X Close

The battle for Cornwall’s cowboy town Britain's forgotten peninsula is running out of hope

Cornish fishermen have been feeding the hungry. (Credit: Hugh Hastings/Getty)

Cornish fishermen have been feeding the hungry. (Credit: Hugh Hastings/Getty)


June 20, 2024   7 mins

The first question at the St Ives constituency hustings is about mobile post office provision in Godolphin Cross. I knew it would be. We sit in a Methodist church in Helston, under a sign: Be Not Dismayed for I am Thy God. There is Derek Thomas, the Tory MP since 2015 (majority 4,280), who has the guileless likability of a children’s TV presenter. There is Andrew George, the former MP and Lib Dem, who will probably win this time. He tends to preen and is the subject of a small personality cult: a woman in Newlyn keeps a Lib Dem poster in her front window all year, and the orange is faded to white. There is a Green who looks phlegmatic, a frightened Ukip candidate, who shudders when the microphone is passed to him, and says nothing, and two independents, one of whom looks like a wizard. Labour didn’t show up: the tiny CLP is focusing its efforts on Camborne and Redruth, where they might win, and this adds to the sense that the drama in this general election is happening elsewhere.

The mobile post office, then: everyone agrees that it is terrible that provision is down to one day a week in Godolphin Cross. I have lived in west Cornwall for seven years and I know the question doesn’t speak to the smallness of Cornish pride — Phoenicians came here for tin when London was mud — but, I think, the smallness of Cornish hope. West Cornwall is beautiful, isolated, and poor. It is a sump for competing fantasies, because beauty in landscape does that. It is a peninsula that feels like an island, its churches feel like pagan shrines. The local gentry are influential, the working classes are conservative — the castle from House of the Dragon looms over Mount’s Bay, after all — and, due to the Isles of Scilly, this constituency often declares last, which speaks to a spiritual, as well as logistical, truth. Because we are always late with the count. It is sunny half the year, and rainy half the year, like a clock.

The hustings drag on: one man has a long question about septic tanks, and a sheaf of notes, should he forget what he is so angry about. Everyone is polite, because west Cornwall is a village. If Andrew George allowed his daughter to live in a taxpayer funded flat when he was last in parliament, the Tory does not say so, though everyone knows it. If Partygate was a disaster, the Lib Dem does not say so, though everyone knows it. When I meet John Harris, the man who looks like a wizard — he is from the Common People Party, and he wants a universal basic income and underground cities, with a rewilded world above — he praises the mainstream candidates. He says Cornwall is time travel and this is, essentially, happening in 1974 — hence the courtesy — in a constituency with its back to the sea. “There’s nothing else beyond it,” he says. “You go back into prehistory as far as you like.”

The real issues — poverty, housing and low pay — are barely discussed today. We don’t hear, for instance, that emergency accommodation might be a caravan with mould slaked walls; that the inhabitant might be hospitalised for a lung complaint, and the landlord might say it is the occupier’s fault for not cleaning enough. We don’t hear that people compete to rent property by telling the landlord they are the deserving poor, or that women with a few hours of cleaning during school hours wait in the rain for a bus that never comes. Not in winter, anyway: the summer tourist buses always run.

“The real issues — poverty, housing and low pay — are barely discussed today.”

The Lib Dem campaign has the most energy, but it is muted, because this is west Cornwall. There is none of the orange mania you find in Tory to Lib Dem swing seats further east. Still, there are vast orange signs on verges, and the candidate appears on bridges with small gaggles of supporters and poses for photographs on Newlyn beach. He is too well-known to be exciting, and people remember that his daughter stayed in his flat. Fishermen particularly mention it, but fishermen are Tories, now segueing to Reform.

