Celtic England: Cornwall

La Cornovaglia è la regione più occidentale delle Isole britanniche, una meta turistica molto frequentata dagli amanti della natura ma che per secoli è rimasta isolata e della quale si conosce poco della sua storia millenaria, dalla dominazione romana all’arrivo dei Celti che lasciarono un’impronta indelebile su questo territorio selvaggio.

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Daniel Francis

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Cornwall, the most westerly of England’s forty-eight counties, has been called Britain’s “forgotten fifth nation”, its place unrecognised alongside England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its culture, history and identity are frequently overlooked by native Brits. Yet its story is one of the most fascinating in the long saga of the British Isles.

Cornwall’s Story

Cornwall’s story begins with the departure of the Romans from Britain in the 4th century. The Anglo-Saxons then invaded Britain and pushed the country’s indigenous Celtic tribes more and more to the west. These last native Britons —Celtic Christians, with their own language— were finally pushed off their own land in 936, when King Athelstan drove them across the River Tamar into the westernmost corner of the island. The Tamar is actually one of the oldest borders in Europe, marking a tousand-year-divide between Celtic Cornwall (or ‘Kernow’ in Cornish) and Anglo-Saxon England.   

   

Suppression

Centuries of failed rebellions against the Anglo-Saxons culminated in 1549 with a revolt against the imposition of a new Protestant English-language prayer book. The Celts lost, English was enforced in the churches, and Cornwall’s culture and language entered a centuries-long period of suppression. Cornwall became a poor backwater, notable only for its tin mining industry, which would eventually dominate world production in the 19th century, before falling into decline. In 2006, Cornwall’s copper and tin mines were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.    

Celtic Revival

Centuries of cultural suppression and Cornish emigration finally finished in the mid-19th century, as railways, bridges and viaducts —products of Britain’s Industrial Revolution— ended Cornwall’s isolation, opening up the county to the rest of the country. With the railways came tourists, and the promotion of this new industry helped revive Cornwall’s Celtic identity. The “wild land to the west” was sold as the mythical home of King Arthur.

Tourism Jobs

Today, tourism is responsible for 20 per cent of Cornwall’s jobs. Five million tour ists, mostly British, visit every year. The Gulf Stream shines on Cornwall, giving it 1,541 hours of sunlight a year. There are miles of beaches with sand dunes, and the ocean breakers attract surfers from around the world. Tourists also come for the attractive fishing villages and historic market towns, and the deep, wooded valleys. They can also wander around the medieval castles and stately homes, and the huge indoor, tropical gardens at the Eden Project. Many visit Land’s End, England’s most southwesterly point.

Cornish Identity

Tourists are also attracted by Cornwall’s very particular identity, now increasingly on show, which includes its own Celtic language. Cornish speakers numbered just twenty people in 2000 but had jumped to 557 in 2011. The language has a growing presence, with Cornish street signs and classes in schools. The county has its own dance and sports cultures, including hurling and wrestling, also increasingly popular. Stars of the local cuisine are fish and ‘pasties’. The ‘Cornish pasty’ (‘oggies’ to the locals), now a popular street food throughout Britain, is a pastry-based dish filled with beef, onion, potato and swede.

Backed by Science

Cornwall’s growing sense of a distinct identity received scientific support in 2015, when Oxford University researchers carried out the most detailed DNA mapping yet of Britain’s genetic ancestry. They found a clear genetic divide at the Cornish border, with blood beyond the River Tamar flowing as Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon. Experts say these Celts originally came from Iberia. On their travels, they also founded communities in Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Pushed by the Anglo-Saxons almost to the cliffs of the beautiful but dangerous Cornish coast, Cornwall’s Celts managed to survive, and now, more than a thousand years later, are once again reasserting pride in their past and their future.

Growing Pride

Cornish people’s pride in their own distinct identity has been growing in recent years. In fact, there is a centuries-old saying: “A Cornishman is a Cornishman first, and an Englishman reluctantly.” In 2002, Cornish was named as a British regional language in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Twelve years later, Cornish people were granted minority status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, giving them recognition as a distinct ethnic group. In the same year, the British Government recognised for the first time the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish people. A political group in the county called Mebyon Kernow (the Sons of Cornwall) is now fighting for the creation of a National Assembly.

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