Arriving in Cornwall: First Impressions

I went to Cornwall at the height of tourist season (July 19-August 7) which meant crowding and price hikes in transportation and lodging. But there were benefits as well: everything was open late and I got to observe the other painfully touristy visitors to Cornwall firsthand. The ridiculous souveneirs were everywhere: anything with a pirate or seashell or authentic Cornish phrase on it was pushed on the shoppers. I even a stuffed pasty in one store. Imagine a store selling a calzone with pigtails and googly eyes. It’s just not right and left me wondering- do people actually buy them?

Even before I arrived, I had read many articles and essays about the complicated problem of tourism in Cornwall and many novels poking fun at the incompetence and insensitivity of urban visitors. So I looked down on the beach loungers and water sporters around me, even as I was uncomfortably aware that I was in many ways a member of their ranks. I took a lot of pictures, had to consult street maps, and didn’t always recognize everything on the menu. But in other ways I was extremely proud of how quickly I blended in. Several times people asked me for directions, so I must have looked somewhat comfortable. Sometimes I could even pull out my map and help them. I knew what was in a traditional pasty and could recognize the Cornish flag when I saw it flying.

Cornwall is a long train ride away from London. The SW of England extends on and on, much longer than you’d expect, so a train from London to the end of the line in Penzance actually takes 7 hours. It’s common to do this over night, but I went during the day and so could enjoy the view. There was no fanfare or sudden change of scenery and architecture as the train crossed the Tamar River Bridge from Devon into Cornwall. The most obvious initial differences were the “Welcome to Cornwall” sign also said “Kernow a’gas dynnergh,” and many of the Cornish station platforms were shorter than the train.

Falmouth, the first town I stayed in, was incredible. The streets and coastline were great for wandering. The town is somewhat geared toward tourists, but its huge harbor with industrial cranes and cargo ships  made it feel like a ‘real place’ rather than just a seaside resort. I didn’t want to leave, even to see the rest of Cornwall, and had fantasies about moving there. It was also the only place where I stayed in a bed &breakfast in a single room.

I went to the National Maritime Museum. It charged 9 pounds; if I’d gone to the city for purely tourism purposes I would never have gone in, but it was actually really interesting. They had a library attached, but because of the maritime emphasis I didn’t find much relevant to my research.

Five miles away, or a 5 minute train ride, is the town of Penryn which has the Cornwall campus for the University of Exeter. Their university library was free and open to the public from 9-9 so I did the bulk of my research here.

Philip Payton, the preeminent figure in Cornish Studies, teaches the graduate program at this university. His book ‘Cornwall a History’ could be found even in my home county’s library, and he was inducted into the Cornish Gorsedd or Council of Bards.

The library was only a fraction of the size of Swem, but it had rows and rows of material related to Cornish history literature and culture and to Celtic studies in general. I had justified the trip in my application by saying that materials would be easier to find in Cornwall but I never imagine there would be so much. I had to modify my schedule because I spent so many hours in this one library. They even had a book written in Cornish, which I couldn’t read at all. I had planned to spend one day there but ended up spending all three because I found so much.

Penzance was my next stop, and was mostly a base for exploring nearby towns. Truro, the capital, hosts the National Cornwall Museum, which was comprehensive for history and culture.

The library upstairs had a wonderful atmosphere; several people sat at large drafting tables, some with ancient fragile maps or church records. One student came in looking for information about a rare coin he had. I told the librarian my research topic and she returned with a mountain of books and journals. She came back later to ask me more specific questions about what I was looking for. I regretted not being able to go back, because Penryn had taken so much longer than expected. But I did enough research there that sources all began to overlap.

This trip definitely cemented my desire to be a librarian. Every person I met was kind helpful curious and knowledgeable. I suppose anyone who wants to be a librarian has these traits naturally and hones them over years of work.

I’m also considering working in a hostel for a gap year between college and grad school. YHA, which is Hostelling International in the US, had a typical price range but excellent facilities and often attracts families and middle-aged solo travellers for a safe and classy feel.