A year of Cornish studies resources

Time trundles remorselessly onwards. I was shocked to realise it’s been over a year now since I began adding two or three blogs a week to this website. Maybe it’s because people had nothing better to do during the covid lockdown but the number of visitors in 2020 is already almost double that of 2019, which was itself double that of 2018.

Readers may be interested to know that what the most popular pages and posts have been …

The page on ‘18th century surnames by parish’ continues to be by far the most frequent consulted, with more than twice as many hits as the next most popular pages, most of which concern surnames and their history. I will add a similar page for the seventeenth century at some point, based on the 1641/42 Protestation Returns.

Generally, information on surnames in Cornwall remains the most popular content, although the page on ‘Cornish mining: a short history’ gets a lot of views, as does an old review of the first TV series of ‘The Last Kingdom’. This appears regularly in the top ten pages, which shows the importance of having a vague title.

Meanwhile, the most visited blog posts in the past year have been

  1. Challenging negative stereotypes of Cornwall and its people’, a short summary of an academic article.
  2. Cholera in Cornwall – the Victorians’ coronavirus
  3. The Black Death in Cornwall
  4. The myth of Dumnonia’, based on the argument in my book Cornwall’s First Golden Age
  5. From rarer Cornish surnames to surnames on demand

Those were the days! But less of this cloying nostalgia. Thank you for reading these blogs and others, adding your comments and helping to make the website the most reliable, informative and entertaining source of information on Cornwall and Cornish studies available online. Do get in touch if you have any suggestions, although I can’t guarantee a quick reply.

Onwards! Ever onwards!

Cornish beaches the most littered in the UK

A recent academic article has discovered that beaches in Cornwall are among the most litter-strewn in the UK. Using beach clean data going back 25 years, they found those beaches bordering Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at the Land’s End, Mount’s Bay, Padstow Bay and Newquay & the Gannel were among the ten most polluted in the UK, with levels of litter second only to the Thames estuary.

Almost 70 per cent of the litter picked up was plastic, while, of the litter that could be sourced, over half came from the public discarding items, a fifth was from fishing activity and the rest from sewage and shipping. Meanwhile, eight of the ten MPAs with the highest levels of plastic litter were found in Cornwall. In addition to those mentioned above, this included Hartland Point to Tintagel and Lizard Point.

Crantock beach in July this year

These findings, coming as they do after other similar research, should start ringing alarm bells about the capacity of the Cornish environment to cope with an ever-growing residential population in addition to the millions of tourists who descend on our beaches every year. Many – both locals and visitors – seem incapable of understanding what ‘take your rubbish home’ means.

For more on this article see here.

Bridging the Tamar

At the very margins of Cornwall, the River Tamar is nonetheless central to Cornish identity. Countless books refer to the river ‘almost’ extending far enough to make Cornwall an island. When Brunel’s railway bridge spanned the estuary at Saltash in 1859 it was widely viewed as ending Cornwall’s remoteness. Even sober industrial archaeologists have written that ‘thereafter [Cornwall] lost its isolation and became wide open to English influence’.

But wasn’t it before? An exasperated former Prime Minister memorably annoyed a lot of people by blurting out ‘it’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake’. But it is a fact that several bridges cross the Tamar. Indeed, it might come as a surprise to find that there are 22 or 23 (estimates vary) road crossings of the Tamar, most of these dating back centuries. The truth is that the Tamar was never a very effective barrier.

The bridges in the middle reaches of the river are the best examples of late medieval constructions. In those days the Church encouraged bridge building by giving indulgences to folk prepared to pay for bridges. In this way Horsebridge, Greystone Bridge and New Bridge at Gunnislake were built in 1437, 1439 and 1520 respectively.

Horsebridge: the oldest surviving bridge across the river?

Higher up the river at Launceston is probably the oldest crossing at Polson Bridge, first built maybe in the 1100s. What we see there now is not the original. It was rebuilt in 1835 and then again later by the Victorians, who stuck a rather ugly iron span incongruously between two stone piers. In 1934 this was replaced by a more aesthetically pleasing concrete arch faced with masonry. In 1976 the pressure of the growing traffic over Polson Bridge was eased by the Launceston bypass. Hardly anyone would now notice the bridge the road sweeps across if it weren’t for the sign welcoming people to Cornwall.

