“I like Cornwall very much. It is not England,” wrote DH Lawrence. That was more than 80 years ago, but the ancient Duchy of Cornwall remains stubbornly distinct from the rest of England, not just in its dramatic and spectacular scenery, but in its strong Celtic heritage. The landscape is dotted with ancient monuments, crosses and holy wells, and ancient legends – especially those relating to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – appear to have been hot-wired into the Cornish psyche.
Cornish people have been recognised as a separate identity by the Commission for Racial Equality and they have their own distinctive and attractive dialect. According to the Cornish Language Board, around 2600 people still speak Kernuack, the original language of the peninsula. A firm in Helston occasionally publishes books in the ancient language and Kernuack has been recognised as a living language by the European Commission. Elements of Kernuack still survive in the names of Cornish places and people – as Sir Walter Scott put it: “By Tre-, Pol- and Pen- , You shall know all true Cornishmen.”
One simple fact about the county helps to explain its distinct character. Wherever you are in Cornwall, you are never more than 20 miles from the sea. Maritime trade started early here – in the days of King Solomon, the Cornish people were already trading tin with the Phoenicians. Cornish eyes, it seems, were always turned seawards rather than inland, and the people’s cultural affinity was with the Celtic diaspora of Ireland and Brittany rather than their mainland neighbours.
Added to this cultural separation was the county’s physical distance from major centres of population. Even today, Cornwall’s population of around 500,000 is less than that of the city of Bristol. There’s not a single mile of motorway within its boundaries and long stretches of the main through route, the A30 from Penzance to London, are still single carriageway.
It was this isolation – and the luminous light of the area – that attracted major artists to the little seaside resort of St Ives, which now boasts a world-class art gallery in the Tate St Ives. More recently, an abandoned china clay pit has been transformed into what has been described as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the inspired – and phenomenally successful – Eden Project, whose enormous bio-spheres celebrate the complex relationship between plants, people and resources.
Elsewhere, the county boasts the third largest natural harbour in the world, Falmouth; acres of glorious gardens such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan; King Arthur’s legendary fortress at Tintagel, and other medieval castles at St Mawes, Falmouth and St Michael’s Mount; the wonderful Elizabethan mansion of Prideaux Place at Padstow; and, of course, Land’s End where the granite bulwark overlooks the Atlantic waters beneath which lies the legendary Land of Lyonesse.
Penzance’s famous promenade, the longest in Cornwall, runs from the open air art deco- style Jubilee Swimming Pool around the broad curve of Mount’s Bay. Just along from the Jubilee Pool are the harbour and docks, still busy with fishing and pleasure boats. The town’s main street is Market Jew Street whose curious name is believed to be a corruption of the old Cornish Marghas Yow, meaning Thursday Market. This busy shopping area leads gently uphill to the handsome classical building of the silver-domed Market House (1836), which now serves as a bank. In front of this granite structure stands a statue to Penzance’s most famous son, Sir Humphry Davy, the scientist best remembered for inventing the miners’ safety lamp. Born in a nearby street, the son of a local woodcarver, Davy was one of the foremost chemists of the 19th century and, along with his contribution to miners’ safety, he also founded both the Athenaeum Club and London Zoo.
Leading downhill from the Market House is the town’s most interesting area, Chapel Street. Along this thoroughfare stands the exotic Egyptian House, created from two cottages in the 1830s by John Lavin, to entice customers into his shop.
Although the designer of the magnificent façade is unknown, it is believed to have been inspired by the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London.