In Penzance the weather never knows what it’s doing – but whatever it does, it commits to. I have never lived anywhere that changes so rapidly, but west Cornwall lends itself to extremes: rainstorm and sunshine. As I write this, a rainbow runs from a fishing boat in the bay to the top of the hill, where there is a bank and a pot of gold: a compliant rainbow that does what is expected of it.
Penzance looks like a picture from a child’s storybook: the curling sea, the triangular lido, the cupola that looks like a crown, which is fitting. Cornwall is a royal duchy, and it votes like one. Though it is one of the poorest parts of northern Europe – if it were an independent country, it would be poorer than Lithuania or Hungary – all Cornish MPs are Conservative now, as is the county council. The Prince of Wales is the duke and the local landowners – the St Aubyns and the Bolithos – are still powerful and respected. Cornwall, looking for autonomy, voted Leave.
If it is a conservative land – there is almost no Labour presence in west Cornwall, though the Liberal Democrats hope to take the St Ives seat in 2024 – its history is vivid. The Industrial Revolution began with Cornwall’s tin and copper mines; news of the death of Horatio Nelson, picked up by a fishing boat, was announced at the Union Hotel on Chapel Street, Penzance; in 1595 Spanish ships landed in Mousehole, Paul, Newlyn and Penzance, set fires and sailed away.
Things have changed since I came here as a child, seeking, like all visitors, landscape and myth. It is a hazard of beauty that others seek to possess it, and Cornwall is subject to a kind of brutal unseeing. Her most famous writers are Londoners on holiday, and they talk about bricks, not people: Daphne du Maurier and Manderley; Virginia Woolf and the lighthouse. This was less insulting in the 1970s when fishing was booming, the mines were open and there was housing for local people, because it was normal for visitors to stay in hotels.
As a child, I stayed at the Treyarnon Bay Hotel near Newquay, now demolished to make way for holiday cottages of peculiar ugliness. Cornwall was busy in summer and defamed in a series of Enid Blyton boarding school novels, but she was not overrun. Now the desire of outsiders to live here part-time, which began with the establishment of Tate St Ives in 1993, has accelerated. Cornwall’s relationship with its art is the same as its relationship with its landscape: proud but dangerous. Generations of artists have come here, establishing schools and galleries: in the 19th century a Newlyn fishwife would call herself an artist’s model. Art has added to Cornwall’s strange glamour but attracted visitors who diminish it: an estate agent tells me that, after the first lockdown ended, she took hundreds of telephone calls a day, and sold four in ten homes to outsiders.
In front of St John’s Hall in Penzance there is a sign that says “Expo” in marker pen. Sometimes the hall hosts a farmers’ market. I have seen the king formerly known as Prince Charles tour the market and point at sausages while people waved flags, but today I find something more realistic. Penzance has received part of the £88.7m Town Deal funding for Cornwall – a gift for hosting the G7 in St Ives in 2021 – and is pondering how to spend it. This is a showcase for ideas on housing, the environment, transport, and culture, for residents to consider.
The ideas are detailed and hopeful, even idealistic. Penzance is a pioneer of green policies, one of the first local councils to declare a climate emergency in 2019, and Cornwall has hopes for lithium mining, as well as space exploration: in November 2022 a new space port near Newquay received a licence to launch satellites. But an independent councillor tells me the council has no real power to deal with the most urgent issues: low pay and housing. Central government policy passes through here like weather, and it is as unanswerable. In December Cornwall was offered a devolution deal including an elected mayor and £12m a year for 30 years – a pittance.
Opposite the Expo is the Street Food Project, working out of a small grey building donated by the council. People sit outside eating cheese toasties and drinking coffee in a parody of the tourist experience. The Street Food Project serves hot food from the building twice a day, donates food parcels to local families and delivers hot meals to people in emergency housing.
Its clients used to be mostly street drinkers and people with mental health issues. Now, Lynne Dyer, the managing director of Growing Links, which runs the project, tells me, the largest proportion are working families labouring under zero-hours contracts and rising costs for food, energy and housing. They receive 15 new referrals a week, some from doctors sending malnourished people.
Last winter I met a boy of perhaps 20 walking to the Street Food Project. He was camping on the cliffs near Mousehole, and each night he chose between walking in the rain to eat or staying in the dry to be hungry. He had an air of strange phlegmatic grace, as if courtesy was all he had left. I have seen a very young mother here, in pink to match her baby, coming for food and nappies and a cup of tea. When she was listened to, a terrible anxiety was ironed, though briefly, from her face.
There are no preventative services in west Cornwall, Dyer tells me, so when they meet people they are already in crisis. Poor mental health is rising dramatically: it is a short road from material to emotional collapse, and the detritus – drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and traumatised children – litters it. Dyer calls herself “both numb and terribly angry, as if I could just pop. But there is no one to pop at: just a faceless enemy we can’t reach.” Dyer is from Liverpool, and she says west Cornwall feels like Liverpool did in the 1980s: “Like everyone is on the edge.”
