De-territorialisation and Downderry

Emily Beaumont and David Brown, ‘“It’s the sea and the beach more than anything for me”: local surfer’s [sic] and the construction of community and communitas in a rural Cornish seaside village’, Journal of Rural Studies 59 (2018), 58-66.

Surfers are prone to be viewed as part of a nonconformist, ‘different’ sub-culture, inherently mobile, and with sparse interaction with the other residents of coastal communities. This article sets out to debunk any such lingering stereotypes. It assesses how far surfers in a community in south-east Cornwall contribute to a wider sense of community.

The authors have elsewhere introduced the concept of the ‘local surfer’, the individual with an attachment to his or her given surf break and a preference for the local. This has led them to characterise surfer identities as glocalised, as opposed to either global or local, with links to worldwide surfing culture but rooted in local places.

They claim this article is a novel study of the interaction of local surfers with the wider circle of residents. How do the former help to produce and reproduce local identity? To answer this, they make use of the concepts of community and communitas. Community is defined as a delimited geography, social interactions and the idea of common ties. Communitas is even woollier and appears to add the idea of aesthetic judgement to this mix.

Beaumont and Brown base their article on an ethnographic study, involving participant observation, documentary data and interviews with eleven local surfers (all aged 25 plus) and six non-surfing locals in the thinly disguised village of Hessiock (recognisable as Downderry to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with south-east Cornwall).

They identify three ‘locales of social interaction’ in Downderry – the pub, the surf club and the working men’s club (now called the village hall). While fairly harmonious relationships are the rule, some tensions are recorded between the two clubs over the organisation of local events. The article claims that the surf club ‘better represents’ the community however as it nurtures a ‘collective aesthetic and mood towards the beach, sea and village culture’.

Apparently Downderry residents are united in a shared relationship with the sea, which dominates this village straggling along the coast road towards Seaton. Beaumont and Brown claim to discover a ‘regrouping by the sea’ as aesthetic judgements of place become shared by surfers and non-surfers alike. The attachment of surfers to their local break is more likely to draw them back to the village and the study notes that former residents now working in London also regularly return to surf. This makes Downderry the ‘hub of a more extended, fluid, de-territorialised and “imagined” community’.

Maybe so, but it would be unwise to generalise from the example of Downderry. Overall, this sociological study seems to overstate its case somewhat. It claims migration has contributed to this de-territorialised sense of community and implies this is something new. But out-migration is hardly a new phenomenon in Cornwall. As far back as the 1850s de-territorialised, extended, global communities were being made (and unmade) in Cornwall.

The urge to return to one’s native place has been, I would suggest, widespread in Cornwall. In Downderry the rise of a surfing culture no doubt contributes to this, but in other places other aspects – family and kinship, sporting affiliations, cultural activities, affection for the landscape – have all played similar roles.

Hub of a de-territorialised community? Or Little England by the sea?

Much is made in the course of the article of the phrase ‘native place’ but the authors don’t really tackle any possible differences of perception between natives and newcomers. They point out how ‘residents’ – actually natives – living beyond Downderry are still considered part of the community but we’re not informed if any newcomers or temporary residents are considered not to be part of the community. We have to remind ourselves that in 2011 one in five of the houses in Downderry, Seaton and Crafthole had no full-time residents and were second homes or holiday lets.

Finally, what effects are rural gentrification and ‘amenity migration’ (migration to consume natural or cultural amenities) having in Downderry? These aspects, and the crisis of affordable housing, are mentioned in passing but quickly vanish from sight in what might appear to some to be an over-romanticised view of a sense of community in Downderry. We might note that in 2011 only five per cent of local residents there declared a Cornish identity and ask why this community has one of the lowest levels of such identification in Cornwall. Can local surfers really make up for the socio-cultural de-ethnicisation of the past half-century?

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