Demonstration for Cornish rights at Polson Bridge

Above Polson Bridge in the higher reaches of the Tamar we find the majority – 16 or 17 – of the bridges. Some are medieval. Druxton Bridge is claimed to date from 1370. Alfardisworthy New Bridge looks medieval and it must have replaced an earlier ‘old’ bridge. Others have been rebuilt, for example the bridge at Bridgerule in 1923. Higher New Bridge at Netherton was supplemented by a stronger road bridge in 1985. Boyton Bridge was first built in 1614 as a timber structure, then replaced by a stone bridge, then in 1975 cast iron and finally in 2005 by a concrete span.

Bridges galore! And that’s not to mention the three dismantled late nineteenth century railway bridges across the Tamar or the fine railway viaduct at Calstock, built in the 1890s. So when someone next says the answer to all our ills is to blow up the Tamar road bridge at Saltash (built in 1961), remind them about the other 22.

Calstock viaduct

Bottom-up heritage projects?

Too often conservation projects are imposed from the top onto local communities with little genuine local involvement. A recent article compares an area of common land at St Breward on the edge of Bodmin Moor with a community in western Galicia. It calls for more understanding of local knowledge and traditional management practices when undertaking conservation projects.

Cornish hedge at St Breward

It states that despite ‘growing evidence of how indigenous peoples and local communities, through their knowledge and traditional management practices, play an active and effective role in ecosystem restoration, carbon sequestration and prevention of environmental degradation, such groups continue to be considered mostly as passive recipients of restoration work while their cultural practices remain ignored.’

It also expands the definition of cultural heritage to include the biological make-up of heritage sites, something that is termed ‘biological cultural heritage’. Given the amount of litter that we see casually discarded in heritage sites these days one could be a little cynical about the ability or willingness of local communities to respond to the call to preserve their biological heritage. Are too many of us now too alienated from our natural environment?

For a more detailed summary of the article see here and for the article itself here.

Challenging negative stereotypes of Cornwall and its people

Believe it or not, the Cornish can occasionally be the butt of stereotypes. We’re ‘slow’, ‘backward’ or ‘living in the past’. Sometimes we collude with these, for example through the use of dreckly, turning the stereotype back onto its users in an ironic and postmodernist way. This is good for a laugh but some of the stories told about Cornwall have a more seriously negative effect. They help lock us into a peripheral and marginal status in relation to a centre that‘s perceived as more ‘dynamic’ and ‘innovative’.

How can we best challenge such negative discourses? A recent academic article by Joanie Willett offers one possibility. She argues that if the general public were made more aware of how the Cornish economy was actually performing and the skills gaps that exist, they could generate a new more positive and exciting narrative that might challenge older, demeaning myths (and newer ones).

As it is, according to this article, we’re stuck in a time warp where fishing, farming and mining are the only things ‘Cornish boys [sic] can do’. Blissfully unaware of the Cornish digital technology firms, creative industries and niche food producers who are blazing a path to post-industrial and post-carbon fuelled prosperity, the Cornish public persists in comforting and nostalgic memories of days long past. This helps reproduce the delusion that the only activity in Cornwall is tourism. If only we were more aware of the skills gaps.

This argument is interesting but is it too cynical to wonder if reversing negative stereotypes of Cornwall and the Cornish demands a little more than an informed knowledge of the local economy? Moreover, digital technologies, Cornish Camembert and the like aside, to some the Cornish economy looks more like a Ponzi scheme, driven by speculative housebuilding aided and abetted by central and local government. Estate agents then flog the extra houses as holiday homes or entice a new population duped into thinking Cornwall is a ‘lifestyle’.

To increase knowledge of the Cornish economy we first have to come to some sort of consensus as to what that economy involves. Is it zero hours contracts, low pay and a growing precariat? Or is it the gleaming new sectors breathlessly flourished and drooled over in planning documents? And what about the major employment sectors, which are actually healthcare and education? Or it might just possibly be all of these.

For a more detailed summary of this article see here.

Legend, history and selfies at Tintagel

In its marketing strategy for Tintagel English Heritage decided to emphasise its legendary aspects and links to the Arthurian myth. The only problem with this was that there were actually no physical objects at the site on which they could anchor the legends. So they installed some in the shape of the statue of the anonymous knight and the carving of Merlin’s face.

Merlin returns

A recent academic article by Laura Hodson has evaluated what expectations people bring with them to Tintagel and how they react to the place in the light of those. It did this by subjecting to analysis just under 400 reviews on TripAdvisor in 2018. Of course, this might well tell us more about the kind of person who completes a TripAdvisor review rather than be representative of visitors to Tintagel.

Around a half of the reviews made no reference to legend or history. They either had no expectations at all or came for the scenery or for personal and family reasons. Reviews focused on the extortionate price charged by English Heritage for entry and the difficulty of climbing up the steps to castle and island. This has now been solved by English Heritage’s post-modern bridge. All we need now is a lift.