Lives fall apart fast here. Nothing pushes families to catastrophe quicker than insecure housing. The average wage is not enough to buy a home, so people rent in a seller’s market, or stay in their parents’ outhouses, or camp in fields. I hear stories of exposed wiring, and water pouring down the walls – and why rent to a family with children and pets when you can have retirees from up the line instead? But even the rental market has disappeared so completely it is as if it never existed. There are a many more Airbnb rentals than long-term rentals advertised in Penzance, Mousehole and Newlyn: staring at the numbers is a kind of perverse game. I have watched the houses on Art Gallery Terrace in Newlyn since I arrived here. Each went dark in turn like teeth rotting in a mouth.
People tend to blame the second homes for everything: all 12,000 of them, with their freshly limewashed walls and the nautical decor the Newlyn-born auteur Mark Jenkin dismissed in Bait, his Bafta-winning film about the gentrification of Cornwall, as “nice porthole”. Mousehole, presumably Jenkin’s nameless fishing village, has fallen utterly to over-tourism. A video of the village in the 1940s circulates locally on social media, showing fishermen sitting in their harbourside cottages: now it looks bizarre, like a snow globe. The Old Coastguard Hotel has a new glass wall because guests cannot be expected to walk for their views: once an inn, it is now a cruise ship run aground. There are three gift shops on the harbour now: the post office closed last year and there are pretty collectibles in what used to be its windows. In winter you sense the presence of second-home owners only by their absences.
But you cannot blame the second homes for everything. That’s a fairy story Cornwall tells itself because it absolves elements of itself, and because it protects itself from a future in which housing covers the hills: surely if there were no second homes, all Cornwall could be housed? I know a woman whose husband rented a house in Newlyn without paperwork, so that the landlord could avoid tax on the income. She later threw out her husband and asked the landlord if she could rent the house legally. He raised her rent by £200 a month, to £1,200. He isn’t a second-home owner.
I know a woman who was housed by the council in a caravan park near St Ives. The walls and floors were covered with mould, and she was hospitalised. (As Dyer says, “Holidaymakers own our homes, and we have to go and live in the caravan park”.) When the council went to inspect after complaints, the man who owns the caravan park blamed the tenants. He isn’t a second-home owner, either.
Nor are the people who opposed the affordable housing in Newlyn on the grounds of traffic and lack of public services (there will be no public services without housing for their staff, it is true), and successfully campaigned against it. The St Aubyn family, who lease their ancestral home, the tidal island St Michael’s Mount, from the National Trust and own 5,000 acres of west Cornwall, are both first- and second-home owners: they have a brace of fine holiday cottages to rent near seals. In 2021 they closed the Mount to all but those paying to visit the over-repointed castle and residents of the adjoining mainland town, Marazion. This feels like the social cleansing the native Cornish complain of, and by their own. It is an extraordinary case of unseeing; a folding away of the unmonied into some psychic cupboard. After public anger the Mount relented, and extended a locals’ pass to surrounding parishes.
Even so, the Godolphin Arms, the pub opposite the Mount, acts as a kind of real-time avatar of this social cleansing. When I first came here, it was a pub for locals and tourists: shabby, likeable and faintly chaotic. Now it looks like the homeware department in John Lewis: glassy, antiseptic, overpriced. You come in summer, see a host of empty tables, and are told it is fully booked. It has a gift shop with a horrifying artefact for sale: a box of soothing mantras for the emotionally distressed tourist. “We’re richer than we think.” “Luxuries are not necessities.”
All these Cornwalls manifest in Penzance’s most beautiful streets: Causewayhead and Chapel Street, which run from the hill to the sea. At the top is the new Creative Hub of studios and workspaces, part-funded by remnants of EU money, seeking to bring entrepreneurs here; at the bottom is Maria Branwell’s red-brick house. She left Penzance in 1812 to marry Patrick Brontë and bear a literary dynasty: the Brontë sisters were half Cornish, and if they had come here, they might have written the novels Cornwall is owed.
There are well-used charity shops and a drapery selling velvet for £200 a metre. There are beautiful shops designed to cater for the wealth moving into Cornwall: a gin distillery called Pocketful of Stones; the Zennor Wild florist and coffee shop; the clothing shop Seven Stones. The latter two came from St Ives, because St Ives, the patient-zero of Cornish tourism, is no longer a functioning town. Either deserted or impassable, it is another manifestation of the Cornish tendency to extremes. The clients of the Street Food Project will never be able to afford these trinkets, even if they wanted them. This inequality exists everywhere in Britain, but here, in the land of myth, the reality feels more anguished.
[See also: Posh but poor? The return of the squeezed middle]
This article was originally published on 7 December 2022
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special