Cornwall’s North – South Divide

North or South Cornwall? Country Life investigates the case for both…

The case for North Cornwall

Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, writer and broadcaster, spends much of his time in Port Isaac. “My wife, Jackie, lured me to North Cornwall about 11 years ago, and we’ve been living there on and off ever since. The thing I love most is that it’s unapologetically north Cornish, not Weybridge or Godalming, and completely free of the creeping tendency towards beige, cagoules and his n’ hers chunky knitwear that you find in the south. If you get in a car and drive for 5+ hours, you want to arrive somewhere different. North Cornwall gives you tough love; the rocks are black and craggy, the sea can be treacherous and nothing grows except at a ridiculous angle. We have none of the voluptuous explosions of palm trees that flourish around Torquay.

“Saying that, the residents have woken up to the fact that you need shops: there is a Lulu Guinness in Wadebridge now, and it won’t be long before the fishermen are sealing the bottom of their boats with ‘tit tape’ and making nets out of Vegas hairpieces.

“People in the south are too polite and apologetic. It has none of those big, scary mob activities such as raves and none of North Cornwall’s anarchic spirit. Tim Smit had to put the Eden project in south Cornwall because the plants wouldn’t have grown in the north, and if they did, people would have smoked them. North Cornish people are still wreckers. They may not loot boats from the Orient any more, but they like to wreck the battalions of 4x4s that surge down from Fulham during the summer. Never ask for directions if you drive one because you’re more than likely to end up in the sea.

“I love the fact that the north has a dark side. There is something sexy, scary and iconoclastic about it. Not only that, there is a fantastic sense of community. We’ve had the house in Port Isaac for six years, and the locals have always made us feel included. They’ve even honoured me with a Cornish passport. Sadly, we’ve never been asked to take part in any wife swapping, only the odd wine-and-cheese party or fête. It is worth mentioning that I have a large floral hat for those occasions and a pair of jewel-encrusted scissors.

“North Cornwall has a complete absence of the things that would have had Celia Fiennes turning in her grave. Another reason I might go south would be to visit the Eden Project. I have a boisterous relationship with Tim Smit, despite my conviction that he’s a Bond villain and in 100 years we’ll all be forced to live in biodomes.

“Rick Stein has done a lot to put north Cornwall on the food map, and now Jamie Oliver is getting in on the act with a restaurant outside Newquay. The other thing about north Cornwall is the surfing, although I don’t actually surf. My idea of swimming is parking the Bentley on the beach, and it is a popular misconception that it is impossible to be chic on the beach. There is a kind of sartorial war of escalation going on between A. N. Wilson and I; he likes to turn up with three or four ties on, so I try to arrive with five or six hats.

The case for South Cornwall

Author William Shawcross has been going to south Cornwall since the 1950s

“I am not Cornish: no up country foreigner is ever really accepted by the Cornish, but I have been going there a long time and so I try to claim at least a virtual kinship.

Every summer in the 1950s, my parents piled us into the back of their car at 2am in the morning for the long night drive from Sussex over the small roads that wound down to Cornwall. I remember seeing the grim outline of Jamaica Inn at dawn and then it was down across the moors into Truro, breakfast at the Red Lion and then half an hour down tiny lanes into Falmouth Bay and the joy of a seemingly endless summer, messing about in boats in one of the greatest natural harbours in the world. I have been going back there almost every year ever since.

Let’s be gracious: the coastline of the north is more magnificent (where it has not been destroyed by man). Much grander than the south. But what the north lacks is the thousand of rivers, inlets, creeks, and fishing villages that we enjoy on the south coast. We have better, gentler weather, and therefore we have most of the fabulous gardens which are one of the great glories of Cornwall Trebah, Glendurgan, Carhays, Heligan, Tregothnan. All these wonderful creations of the Victorian explorers are on or near the south coast. March on the north coast is pretty bleak, but in these gardens the 10-storey high rhododendrons and azaleas are at their peak in March. The north coast just cannot nurture them at any time of year.

The North has Betjeman damn it but we have A. L. Rowse and John le Carré. Northern beaches, like northern cliffs, are grander and longer than ours, but we have exquisite little coves with soft sand and rocky corners to climb and fish in all along the south. In the north, they have surf which is great fun but oh so tedious, day after day after day. In the south, we have a much greater variety of seas than they do up there.

South Cornwall is just that much farther away from the huge new roads that have been built across the land since I was a boy. And so it is that little bit less ruined than the north. It is a bit less crowded in the summer and (I think) there is less louche behaviour than there is in, say, Newquay or Rock. There is less of both Essex and Kensington on the south coast.

The Fal, the Helford, and the Fowey rivers are still completely glorious heaven for Swallows and Amazons type sailors; there are parts of them (such as Frenchman’s Creek) where almost nothing seems to have changed in the last half century except that the boats are much more numerous (and often much more ugly) than they used to be. Too many people, too little sea.”

The bottom line is this: despite the immense and often irresistible pressures on all the loveliest parts of this sceptred isle, both sides of Cornwall still have exquisite areas which everyone, both Cornish and foreigners from the East, should protect. The fabulous coastal path links us if the hinterland does not. Let Cornwall unite!