The Tory campaign launch is at a hotel near Prussia Cove. Two supercars are parked outside: they look odd here, a cry for help. The Tories are ageing and dressed as farmers on Sundays, though there are two young men. They eat pasties, and grumble about central government, which is common: many Cornish people behave as if taxes go to Westminster in error. They are not sullen, but disappointed. Sunak came here two weeks ago, bought a bacon sandwich by the station, met railway workers, and headed east.

“This week’s been very difficult,” says the Party chair.  “One couple said to me, ‘my husband’s father was at D-Day, he was on the beaches, and he’s voted Tory all his life. He could never vote Tory again after what happened’. Nearly everyone I spoke to [agreed].” “At this point it seems like Rishi has given up,” says one of the young Tories. Another says: “It’s just so unfair. We had an 80-seat majority, and we pissed it away sucking up to old people and drinking like students. Pure self-indulgence. We could have built a million houses. Harold Macmillan did.” A woman tells me: “In spite of their appalling record of inaction I am still voting Conservative because they are the only party who have stood up for the reality of biological sex. Very feebly.” The next person says: “I’m voting for Derek because he’s a hard-working chap. I’m not a great fan of Rishi. I think he’s behaved appallingly quite honestly.” How so? “I think he stabbed Boris in the back.” I ask a final man: why are you voting Conservative? “Because I always vote Conservative,” he replies, surprised that I asked. “I wouldn’t vote anything else.”

Bill Johnson, a fisherman of the inshore fleet in Mousehole tells me that 75% of local fishermen voted for Brexit “on the promises that things would get better. None of them think things have got better. They have got a whole lot worse.” The six-mile limit hasn’t materialised yet, and over-regulation and bureaucracy is rife: they make elderly fishermen use Apps at sea, which baffles them. I saw one fisherman on the quay in Newlyn last autumn, paperwork falling from his pockets. He looked dismayed.  “Fishermen,” Johnson says, “have been pawns of political expediency.” He remembers the day the Brexit Flotilla called at Mousehole: he stood on the quay. But fisherman, he judges, will not go Labour (“they are city Socialists”) here. The unions never had a foothold. For him, the Liberal Democrats, “are like an echo in an empty room”. He is voting Tory still — he feels a personal loyalty to Thomas — but others are tempted by Reform, who “are uttering the right sort of words on immigration”.

We walk around Mousehole, and he points which houses are lived in full time: it’s quicker that way. The centre of the town is a miniaturised St Ives: 87% holiday lets and second homes now. Turn-out on Election Day will be low. Denied access to housing, young people live with their parents, or in sheds, or move out of county, hoping to return with London money. Tourism work is seasonal and low-paid. Six fishing boats sail out of Mousehole: in twenty years Johnson thinks there will be none. Even so, it’s so busy in summer that the bus cannot get through: once, in an appalling metaphor, I saw an Ocado lorry parked in the bus stop, as if it was the bus. Today there is a replica of a tenth-century ship on the beach. It smells of pitch. It came from Brittany, sailed into Mousehole, and is stranded on the beach until the tide is high enough to carry it away. Its sailors — medieval reenactors — sell common rustic goods at vast prices on the sand, and this meets the current Mousehole aesthetic: an awful pastiche.

Lynne Dyer has been feeding local people from the kitchen below her Growing Links office since 2014. The men in the tents on the prom, and in the woods by the Coombe River, and by the boating pond, come here each night for supper, or they walk from Mousehole, and their tents on the cliff. Dressed for mountaineering in a town, the most painful to see are the youthful, with their insistent courtesy. She feeds people who live in temporary accommodation — cheap hotels or those repulsive, mouldy caravans — where they aren’t allowed to cook, and families and the low-paid.

The system isn’t broken, Dyer tells me. It’s worse than that. Rather: “It does not exist. This is like a fucking cowboy town. From mental health to rough sleeping and the housing problem and energy crisis. No money, no food, changes to Universal Credit. Oh my God, I could go on forever.”

