long considered a happy tale about the benevolence of tourism, live in poverty. That isn’t on the postcards.

St Ives, this week, is full: tourists are contemplating a shop window displaying a £275 teapot with driftwood handle. These shops are not for locals; they cannot afford to shop here, even if they wanted to. St Ives is not a wasteland, like Carbis Bay, but the narrative is similar: this is the phenomenon of a town existing for those who do not live here. Like Mousehole, the fishing village to the south-west cursed by its beauty, its heart has been removed, as if for punishment. The old cottages by the sea are rentals or second homes now; they have stupid names and stupid nautical décor — it really is cultural appropriation — and, sometimes QR codes by the gates: present your iPhone to book.

Cornish people rarely live here; they are up the hill on the Penbeagle Estate, a pale and uniform collection of houses, from which they contemplate their own town from a distance. In summer they don’t come to the harbour – they feel there is no place for them – though they did in the wild days of the first lockdown, when pandemic acted as time travel, and returned St Ives to its natives. It took a catastrophe, an interruption to the natural order, to do it.

I drive up to Penbeagle. The G7 summit, they tell me, is not the problem, even if helicopters whirred the night before, frightening the pregnant horses; even if the spin that the summit is “Carbon Neutral” is obviously nonsense, one of Boris Johnson’s smaller lies. It is, superficially at least, an inconvenience; something to mock. The main road from the A30 will be closed for the summit and traffic will flow along the old coach road from Penzance, past a field rented to security and decorated, says a Penbeagle resident, “like the world’s worst music festival”.

Gulls are attacking police drones, news of which is greeted with laughter; the Carbis Bay Hotel has destroyed a portion of self-seeded woodland to build meeting rooms for the summit, despite planning permission being denied for the same site in 2018, and yet still preeningly calls itself an “Eco hotel”. Here, they call the destruction of the woodland “the legacy of the G7”. It’s not a joke.

But it does expose something, which is more than an inconvenience: it is closer to insolence. Cornwall is used to not being seen; rather, people impose their own fantasies on it.  (That comes with beauty, in landscape and in people.) The arrival of the “global elite”, who can travel, though most of us cannot, has closed off footpaths, taken hotel rooms from vulnerable homeless people – one woman with mental health issues was left by the road with her belongings in a bag – and shut St Ives School for three days. The settled trend of displacing locals for visitors accelerated under pandemic and here, in security fencing, is the final evidence: Cornwall is two duchies now, and the G7 is happening in one of them. We can see them: they cannot see us. It’s the Cornish condition, amplified.

I drive to the Carbis Bay Hotel. It’s a long, meandering road, filled with policemen and hotel employees gesturing at you to turn around, and go elsewhere. I feel a burst of pity for the blameless Tregenna Castle Hotel, which will also host the G7. Its pretty signage – “A warm welcome to all visitors” – is now a lie for, like Gandalf’s Balrog, we shall not pass. The view of St Ives and the wooded cove is perfect – few parts of Cornwall are wooded, which is why the loss of woodland to opportunistic development is so upsetting – but the beauty is only where the buildings are not.

I drive to Treneere, an estate in Penzance: this, like Penbeagle, is the hidden, and more truthful, Cornwall. It is called one of the most deprived areas in Britain, a description locals hate, because it is a label segueing into a concealment. Call somewhere deprived and you can forget about it. My friend in Treneere tells me the housing shortage is so acute adult children are living in parents’ garden sheds.  People are inhabiting cottages with water running down the walls; or they are evicted so the home can be an Airbnb.

The only work, she says, is in care and hospitality, though I did see an advert for dismantling the G7 offering £10 an hour. (A wag said he would do it for nothing. I wonder if anyone will be cynical enough to exploit this.) On housing, she says, “I don’t know where to start.” On food banks: “They are normalised”. On employment: “It is never their first choice of job.” What frightens her most – in an area with a Conservative MP and county council – is a growing passivity: “this is our lot. There is a downtroddenness, an acceptance that we have less, and will manage better. It just feels oppressive”. She finds the rush to environmentalism “heartening”, but I wonder if this yet more evidence of Cornwall obsessing on landscape, having given up on people; on itself. Is it easier to save a tree than save a person? Today the Government announced £65 million for the local area, a gift for the G7. It won’t go far in Treneere.

She is not a melodramatic woman; she is doughty, practical. But still she says: “We might as go back to days of the poorhouse. It feels like that. There is opportunity for entrepreneurship. But what about…” – and her words seem to lengthen – “…lovely, ordinary people?” They have been obscured, I think, by lovely, extraordinary landscape, and the desire of others to possess it.

That is the battleground the G7 magnifies, with its fencing and security cordon. This battleground was there before the summit, and will endure beyond it: for space, and who has access to it. It’s no coincidence that the most famous novel about Cornwall – Rebecca – was really about a house.