The Big Question: Is there really a Cornish culture, and does it deserve promotion?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Because Cornwall, the home of surfing, pasties and Rick Stein, has been awarded £350,000 of European Union money to help finance its bid to put itself on the cultural map. Britain's most southerly county has campaigned for almost five years for a Europe-wide scheme to celebrate culture in the continent's often neglected rural areas.

"Rural regions account for about 80 per cent of Europe's landmass and 25 per cent of its population," says Miranda Bird, director of European Regions of Culture Campaign Organisation (EROCCO), which hopes Cornwall will become one of the first Regions of Culture, "yet when you talk to people outside Cornwall, they only think of beaches, pasties and ice cream."

What is the case for regarding Cornwall as a region of culture?

"There's so much going on here," says Bird. "We've got Tate St Ives and the Newlyn Art Gallery near Penzance. The Kneehigh Theatre Company in Truro tours the country, while the WildWorks Theatre Company was recently honoured by the V&A. The Cornwall Film Festival, which runs every November, is going from strength to strength. Even in my little village of Constantine, there are seven choirs, an arts centre, a little museum, theatre space where they show performances from the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as traditional arts including a brass band."

Who are Cornwall's cultural icons?

Where to start? John Opie, the 18th Century portraitist and historical painter was perhaps the first artist of note to emerge from Cornwall. Sickert, Whistler, and Turner all visited Cornwall, and Ben Nicholson, the abstract painter, and his sculptor wife, Barbara Hepworth, spent many years there. Entire schools of artists established themselves at St Ives and the neighbouring north coast fishing village of Newlyn.

Legends of literature to have called Cornwall home include Daphne du Maurier and William Golding, who was born in Newquay. Meanwhile John Betjeman is perhaps Cornwall's most famous adopted son. He wrote a motorists' guide to the county in 1934, and a much loved poem about St Enodoc golf course near Polzeath.

Is Cornish separatism on the agenda?

The Cornish nationalist movement is the most active of any in England. A host of organisations have sprung up to push the case for independence, including the extreme Cornish National Liberation Army, which hit the headlines last year when it issued threats against celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver, who have restaurants in the county. Bird is keen to distance EROCCO from the more radical elements in the campaign for greater autonomy, but says the nationalist spirit appears in a lot of Cornish art.

One unlikely outlet for the movement came in 2004, when Channel 4's alternative Christmas message (featuring The Simpsons) showed Lisa Simpson chanting "Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!" ("Freedom for Cornwall now!") and holding a placard saying "UK OUT OF CORNWALL".

So how much of a poor relation is Cornwall?

The EROCCO team hope a cultural boost in Cornwall will lead to an economic one – the county is the poorest in England. Earnings are below 75 per cent of the UK average. It is one of four areas in the UK that qualifies from poverty grants from the European Social Fund, and museums are all that remains of the once thriving mining industry – the last tin mine closed in 1998.

What's the extent of Cornwall's dependency on tourism?

Very high. Tourism is the county's biggest industry. More than 5m people visit every year, spending more than £1.5bn. The industry accounts for more than 38,000 jobs – 16 per cent of employment – and 10 per cent of Cornwall's income. The biggest attraction is the Eden Project, which brings in 1.2m visitors a year, contributing around £800m to the local economy.

But not only is it seasonal – tourist hotspots struggle in winter – but highly weather dependent. Last week South West Tourism said the unusually wet summer had cost the county £200m, a 10 per cent drop in income. Bird hopes that ERC status will help bring visitors to Cornwall all year round.

What else contributes to the Cornish economy?

The three biggest contributors after tourism are medical and health, agriculture and food, and manufacturing. Crucially to the ERROCO campaign, the creative industries are significant, employing almost 7,000 people and generating 3.5 per cent of the county's income (£241m in 2006).

Is Cornish still spoken?

Increasingly, yes. The Cornish language, or Kernewek (various spellings), was spoken by an estimated 300 people in 2000 and struggled to get official acceptance because there were four different written forms. But this year the Cornish Language Partnership agreed a single form, paving the way for the language to be taught more widely.

Now Cornwall County Council wants the language recognised within the European charter for regional or minority languages. One survey now estimates the number of speakers at 2,000. "In my village they have evening classes that are always popular," says Bird. "And lots of businesses are choosing Cornish names to cash in on the resurgence of the language."

What sort of cultural experience can visitors look forward to?

"World-class arts set in amazing landscapes," says Bird. "The beautiful places around Cornwall make wonderful settings. The Minack theatre near Penzance is cut into a cliff near Land's End, where the sea is the backdrop." Bird hopes ERC status will boost culture across the county and attract new artists and performers, and sees a future where culture in other parts of rural Europe is similarly celebrated. "We've already had interest from 20 regions all over the continent," she says. "We want three areas to get regions of culture status every three years." Cornwall's time may have come.

Is Cornish culture ripe for celebration?

Yes

*Any economic boost to the country's poorest region is a welcome one

*A boost in cultural tourism will lessen the industry's dependence on weather

*It paves the way for culture to be celebrated in other rural areas of Europe

No

*Cornwall needs real jobs, not subsidies to create artificial ones

*Cornwall already has a thriving arts scene and heritage – other areas could benefit more

*Tourism is the one industry in Cornwall that needs no help

Comments