It broke my heart at the start of lockdown. But unlike many second-homers, I managed to resist the temptation to belt down to North Cornwall, where we had holidayed for decades, to self-isolate with my husband and 92-year-old mother. A year earlier we had realised a long-held dream of buying a holiday house in the middle of Rock, but as the Covid panic intensified, the old class divisions surfaced alarmingly.
A Cornish doctor friend spelt out starkly the strength of fear and loathing of outsiders among the loudest and most influential cohort of locals, many of them pensioners who had moved down to Cornwall to retire. They didn’t want well-heeled “poshos” thronging the clifftops, playing frisbee in gangs on Polzeath Beach – and in a few cases bringing the virus with them. So we reluctantly stayed put.
Cornwall has always rejoiced in its fierce, independent spirit, epitomised by its heroes, from Trelawney to Poldark, and by its “Welsh-lite” language, still declaimed by a handful of bards and Cornish separatists at the wonderfully earnest “Gorsedh Kernow” gathering. It retains a sense of being a magical kingdom, divided from “up-country” by the picturesque Tamar.
But as infection levels drop dramatically, do those who would turn the Tamar into a moat (among them, incredibly, the head of the local tourist board, who called on visitors to stay away) really represent Cornish opinion?
The Duchy, one of the poorest places in Western Europe, depends heavily on visitors for its economic survival. Almost one in four jobs in North Cornwall is tourism-related and months without paying customers would prove catastrophic. Whether it is the investment bankers and hedgies, spending their bonuses renting eye-wateringly expensive holiday homes and eating out at Rick Stein’s Padstow empire, or the Brummies self-catering in cash-strapped farmers’ campsites, this income – mostly generated during late spring and summer – is what usually keeps Cornwall afloat.
The cafés, restaurants and surfers’ bars around Polzeath and Rock do a roaring trade throughout July and August but, then as the visitors disappear, some close for good, resurfacing in a totally different guise the following year. The local businesses must make hay while the sun shines to tide them over the lean winter days when only the hardiest tramp the clifftop paths, bent double in the wind.
Servicing the holiday homes, solidly occupied from June to September, employs legions of cleaners, gardeners, housekeepers and laundries. Thanks to lockdown, the houses are empty and many staff are on their uppers. The “emmet” influx also swells the profits of the local pubs, B&Bs, ice cream vans, restaurants, and surf shops. By rights, these should be humming with holiday-makers. This year many are on the brink of bankruptcy and their only hope of survival is to allow the visitors back by early July at the latest.
Safety remains a priority, of course, amid fears of a second spike of infections. Sensible precautions will be crucial in rebuilding confidence. But with businesses now restarting – building projects once again under way, locals’ boats allowed back on the water – I’m sure that many more in Cornwall than we are led to believe are desperate to welcome back the visitors, before it becomes an economic basket case.