“We were feeding over a thousand people who couldn’t afford to eat through the pandemic every week,” she says: fishermen were selling mackerel from boxes outside their doors. “Families who were starving; doctors who are referring people to us who’ve got malnutrition; mums who are feeding their children are not feeding themselves. I’ve never ever seen Mr Thomas ever. Andrew George was a volunteer for five years.”

This morning, she says, she drove back from Wales. “And I saw lots of flowers on the prom and then I’ve come into work and there’s flowers outside and I just thought, ‘fuck, who’s died?’” She starts to cry. “It’s a young man who killed himself outside The Lugger. He was constantly homeless and in addiction.”

“That’s what the Tories have done,” she says. “They killed that young man by taking away family services, by taking away social services. Everything preventative has been stripped from us. It’s young people’s lives who fall through the cracks. And they grow up and they anesthetise themselves with drugs and alcohol and,” — her voice flattens — “everyone hates them. That’s what the Tories have done. I hold them responsible for every young person who’s overdosed or killed themselves during this reign of terror on people.” She cannot wait for them to go. She counts the days. She thinks “Starmer might be a good Socialist. I want him to win. I will be voting Liberal Democrat for one less Tory seat: for Labour to get in.”

I walk to the boy’s memorial on the sea front: the wall across the road from The Lugger is decked with flowers and balloons. They fight the wind. It’s low tide on one of those June days when the water sparkles with the promise of a child’s eternal summer. When the tide is this low, you can see the petrified trees of the once great forest of Mount’s Bay. Again, and as ever, one Cornwall conceals another.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

TanyaGold1

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

42 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Tanya Gold writes such beautiful, lyrical prose. It’s well suited to such a melancholy piece.
I’ve never been to Cornwall but I recognize it. I grew up in a similar region that was dying forty years ago and is still dying today, always managing one more breath. Sadly, the answer is probably to leave.

Kat L
Kat L
29 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Perhaps Farage will generate some enthusiasm? I don’t understand the mindset of giving up and running away will not help. Youth is supposed to be bright and energetic and bursting with fight and ideas.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 month ago

As another outsider writing about Cornwall the author needs to recognise herself as part of the problem. It is like an anthropologist writing about some distant tribe which happens to be voting in the UK general election. Give room for local people to write about their own experiences rather than a one-line sentence. It is nicely written but the feeling I get is that this is of a piece with mainstream newspaper journalism rather than something Unherd could/should be doing. She talks of Sunak’s visit as a fly-by and should take a look in the mirror.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

This is a pretty daft objection, denying the possibility of anything called “journalism”! Of course you could have good or bad journalism – I would have thought this was pretty good.

It seems slightly unlikely them local people with the own lives to lead families to feed etc, are going to be bothered to take time to pen articles of their own, especially for a small outlet like UnHerd! And if you DID get local voices, these would probably be the loudest, most vociferous and most extreme, rather than the most representative.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Journalism used to be local, it should be smaller outlets like Unherd that promote that sort of stuff rather than this which you could read in the Guardian (for free) or the Telegraph. I don’t get the same sort of condescension from someone like Aris Roussinos even though I disagree with most of his stuff. You might have a different opinion – doesn’t make mine daft. I would expect an Oxbridge-educated journalist to be “good”, is it so wrong to expect better from this site?

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I didn’t find her tone at all condescending.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

The problem is that journalists have made journalism a dirty word.

Julian Garner
Julian Garner
29 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

I don’t think that accusation can be levelled at this particular journalist, to be fair.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 month ago

Nothing said here that hasn’t been said a million times.

Phil Richardson
Phil Richardson
1 month ago

Nicely written and true. I grew up in Cornwall and left 40 years ago. Why? Because life was elsewhere.

Kat L
Kat L
29 days ago

Why not go back and contribute?

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
1 month ago

I just don’t understand the spite behind the decisions to sell places like Cornwall down the river. Even to the soulless accountant, the situation they’ve created comes with huge costs. The logic is completely invisible to me.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Buck Rodgers

The costs are paid by people that aren’t making the decisions / profit.

