I know that no person will ever get into my blood as a place can, as Cornwall does. People and things pass away but not places.
– Daphne du Maurier
It was a dull old day about fifteen years ago when I first crossed over from the Other Side of the Tamar and began to discover the strange and compelling south-westerly tip of the British archipelago that I have since come to know as home. The A30 isn’t a forgiving route, and it was less so then, having since been dual-carriage-d for vast stretches to ease the tailbacks during the peak season. Entering the count(r)y on this road, rather than over the Tamar bridge at Plymouth is much less dramatic and for several miles much like the Devon you’re exiting. Then you reach the bleak stretch across Bodmin Moor, where the Queues Likely signs usually seem unnecessary from your near-stationary vehicle, and the weather is almost always either piss poor or Proper Cornish depending on where your alliegance lies. The sky reflects the hard rock that’s crept to the surface of the world: granite tors in the distance, odd boulders cropping up across the moorland, and the close-up view at the roadside as the A30 passes through a cutting. Daubed on the rock face is a capitalised Kernewek phrase accompanying a white cross struck through a black background: the flag of St Piran, patron saint of Cornwall, and the badge of Cornish identity, patriotism, ownership. This is defensive graffiti aimed at the outsiders. As a non-Cornish speaker, like the vast majority of those passing that point on one of the main roads in to Cornwall I’ve no idea what it says, and therefore, hostile or welcoming, the message is automatically excluding outsiders. There’s twenty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why, even if only about three hundred or so of ’em speak enough of the native lingo to be able to decipher the slogan on the stone. This was the point I entered Cornwall proper. To say I never looked back would be untrue. Quite what happened I don’t know but I spent the next five years away from the place wondering how and when I’d next get back there. And when I did return it became pretty obvious that sooner or later I’d return for good.
It’s a familiar story to many non-native Cornwall dwellers – or grockles as the Cornish would have it – who have arrived one way or another and found it impossible to leave. Berated by the locals we are in offence second only to them there tourists. Luckily I often manage to slip under the radar with the sort of first name I don’t have to spell so often in this part of the world and a knack of pronouncing the word pasty with a Westcountry accent.
Like the Welsh in Wales and the Scots in Scotland the Cornish have a tendency towards prickly patriotism that has seen a rise in support since the second half of the twentieth century. The Cornish political party Mebyon Kernow actively promote the goal of autonomy from Westminster in a similar manner to Scotland and Wales on the basis that Cornwall has its own unique identity and heritage. Stuck down the end of a tapering peninsula it can feel very isolated from the rest of England, geographically, politically, economically. The River Tamar forms the boundary between Them and Us, with only about five miles of the Devon-Cornwall border being dry land as it were. Apparently during the Middle Ages the Cornish tried to dig a trench along the only part of the border that isn’t river, in the hope that they could turn Cornwall into an island and truly separate it from England.
There are plenty more of those black flags with the white cross to be seen around the count(r)y: on mastheads of boats, bumper stickers, pub signs, postcards. I watched a man climb out onto the roof of Truro City Hall yesterday and undo the knot of the Cornish coat of arms on the flag pole with his teeth in order to replace it with the black and white banner in time for St Piran’s day. And this morning a boy on a unicycle rode past me down the street on his way to join the parade for the saint’s feast day that makes its way through the town centre on March 5th each year.
Like many of the early Celtic Christian saints whose namesakes are better recalled by their place on the map than their actual histories and origins, St Piran is thought to have come to Cornwall from Ireland round about the sixth century. It is possible he might have been St Ciaran of Saighir or even Ciaran of Clonmacnoise (the Gaelic C can often mutate to a Celtic P). According to legend the holy man was expelled from Ireland by the heathen Irish kings, tied to a millstone and cast into the sea. But being a saint he floated on the millstone all the way to Cornwall, washing up on the north coast beach whose name bears testament to this history, Perranporth. St Piran’s Oratory in the Perranporth dunes is thought to be the oldest Christian building on mainland Britian. It is hailed as the place that St Piran built his first place of worship, and is a focal point of Perrantide celebrations on 5th March each year. Perranzabuloe, the nearby village, is a corruption of the Latin Perranus in sabuloe meaning ‘Perran in the sand’, and was the original site of St Piran’s burial, although his remains were later exhumed and divided between various reliquaries.
His nature-defying turn with the millstone was not Piran’s only wonder performed with bare rock. He is credited with rediscovering tin mining in Cornwall when he miraculously drew tin from his plain black hearthstone. The molten metal rose to the surface of the stone forming a white cross, recalled in the saint’s coat of arms which has become a national flag for Cornwall. In reality Piran’s stone probably contained a heavy tin lode which must have been accidentally smelted in the heat of the hearth. A sign from the heavens or not, Cornwall went on to become one of the great mining centres of the world due to its rich geological phenomena that contain a wealth of mineral lodes including tin, copper, arsenic, and gold. Its mining history shaped the land, the landscape, the people, the culture, the environment and the economy, and still does so, despite the cessation of tin mining in Cornwall with the closure of South Crofty mine in 1998 due to a catastrophic drop in the price of tin worldwide. And further afield the global mining industry owes much to the expertise of the Cornish miners who emigrated with the collapse of the minerals industry at home, taking their skills to the Americas, Africa, Australia giving rise to the notion that the definition of a mine is ‘a hole in the ground with a Cornishman at the bottom’.
Of course the realists will claim that had St Piran not hit upon tin smelting then someone else would have come up with the idea sooner or later, and there are plenty of questions that can be raised about the validity of the millstone raft, and the fact that the man himself supposedly lived to be 206. But the mythic part of a location’s cultural heritage are as important as the recorded history, imbuing a sense of place and often, as in the case of St Piran, embodying the qualities or skills valued by or peculiar to that place. St Piran’s day celebrations are not so much about the man, whoever he was or wherever he came from, but all that he stands for: Cornwall as a valued and valuable place with all its qualities and peculiarities that so many people love it for. For one and all: Cornish and non-Cornish Cornwall dwellers and devotees, because and despite whatever the ‘natives’ may say about ‘outsiders’, St Piran himself wasn’t Cornwall born and bred.
St Piran’s Day is celebrated throughout Cornwall on 5th March. For more information on events and taking part, and to see photos from previous years check out the St Piran’s Day website here.
Also see Free Cornwall! an interview with two of Mebyon Kernow’s coucillors by the Guardian (including a picture of one of my past teachers in a dashing Cornish tartan waistcoat) which can be read here.
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