Reactions of those reviewers who made some reference to legendary or historical expectations was more polarised. Contrary to what might be expected however, it was some of the reviews with historical references where imaginations were sparked, not those attracted by legend. For the latter (around a fifth of the total) did not lose themselves in the swirling mists of legend as they stalked dreamily around the Island at Tintagel. Instead they were largely content to take a quick selfie next to the knight, usually assumed wrongly to be Arthur himself. The statue has apparently done nothing to change a shallow and superficial visitor experience.

Given this, maybe English Heritage should focus on the fascinating early history and archaeology of the site rather than play around with elusive legendary connections. Having failed to provide any perceived educational benefits its continued (mis-)management of this site must surely come into question. Perhaps the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the place, should now do the decent thing and transfer its management from English Heritage to a Cornish-run body aware of its proper significance.

An extended critical review of this article can be found here.

‘A hideous and wicked country’: travellers on Cornwall

We all know Cornwall is a picturesque place. In fact, although it is viewed as such now, it wasn’t always seen in that light. The countless images of Cornwall’s cliffs and coastline that are produced and circulated by visitors and locals alike these days would have come as a surprise to the travellers of the early 1800s. They saw its landscape as ‘dreary’ and ‘deformed’. It lacked the essential attributes of fashionable picturesqueness – trees and inland water in the right proportions.

Picturesque Cornwall

Much has been written over the past couple of decades about changing attitudes to Cornish landscapes and the rise of the notion of a picturesque Cornwall. A recent article by Tim Hannigan provides another contribution to this growing academic literature. He details the familiar story of the move towards constructing a ‘different’, non-metropolitan ‘other’, an exotic place of escape and mystery. This imagery, later avidly adopted and then reinforced by twentieth century tourist marketing, is described through the analysis of texts from 1809 to 1907.

Hannigan’s article also adds a more novel reflection on the response of a native writer to outsider travel writing. Instead of seeing native attitudes and travellers’ accounts as necessarily opposites, he suggests there may be a degree of enjoyment in reading accounts of oneself and one’s place as ‘exotic’ or ‘different’. Such ‘auto-exoticization’ implies a degree of collusion between outsiders’ accounts and the reactions to those accounts by insiders, a useful insight.

(For an extended critical review of this article see here.)

Has the Standard Written Form of Cornish failed?

For a lot of us the debate over the proper base for the revived Cornish language is about as relevant as medieval theologians arguing over the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin. Nonetheless, the Cornish language, revived or not, is of considerable symbolic importance for Cornwall and its identity  and therefore the nature of revived Cornish should also be of wider interest. From the 1980s to the 2000s the Cornish language revival was bedevilled by arguments over its most appropriate base. Should it be based on the Cornish of the dramas of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or the more vernacular but sketchier works from the late seventeenth century? The majority of learners and speakers preferred the former (or were blissfully unaware of the basis for the variety they were learning.) A minority opted for the latter, wishing to pick up the language from where it had left off.

In 2007 a deal was brokered that led to the Standard Written Form (SWF) of revived Cornish. The central element of this was the acceptance that ‘middle’ and ‘late’ versions of revived Cornish were of equal status. This was explicitly stated as ‘The SWF recognises Revived Middle Cornish (RMC), Revived Late Cornish (RLC), and Tudor Cornish as variants of equal standing’. (Tudor Cornish uses a combination of middle and late Cornish variants.) Effectively therefore, RMC and RLC were henceforth to be the two equal ‘main forms’ of the revived language, each with variant spellings for certain words.

The last example of written traditional Cornish

At the time, as one of those brokering this deal, I welcomed it as providing a workable compromise between different factions. I also believed that RLC, or as we preferred to call it, ‘Modern Cornish’, had at last attained equality with the middle version on which Morton Nance had reconstructed his Unified Cornish and Ken George his phonemic Cornish. Unfortunately, I was proved wrong.

Since that time Revived Late Cornish, despite being one of the two supposedly equal ‘main forms’ of the SWF, has been systematically marginalised. It now has little presence in teaching materials and even in signage, where Cornish based on the fifteenth century is bizarrely preferred even in parts of Cornwall where the language was still being spoken into the eighteenth century.

Sadly, the equality of the two main forms has been ignored in practice. The most blatant example of this appears in A Learners’ Cornish Dictionary in the Standard Written Form, published in 2018. The introduction to this completely fails to mention the fact of the two main forms. Instead, it claims that in the dictionary, ‘there are no spelling variants’ but then supplies only Revived Middle Cornish variants throughout!