It’s not dissimilar to debates about the economic benefits of migration. Those in favour of high levels of economic migration have no concern for those that lose out.

In Cornwalls case it’s more to do with wealth from London etc driving up property prices, and the people buying the property have no concern for the locals.

Most of the time they won’t even make the connection or will deny it. Think of how often strongly pro-migration commentators have demonised the people losing out, or their spokespeople, when actually they are the ones being nasty.

IATDE
IATDE
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Why couldn’t they raise local property taxes on housing occupied less than half the time to get the wealthy holiday crowd to contribute to the local economy?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  IATDE

Good question. It could be done, and would help, but a lot of people consider such things unfair.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
29 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Tbey buy the property ftom the locals. Still, sn excellent idea to make the property of locals inalienable..That should prevent addicts becoming homeless.

Julian Garner
Julian Garner
29 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Or the homeless becoming addicts?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

Fine article. Unfortunately I’m quite sure that Tanya Gold’s solution to the problems caused by the progressive centralisation of all political power in London over the past fifty years would be more centralisation of all political power in London.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

My prejudices mean I tend to hold the same people to blame but I don’t really convince myself.
Like you, my birth place has fallen from reasonable prosperity to shabbiness. There, they blame Thatcher but, come on, her reign was long ago. I’d like to say, folks, pull yourselves together show some enterprise but it bet it’s not so easy.

Tanya wrote a fine article, she didn’t pretend to offer solutions but she gave a little voice to those who are mostly ignored.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

I don’t think the people of Cornwall can be blamed for the fact that their quite sizeable county has only one not very adequate general hospital.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
29 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I bet it had more before the NHS.

John Weaver
John Weaver
1 month ago

‘Peninsular’ is an adjective. In the sub-headline you mean ‘Peninsula’

Robert Lloyd
Robert Lloyd
1 month ago

Tanya Gold is indeed one of the best writers, journalist or not, in the country. Her restaurant reviews in the Spectator, which are seldom about food, are one of my little joys. That said, she writes with a grey, muted, even despairing, voice. To paraphrase and reverse the lyrics of a popular song, her motto might be “along with the rain there’s gotta be a little sunshine sometime”.

Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
1 month ago

 “75% of local fishermen voted for Brexit “on the promises that things would get better. None of them think things have got better. They have got a whole lot worse.” The promises to replace substantial EU funding in Cornwall with “levelling up funds” has also not happened (surprise, surprise).
This is the outcome of a politics which has become downstream of culture. Politics used to be downstream of economics but politicians have realised that they can redirect economic discontent way from the underlying structural failings into emotional / cultural motifs such as Brexit / gender spats while keeping the neoliberal foundations intact.
Eventually things will get so bad that they will run out of cultural scapegoats and economics will necessarily relocate itself upstream. People will realise that man cannot live by slogans alone.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

Handouts aren’t the answer. Productive industry is the answer.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Well, partly, but the best solution would be for taxes to be collected and spent locally.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
1 month ago

It’s not exceptional to keep a fading Lib Dem poster in one’s window forever. A close relative of mine does. It may be more to do with laissez-faire housekeeping than religious devotion, though.
Speaking of which, what do you mean by saying ‘the churches feel like pagan shrines’? What a cliche. I’ve worshipped in and visited a number of west Cornish churches and I couldn’t see anything pagan about them.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
28 days ago

Im sorry my reply mentioning Methodist churches was deleted.

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
1 month ago

I wanted to hear more about the wizard on the Lizard.

