The Imagination Test Every Cornish Tourist Must Take


When I moved to West Cornwall, I didn’t expect the Duchy to become an international story, a paradigm of rural fantasies. That’s what I was running from as a Londoner: noise. I didn’t expect Jill Biden to walk past our house in her motorcade as it was considered a good idea to hold the G7 on an isolated peninsula – I wasn’t there, but the chickens would have heard her , and I hope they did.

And I didn’t expect, in this pandemic summer, that houses in St Ives would be offered for rent for £ 10,232 a night. A dismayed Conservative adviser from Yorkshire discovered this “offer” on the Vrbo booking site and was surprised enough to publish it.

I was surprised that he was surprised: as a Conservative adviser, doesn’t he believe in the free market, who will bear what he can bear?

There’s a reason it was still available: it was overpriced. It’s a MacGuffin, a plot, a mystery. I don’t think the owner wanted to let him out. He was testing the market. The same is surely true of the cottage for rent at £ 107,000 per week in Suffolk. Something’s going on there – a marital argument, maybe. We can’t know, although I want to.

Whatever the truth about the ugly £ 10,323 vacation rental, Cornwall is full. I used to disbelieve the locals who said they spent the summer vacations hidden away at home.

I swore that no one would stop me from swimming in Porthcurno in the middle of summer, and it’s still true: I only have to get up at dawn to get a parking space. But I believe them now: lose a parking space near you and you might not have another until the fall.

Tourists line up for 90 minutes to sit at the Mackerel Sky Restaurant on Newlyn Bridge. Yesterday it took 20 minutes to walk half a mile along the promenade from Newlyn to Penzance, and it’s not even school holidays yet. Air pollution makes me cough which is surely the opposite of what you would expect to find in Cornwall. It has become – apart from the cars – a Venice of different seas: impassable for locals and tourists. Are they even having fun? I do not think so.

I understand the desire for great skies and great seas as well as anyone; that’s why I came here. I watch people gaze at the sea to the west in the sun – it is silvery, changing – with all the joy of gratitude. I am for tourism, but there is, as I wrote in these pages, good and bad tourism. Cornwall needs budget hotels, locals’ housing and bypass roads, otherwise it will become a traffic jam with hedges and Arthurian legends and a setting for mass panic attacks. Who wants that?

If I understand their aspirations, I do not understand their lack of imagination and their monomania. Cornwall is full – it’s really full – but there are other places to go. Britain is beautiful and interesting and there are a lot of them, most of which I guess we missed to take cheap flights to Italy and Spain.

Is it summer to crawl through strange parts of Britain and meet neighbors we pretend to misunderstand (because that’s the meaning of Brexit)? Lincolnshire, for example. I always wanted to see the medieval gate of the old manor house of the Duchess of Lancaster in Kettlethorpe, because it appears in a novel that I once loved. (Katherine, by Anya Seton. It’s one for lonely teens.)

Is this the year to spend a day or more in Kettlethorpe? I found a good old hotel in Lincoln: two rooms for less than £ 900 per week. It’s a truism that we don’t appreciate what we have. Is this a year for false curiosity because we can’t go where we’ve always been without thinking? Ignore tourism and embrace travel?

I’m not talking about glamping, which is cynical but fascinating: what would you pay for a double bed in a field with fairy lights if you had read a supplement in color? I mean little unknown historical sites. They can never be boring because they are unique.

A few weeks ago I went to Kent to find Scotney Old Castle, which has a rare round tower and an attached Tudor house. Why is a medieval defensive castle at the bottom of a valley and not on a hill? The answer is that the river was navigable from the coast. Who knew?

I long to visit the ruins of old Mitford Castle in Northumberland, mostly, I guess, to learn that the Mitfords weren’t always as irritating as they were between the wars. I could stay in Durham, a glory of the North. Cities will be relatively empty in August. For the £ 10,323 the Conservative adviser didn’t spend on a night in the ugly house in St Ives, he could have spent 6.95 nights in the best suite at the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, or a week at the Connaught hotel in London.

There are dreams that don’t involve sitting in traffic in West Cornwall this summer, and they’re worth making. In all, there is an opportunity. Find a mystery and solve it.


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