Despite its historical wealth and numerous attractions for tourists, the county of Cornwall, at the far end of England's southwestern peninsula, has long been in economic decline. Recently it achieved European Objective 1 status, if it can be called an achievement to be officially recognized as one of the poorest areas in the European Union.
Many people think of Cornwall as just part of Britain's Celtic fringe, one of the deserted and impoverished areas into which the ancient tribes were driven by the advancing Roman Empire. But this is only partly true. Cornwall is indeed a rugged, windswept land with a long and treacherous coastline and the Celtic tribes did retreat to the west, but for most of its history Cornwall has been a well-populated and prosperous land, as well as a land fiercely proud of its Celtic roots. The Cornish still talk of crossing the river Tamar into Devon as "crossing the border into England"!
The modern logo for Cornwall is the engine house chimney. These chimneys can be seen scattered over most of Cornwall, the visible sign of the many mines beneath that were the source of Cornwall's wealth. Bodmin Moor is rich in archaeology, some of which appears to show that even in prehistoric times there were mining settlements. The well-built round houses were obviously for permanent occupation, but had no field systems attached to them. This leads the archaeologist to believe that the occupants were able to survive by trading tin and buying much of their food from neighbouring farming communities.
Spirit of independence
Cornwall was a wealthy and a safe place. That does not mean that everyone was rich or that life was always peaceful. The Cornish made their grievances known and in the fifteenth century disturbances were commonplace, but they did not feel the need to live in close-knit communities so that they could defend themselves. Launceston, the ancient capital, was the only walled town in Cornwall. The Cornish did not even feel they had to gather in villages to any great extent and so the population was, and still is, scattered. This led to the Cornish spirit of independence and self-sufficiency which has served them well, although outsiders may feel it has just made them obstinate!
Launceston, lying on the eastern border, was the capital and the assize town for the county, the town where the law courts were held, until 1836. The reason for holding the assizes so far from most of the population is simple - the assize judges refused to travel any further west along the atrocious Cornish roads. All the early travellers commented on the difficulties. Wheeled carriages or carts were mostly useless and even the pack horses that plodded back and forth had problems because the roads were so narrow. However, in the days when most things and many people travelled by water, the roads were not a particular handicap for a county with a long coastline and frequent harbours; harbours that were often little more than a small opening in the cliffs where a boat could unload and reload on the beach at low tide. Daniel Defoe, in his travels throughout England in the 1720s, noted that every county sent agricultural produce to the great markets in London - every county that is except Cornwall. Cornwall produced minerals, tin and copper for the country, but only produced sufficient food for its own people.
In the sixteenth century, when the king called the county representatives to Parliament infrequently and to whatever part of the kingdom took his fancy, attendance was tiresome and expensive. Some counties asked for permission not to attend, but Cornwall asked for greater representation with the result that until the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 Cornwall sent forty-four members to Parliament, ten more than any other county. Cornwall was wealthy and influential. So why did things change?
The Industrial Revolution started in Cornwall, which led it to become the first post-industrial region long before planning controls and redevelopment grants were thought of as a way to help such communities. Cornwall had no coal, and as industry became more dependent on this resource it moved away from the county. Tin mining continued but became less and less profitable and recently the last of the mines closed. However the Cornish did not stop mining, they took their expertise, their independence and their self-reliance all over the world: to Africa, to the Americas and to Australia. In fact there is a saying that "wherever there is a hole in the ground, you will find a Cornishman at the bottom of it".
For generations china clay, fishing and agriculture have provided employment, but now even these industries are in trouble and Cornwall relies heavily on tourism. There is plenty here for the tourists to enjoy but it is low-paid employment and the summer season is short, which means that it has severe drawbacks for the Cornish themselves. For those who love Cornwall, it is seen at its best in the winter when the gales blow and huge seas crash against the cliffs, but for the average holidaymaker the cheap package tour to certain sunshine is too tempting to be resisted, although when the sun shines in Cornwall nowhere is more enchanting.
Perhaps Cornwall's salvation will come through the latest electronic communications which already allow me, living within sight of Bodmin Moor and only a short distance from the magnificently wild north coast of Cornwall, to send an article to Poland at the press of a button.