Tim Drewitt
Tim Drewitt
1 month ago

I grew up in Penzance in the 50s – once a thriving town. Used to have those old fashioned tourists for holidays in what were then called B&Bs in locals’ homes that were lived in all year round. Not like the 87% of house that are empty 6 or 7 months a year. St Ives is even worse.
Every time I go back it looks more and more poor – the faces are despondent and down-beaten. Yes, I recognise the fate of the young man who killed himself. I have two nephews still living there – both are professionals, a Head of School and a Quantity Surveyor – ask them about being able to afford a home and they will give you a despairing look.
The Tories (and Labour under Blair) have allowed immigration – of money – into the UK. It’s not people that’s the problem, it’s that “inward investment cash” that allows you to sell a grotty Victorian flat in North London for £ 1 million and then go and outbid any local buyers in areas like Cornwall.
It is time to put Neo-liberalism in the bin.

Tim Drewitt

Kat L
Kat L
29 days ago
Reply to  Tim Drewitt

If you listen to Liz Truss it seems that Blair did a lot more systemic damage that makes it very difficult to change things…but change must be achieved.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
28 days ago
Reply to  Kat L

Amongst the debris, there’s a lot of fertile information from the Truss premiership that needs to be addressed, a little more leisurely than Truss was allowed. Much of it she discussed on Triggernometry. And there is also her book. It looks like the most important conclusion is to be prepared to fight those that you thought were paid to help you, and dismantle everything from the Blair years, up to and including June 2024, but not necessarily in that order.

Until we have the Crown in Parliament, nothing will run smoothly at all.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 month ago

Meanwhile I am wondering how adding an immigrant population the size of Newcastle ( or seventy times that of St Ives) is doing anything for the people living in Cornwall or any other of the less affluent parts of this country. Why are all the main parties avoiding the issue of unprecedented levels of mass immigration to the U.K ? The illegals coming across the Channel are only a small part of the whole.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 month ago

There is an assumption baked in to her writing that social problems like housing are government, rather than community and individual, problems. Given that the government has been “fixing” these problems for the last 150 years should give someone a strong sense that we are barking up the wrong tree.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago

Tanya writes powerfully and emotionally, and is nearly always a joy to read.

But; there has to be a but regarding articles such as these, but the solution is not more and more of the same interventionist. The answer lies in a pride of localism, and giving people the weapons to make their own lives better. Education as to how to work, create, self improve. Stop criticising and accentuate the positive. Harvest from the vacationers. Build your own homes – remember when that was what building societies were formed for.

Self help solves so much of these difficulties, direction from above, never.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I think youvhave something. It’s not about the state spreading money around, it’s about taking barriers away.

We’ve had decades of educated experts imposing solutions on everyone; it’s time we tries something else.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

All there is is self help. Being dependent on greater society is the last thing they need.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
29 days ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

In the States we had Savings and Loans instead of Building Societies. ‘Til the government got involved and started modifying the basic deal, which (surprise!) made them quite profitable. That made them attractive to the capital-holding classes (who are such good friends to the politicians). They started buying them up, jacking up the price along the way. Then it all blew up in everyone’s faces. Then (surprise, surprise!)the taxpayers were forced to bail out the rich guys. So (except for the taxpayers, the depositors and the mortgage payers) it all worked out great in the end!!

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

I didn’t know there were any “ordinary” ” poor” people left in Cornwall. I thought it was full of artists or writers writing books about how in tune with nature they feel when they walk through their fields to the barrow on their land.
Locals don’t write books like that.
Actually I know there is a lot of poverty,hopelessness and despair in places like Camborne,Redruth,St Austell etc. I dont know what the answer is.

William Edward Henry Appleby
William Edward Henry Appleby
1 month ago

How is voting Reform UK, because of the immigration, going to solve the problems of lack of affordable housing, poverty and low wages? I thought that the only outsiders getting housing in Cornwall were wealthy Londoners buying holiday homes. Perhaps the locals could take back the land stolen from them by the Duchy of Cornwall, used to grow his expensive, organic produce, for sale back in, err…… wealthy London.

Kat L
Kat L
29 days ago

Perhaps the people selling might do something different. The town needs to pull together and come up with dissident solutions.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

Cornwall, fighting the long defeat since the 5th century.