The process whereby this occurred has now been comprehensively documented in an article published this year in Language Problems and Language Planning. This argues that what it calls pluricentricity in Cornwall has failed. The intended equality of the two variants has not worked out in practice. It enumerates the reasons.

  • Learners and users of Cornish fail to understand the function of the two variants.
  • Confusion about main forms and variants has been exacerbated by the presence of ‘main and ‘traditional’ graphs and the secondary status of the latter.
  • There has been no clear guidance from official sources such as the Cornish Language Office (CLO), or the Academy Kernewek (AK) and neither the CLO, Cornwall Council, AK nor Golden Tree (a community interest company producing teaching materials) show any commitment to equality in practice.
  • The fact that RMC users were in a majority in 2007 and RLC proponents were insufficiently involved once the SWF was initiated meant that Late forms became largely invisible, which then contributes to their continuing invisibility.

It also suggests some remedies.

  • Revise the online SWF dictionary to explain the variants more clearly.
  • RLC users should make the late form of the SWF more visible.

Personally, I have no intention of adopting the SWF late form as it is far too close to revised medieval Cornish for my taste. On the rare occasions I write Cornish I shall continue to use the native spellings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the last recorded phase of the traditional language. In fact, I agree with Ken George, who argues that middle and late varieties of Cornish are too far apart to be satisfactorily combined in one orthography.

Charles Causley

The Cornish poet Charles Causley was born in Launceston on August 24th, 1917.

The Seasons in North Cornwall

O Spring has set off her green fuses
Down by the Tamar today,
And careless, like tide-marks, the hedges
Are bursting with almond and may.

Here lie I waiting for old summer,
A red face and straw-coloured hair has he:
I shall meet him on the road from Marazion
And the Mediterranean Sea.

September has flung a spray of rooks
On the sea-chart of the sky,
The tall shipmasts crack in the forest
And the banners of autumn fly.

My room is a bright glass cabin,
All Cornwall thunders at my door,
And the white ships of winter lie
In the sea-roads of the moor.

Reflections on dreckly

We’ll get around to dreckly dreckly. But first, a week or two ago the online dating site eharmony was reported as having completed a survey of accents to see which were the most ‘attractive’. The ‘Cornish accent’ came in 20th out of 20! Obviously, such ‘research’ probably tells us more about the stereotypes of the Cornish held by the respondents than they do about the ‘Cornish accent’. That’s an interesting subject in itself but let’s stick with accent for now.

In the survey people were asked to rank accents after hearing ‘an actor’ reading a couple of sentences. Was this ‘actor’ Cornish? Or did he or she put on what the media seem to think is a Cornish accent – a ‘faux-pirate’ mummerset travesty? If they were a native, which part of Cornwall did they come from? Which accent did they have? For there are, or were, before the mass in-migration of the past half-century or more, two distinct ‘Cornish’ accents. East of Bodmin we had the western branch of the Wessex accent of English. West of Bodmin there was a quite different accent, the differences reflecting the historic presence of the Cornish language.

Recently, there has been some research on the accents of English in Cornwall. However, their historic presence and use and their contemporary decline have yet to be adequately described. Moving from accent to dialect, one dialect word still widely in use is dreckly, a central part of Cornish identity. Dreckly is a temporal term indicating some indeterminate time in the future, maybe tomorrow, possibly next week, could be next year. Particularly popular among builders, the term is still widely used. So much so that in my childhood I thought dreckly was an entirely separate word from directly, its presumed origin.

But when did it appear? It’s not in the glossary of dialect words in William Sandys’ Specimens of the Cornish Dialect, published in 1846. Furthermore, neither does it appear in the glossaries of John Tregellas, the most prolific dialect writer of the 1850s and 60s. A quick skim through some of his tales reveals no examples of the word. If anyone does have a reference from the 1800s I’d be delighted to hear of it. (For some observations on dialect literature in the 1800s see my Industrial Celts, pp.63-69).

As Patrick Laviolette has proposed, dreckly is a ‘fine example of the cultural use of irony’, indicative of a ‘different’ way of doing things, meandering and roundabout. But why did it arise?

Here’s a couple of possible theories, for what they’re worth. Dreckly grew out of the word ‘directly’ at some point between the 1870s and the 1930s. It could have been a response to the more makeshift economy that emerged after mining began to contract, one that was necessarily more flexible, where deadlines became secondary to guaranteeing a quantity of work. Or perhaps it was a result of a deliberate distancing from the mainstream English use of directly, a response to an influx of visitors and new residents? Expect we’ll know dreckly.