The railway and Cornish identity

Richard Harris, ‘Building regional identity: social and cultural significance of railways for Cornwall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, Journal of Transport History 41 (2020), pp.254-277.

How did the railway contribute to a sense of Cornish identity? Most work on the railway in Cornwall has restricted itself to the railway’s role in encouraging tourism and manufacturing tourist imagery. The view from the railway has now become the hegemonic image of Cornwall seen in countless contexts, most recently in Channel 5’s ‘Cornwall’s most scenic railway journeys’.

In this article Richard Harris goes further and suggests a wider range of ways in which the railway has impacted on the Cornish identity. The article is firmly grounded in the work of the New Cornish Studies of the 1990s and 2000s and follows that work in carefully distinguishing between the Cornish identity and the identity of Cornwall. The former is the sense of identity that those with a Cornish connection hold; the latter includes those images of Cornwall that flow from externally created discourses.

With this sound foundation in place, Harris proposes that the railway affected Cornish identity in three main ways. The first was by the well-known development of the tourist gaze. Here the article relies on the existing literature, recounting the familiar marketing strategies of the railway companies that created an enduring image of place. This constructed Cornwall as remote yet accessible in its remoteness, a melange of Celtic myths and romantic associations that neatly appealed (and appeals) to a middle-class tourist gaze. Railways were therefore an intrinsic part of a dominant discourse imposed upon Cornwall.

However, the second way in which the railway had significance has been less explored hitherto. The railway has acted as a metaphor for remoteness and isolation – the ‘end of the line’ seen from outside. But from the inside it has also been a metaphor for connection with other places, the beginning of a journey, a means of escape from hardship, unemployment and lack of opportunity. In the later nineteenth century, the railway took over as the first link in the chain of emigration. In this sense, for insiders it acted as a conduit for leaving Cornwall, taking on a special significance in that context.

Finally, the railway has become inscribed as a part of the cultural text of Cornishness. Brunel’s bridge over the Tamar became a signifier of the boundary between Cornwall and England. Travelling across the bridge became an inescapable part of the experience of being Cornish, of leaving one’s land, of returning to it. Railway journeys became central to expressions of Cornish identity. The landscapes glimpsed from the railway carriage window, the paraphernalia of the journey and the railway infrastructure all became unavoidably meshed with the act of feeling Cornish.

The article concludes that the railway has meant a lot more to the Cornish than the imagery of a tourist utopia suggests. Once the meanings it held (and holds) for insiders is added to the mix, we discover a more complex effect, with conflicting meanings that depend to an extent on standpoints and origins. This article thus adds considerably to our understanding of the role of the railways and to the pre-existing one-dimensional literature, while providing an excellent example of the New Cornish Studies approach in action.

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