Ryan Taylor Discovering the Cornish corner of England


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By Ryan Taylor

What is the heritage of Cornwall? England, that is.

I wasn't sure how it was different from the heritage of other English counties until I attended the recent 12th Gathering of Cornish Cousins in Bowmanville, Ontario, put on by the Toronto Cornish Association.

The Gathering is an all-North American affair, with Cornish descendants from as far afield as British Columbia, South Carolina and California.

Among the speakers was Nigel Pengelly, whose name alone identifies him as Cornish. He is the editor of Cornish World, a glossy quarterly which aims to be bimonthly by the fall of 2003.

Cornwall has its own identity by virtue of sheltering a separate race from the rest of England, and its own language. Cornish is usually described as a dead language, but I heard it being spoken and sung at the conference, and Pengelly says there are efforts to revive it in Cornish schools. He even admitted to speaking a little himself.

The Celts originally occupied Britain, but as the waves of conquerors came through, they fled west. The Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans all took over the country in turn, until the Celts had been pushed into Wales and Cornwall. Nowadays, Celtic peoples can be identified in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and west Scotland, each with their own language and separate but similar cultures.

The Cornish are independent-minded and there is a movement for Cornwall to have a separate parliament, similar to Wales and Scotland. There was even a representative of the Cornish Parliament committee at the conference, although I doubt that anyone of influence in Tony Blair's government was there.

Because of the Gulf Stream waters, which are warmer than the rest of the north Atlantic, Cornwall has a sub-tropical climate that make it the warmest part of the United Kingdom. Palms grow there, and botanical gardens are full of unique species.

Pengelly says that Cornish achievements include the second steam-powered vehicle in the world and the first ornamental gas lighting. He added 'ornamental' after I asked about the street lighting in Cordova, Spain, which dates from before 1000 A.D.

"Cornwall was never conquered by the English," he points out. It was ruled by its own kings, and when the English came along, they simply appointed themselves dukes of Cornwall. The Prince of Wales is also traditionally Duke of Cornwall and so the Cornish are still ruled by their own king. Luckily the current Duke of Cornwall is spiritually mystic, as the Cornish are said to be.

Pengelly only recently took over the editorship of Cornish World after an early career in farming. When English agriculture had some bad days, he turned to journalism, working on provincial newspapers before returning to his homeland. He was born in Penzance, not far from Land's End, the westernmost part of England which trusts out into the Atlantic.

Cornish World is a beautiful production, crammed with colour photographs and ads for charming vacation spots. The fall 2003 issue will include a rumination on what it means to be Cornish, articles about tourist spots in the country, including an experimental gardens and a cavern, and the history of various famous Cornishmen - William Bligh (of the Bounty mutiny), boxer Bob Fitzsimmons and the discoverer of titanium. There are always descriptions of upcoming events which tourists would enjoy as well.

You can also find information about learning Cornish or booking a tour down a tin mine. Even those with no Cornish heritage will find the magazine interesting.

Posted August 21, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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