The railway and Cornish identity

Last week I summarised an article which called for the Church of England to take account of regional identities and specifically the Cornish identity. This week I review another article which takes as its subject the Cornish identity. This one assesses the ways in which the railway has contributed to that identity. (For a more detailed review see here.)

Richard Harris’s review of the significance of the railway for the Cornish identity is a more nuanced account than last week’s piece. Furthermore, it adds a much deeper understanding of the conflicting meanings the railway has had for people. He suggests the railway has contributed to Cornish identity in three main ways.

The railway network in Cornwall

First is its familiar role in appealing to a middle-class tourist gaze through the railway companies’ advertising posters and guide-books. These combined romantic associations with Celtic myths and holiday promises and have helped to construct Cornwall for outsiders as a remote place, but one that was accessible in its remoteness. This discourse has now become the dominant one, sometimes adopted by insiders as well as outsiders.

‘recreating the golden age of luxury’

But the railway did not only bring visitors to a remote place; it also took people away from Cornwall. More visible from the inside, the railway served as a means of escape from an under-performing economy, one which, once its mineral reserves had been expropriated, was in chronic crisis for over a century. The railway then became a conduit for emigration as well as a metaphor for remoteness.

Finally, the railway has a special place in the cultural mosaic of Cornishness. The significance of Brunel’s bridge as a boundary, the feelings triggered by crossing that boundary, leaving or returning to the homeland, the associations provoked by the familiar railway journey up-country all became an essential part of the Cornish experience. These less tangible meanings the railway sparks are a key part of the Cornish identity but are perhaps only fully comprehended by those who have grown up in Cornwall.

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