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The prostitution of Cornwall The G7's location is a business, not a home

Carbis Bay is an empty fantasy for visitors. Cameron Smith/Getty

Carbis Bay is an empty fantasy for visitors. Cameron Smith/Getty


June 9, 2021   6 mins

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 ÂŁ275 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 dĂ©cor — 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.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Nick Wright
Nick Wright
3 years ago

“The average house now costs eight times the average salary”… lucky people. In London, the ratio was 12.52 in 2020 and has likely grown over the past year. Coincidentally, it’s full of non-locals who are buying homes thinking it’s an attractive place to live. It’s the sort of thing that drives people from places like London to places like Cornwall… as the author herself well knows, having done it herself.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Nick Wright

The sad bit is that the skills gap between the locals and most “incomers”means that the die is cast for their generation.
Hopefully the incomers children won’t have to move

Nick Wright
Nick Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Agreed, although could again apply in both cases. After all, there are people who will move to a new area and look to assimilate and contribute to the local community and economy, much as there are tourists who treat the environment with respect. Unfortunately, there are plenty who don’t.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

The thing is, I was born and grew up in St John’s Wood, and I can’t afford to live there either. A family house of say 3 bedrooms starts at one and a half million quid. Why is Cornwall a special case?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Fair question – I don’t think it is a special case.
Maybe one difference in London – compared to any more remote area – would be that there are more nearby “upcoming” areas you can move to, and still find work.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Alison Wren
Alison Wren
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Because there’s plenty of reasonably well paid jobs in London. Other than public sector there are very very few in Cornwall. I know, am half Cornish and lived there for some years, had to move back to a city.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

So you move. I had to do the same.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago

We visited St. Ives & Cornwall about 5 years ago from the USA. It was so beautiful, yes and even ‘quaint’; lovely scenery, great seafood, & interesting history. That said, when we read the G7 was to be held there, our only thought was, “whoever thought of that very bad idea?”. Given the roads and small lanes and the security requirements of a summit, it seems absolutely lunatic. Moreover, just as the country is coming out of the pandemic and folks want to get out and about for the summer, their movements are now going to be restricted while the G7 Circus proceeds. Just nuts.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
3 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

I rather think the roads are the point – if there’s only one way into & out of a place it makes it very easy to defend.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Yes. I live ten miles from St Ives; and as soon as I heard of the G7 being at Carbis Bay, I too thought of that as a probably reason for the choice.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 years ago

I thought you just bought a place there and moved down from London . Could it be you’re the non-outsider outsider by virtue of your spiffing brilliance and gold -plated social conscience ?
What’s your gaff like ? Any chance of renting it for a week.Or does selling your fellow -feeling for the downtrodden locals provide enough funds?

Last edited 3 years ago by Alan Osband
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Not clever to attack the author, rather than address the content.
The points made are tragically entirely accurate.
I was brought up in one of the South West’s costal gems that is rapidly becoming a rich persons AirBnB theme park – that opens for 7 months a year, and leaves the few remaining locals in a dead town for the remainder.
Moving to these places to live and work is fine, converting them from communities into part-time theme parks is not.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

So the author isn’t part of the problem provided she (a) lives there all the year round and (b) doesn’t rent her place to ‘wealthy’ tourists .
Ok fine

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Yes – that’s basically how I see it

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

It seems quite reasonable to me to challenge the writer for complaining about a problem she has personally made worse. A motorist who complains about the traffic jams caused by other people’s cars would get pretty short shrift; why is this different?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I have assumed that she is complaining in sympathy with the existing residents, rather than on the basis of personal inconvenience.
Maybe I got that wrong ?

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I read it that she’s complaining about the economic effects on the locals of other incomers, while being one herself. I don’t get the sense that the writer is personally “inhabiting cottages with water running down the walls”.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Also her assumption that the poor in Cornwall are all ancient Cornish sounds highly unlikely .

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Exactly , it’s a special instance of the upper middle class metropolitan journalist (in this case fled to oh so lovely once but no longer primitive Cornwall) attacking the bourgeoisie , for wrecking her simple pleasures and/or oppressing the poor.

She seems to think she’s special because she takes notice of the ‘underclass’

Last edited 3 years ago by Alan Osband
Rachael Gaunt
Rachael Gaunt
3 years ago

What makes Cornwall so special asks one commentator?

it’s not just high house prices and low paid jobs. It’s that there are so few homes available for rent at affordable rates and most jobs are seasonal zero hours £8.91 per hour jobs.

Secure tenure homes – We need to find new ways of creating homes where working age families can live without the stress of endlessly increasing rents and fickle landlords hoping to cash in on the ‘staycation’ market.

Year round jobs – We need to grow and attract enterprise that welcomes the energy and passion of our young people here in Cornwall.

Balance with nature – We need to cherish our natural landscapes and stop pouring concrete into every wafer thin gap. We need to repair the arrogant damage caused by the ‘golden glow’ of people wanting to commercialise every corner of our coastline.

I’m lucky, I live in Carbis Bay, I live the dream. I have a good income and a home. I have rooms that are dry and warm. My kids don’t live in fuel and food poverty. I am the exception not the rule.

The writer paints a melancholic truth but she doesn’t mention the fact that community, care and hope also live here in St Ives and Carbis Bay. So that is also what makes Cornwall ‘so special’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Rachael Gaunt
Martin Adams
Martin Adams
3 years ago
Reply to  Rachael Gaunt

Thank you. All true! I live just ten miles away, in Camborne; and the same things are true there also.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago

Depressing read. I guess Cornwall’s paradoxes of beauty and poverty are hardly news, but worth repeating.
What surprises me is the choice of location. OK, it’s at the far end of England’s most remote county. But as the author mentions, has plenty of people living close by. Not only is the summit inconveniencing them, but it would appear to be a security risk. Wasn’t the last G7 summit held on an island in Co Fermanagh?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Wow, there are people who wear private dentists?

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
3 years ago

Profoundly depressing.

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3 years ago

And who ‘s collecting the overcharged fees from Airbnb rentals?