I spent last week in Cornwall on holidays and loved it. I have to admit upfront to having a bit of a thing for the place. Partly it’s the country’s independent mindedness (literally – it has far more non-party affiliated councillors than any other part of England), partly its extremity (geographically, I mean), and also the fact that it doesn’t look like anywhere else in the British Isles. It has trees you only get in Cornwall seemingly, and the landscape isn’t like anything even throughout the rest of the West Country. Nearby where we were staying, there was something that looked from our perspective almost alpine in height. But up close it was a small hill, more like a heap even. The place is steeped in optical illusion.
Even appending it to the West Country feels wrong; Cornwall is its own thing. Devon and Somerset, for instance, certainly don’t feel as self-contained. Devon is like England in excelsis, what East Coast American Harvard types think of as England; rolling hills, clotted cream and a general Led Zeppelin IV feel all round. No magical slag heaps that look like mountains are to be found in Dorset as far as I’m aware.
Holidaying in Cornwall not without its problems, however. I know I just praised its distance from everywhere else, but when you arrive at Exeter and it feels like you’ve been driving forever, yet you’ve still got shedloads of road ahead of you, this positive feels somewhat diminished. Also, and on a related note, Cornwall has no motorways whatsoever, so getting anywhere within the county takes ages. You drive for half an hour to get ten miles.
Cornwall is also a ridiculously expensive place to have a holiday. I find it strange that in the wake of the 2008 crash, we heard all about how places like the West Country were benefiting from the fact that people were having holidays in the UK in the name of cost consciousness. It is much, much cheaper to go on holidays to Spain or Italy, never mind Greece, than pretty much anywhere in Britain you’d really want to end up for a week. I remember, years ago, a friend of mine and I thinking about a holiday in Scotland, then looking at the prices, comparing the options, and ending up in Tuscany for half the price. Every tourist attraction in Cornwall is at least, and I mean at the very least, two times too expensive. But having said that, they all remain packed, so obviously people are willing to pay the going rate. On a final negative note, phone reception and especially cellular reception is agonisingly awful throughout Cornwall.
But in spite of the downsides, I know I will probably holiday in the place a couple of times a decade until I die. Looking out your window and seeing a strange mix of East Africa, Northern Italy, the west of England, and the Faroe Islands; the view from the hill overlooking St Ives; the waves on a sunny day at Kynance Cove. It’s all these things that help me to maintain my thing for Cornwall, but it’s not the essence of my proclivity. That stems from my first, failed visit to the place, almost exactly ten years ago.
One day, a decade back, my Chicago Connection and I made a decision to head west, to try and get to Land’s End. We would get there by hitchhiking, a choice made partly out of a sense of adventure, partly out of my Chicago Connection’s always tenuous budget. To follow this idea through I had to quit my job; this wasn’t that big a deal as I was thinking of chucking it in anyhow. I had reached the stage I sometimes did in those days, of requiring scotch on my cereal as a means of simply facing the day.
As the two of us stood at Chiswick roundabout in the driving rain on a cold and miserable Tuesday afternoon, my drastic life change began to seem extremely ill-advised. I was even considering abandoning the whole quest and running to the nearest temp agency when we managed to snag a lift. It was with a very nice woman named Wendy who told us she could only get us as far as Reading. We would have accepted a ride to Brentford at the time, if only to get out of the rain for a few minutes and regain some sense of forward momentum. On the drive out of London on the M4, Wendy told us about her life. She had just recently returned to England after having spent several years picking fruit on the Israel-Lebanon border. It sounded like a pleasant, laidback, if occasionally fraught with potentially life ending peril way to spend one’s time abroad. The drive to Reading was of course brief and my Chicago Connection and I soon found ourselves walking in the drizzle again, along the motorway trying to thumb another lift.
It wasn’t long before, and quite predictably given the stupidity of walking by the side of an M road in an obvious attempt to hitch hike, we encountered the fuzz. As the police car pulled up behind us, I asked my Chicago Connection for the map so I could look at the names of surrounding villages. It was the first time I would be required to try and keep the two of us out of prison that day, but not the last.
“Gee whiz, officers, we got a bit lost there. Any chance you could point us in the direction of Boxford?” I asked in the most souped-up Midwest American accent I could muster. Soon enough, both of us were in the back of the police car, on our way to some obscure Berkshire hamlet. One of the few times having a North American accent in England really comes in handy is when dealing with the police. They really lap up the “yokel from Iowa” shtick without question every time.
From Boxford, we managed to hitch a ride to the nearest service station with a semi-drunken scoucer who just about ran us into a ditch several times and from there we got to Bristol through the kindness of a gay lorry driver named Tony. We arrived in Bristol very late, about forty-five minutes before the pubs were due to shut, having absolutely no idea where we were going to sleep for the night. We were considering camping rough for the evening until we were kindly offered accommodation in return for breakfast by a chap named Greg we met in the pub. While we all munched on a full English the following morning, Greg told us in detail about his stint in prison. It wasn’t clear what the crime that had landed him there was and neither my Chicago Connection nor I asked.
Day two on our Kerouacian adventure saw us leave Greg and Bristol behind, hitching a ride with a coach full of nuns to nearby Weston-Super-Mare. My American friend was not best impressed with the town after we had been left to it by the brides of Jesus.
“Welcome to shithole Britain!” he declared, a little overzealously for my liking as we drew a few evil eyes from surrounding pensioners. Now, I’ll hold my hand up now and confess that I also have a real soft spot for English seaside towns. The crappy casinos, the half falling down piers, the old school beach huts, the retirees with gout sunning their purple feet on the boardwalk. I love it all. My sidekick was certainly not on the same page and voiced his distaste at nearly every turn (“Does every pub in this godforsaken crap den have to, by law, come equipped with a terrible Status Quo tribute band?”). We searched out accommodation but were rebuffed at every turn – the whole town appeared to be booked solid, as it was late July. Coming back to the 2008 downturn and English holidays for English people: don’t let anyone fool that this is a recent phenomenon. Many an Albion based family took to the seaside resorts on this Fair Isle long before Wall Street went tits up.
My Chicago Connection and I ended up sleeping on the beach that evening. We decided to position ourselves far enough away from the boardwalk so as to not get the unwanted attentions of the police yet at the same time at an appropriate distance from the sea so as to not get soaked when the tide came in. We judged it completely wrong and I woke up around five AM with a mouthful of seawater, my Chicago Connection dragging my sleeping bag Weston-Super-Mare-wards, shouting all the while to try and stir me back to consciousness.
“That was terrible,” he said as soon as we were both upright.
“That was brilliant,” I said, and he looked at me as if I had lost my wits (although he admitted, years later within the text of his Best Man speech at my wedding reception, that I had been correct on this point).
We tried to hitch rides for a few days following the baptism by Severn but never found the right lift that would get us to Cornwall. We got as far as Dartmoor before my Chicago Connection suggested we head back to London and from there to Catalonia. This we then did (both the London and the Iberian bit). It was like Cornwall was a fortress, one that we just couldn’t get into. I experienced the very same feeling again this week, but in reverse; we had to drive for a bit to keep the kids asleep, so we drove east, past Bodmin. I felt a strange, completely irrational fear of seeing a “Welcome to Devon” sign. I didn’t want to leave Cornwall for the whole of the week, even temporarily (even if it meant getting phone reception back). I understand why people in Cornwall got annoyed when the boundaries were threatened to be redrawn with constituencies straddling both Devon and Cornish parts. It would have seemed perverse. Long may the Baner Peran fly.