It’s the last day of free parking at Porthtowan beach on Cornwall’s wild Atlantic coast before the summer charging season begins. Plenty of people are making the most of the sunny but cold day. The steep hills surrounding the cove are bright yellow with gorse in full bloom, framing the brilliant turquoise sea against the cobalt sky.
The wind is up, and white-peaked waves roar on to the sand and cliffs. There are some holidaymakers around, with children bundled up in hats and gloves along with buckets and spades – but most are locals enjoying this quieter time before the tourist season kicks off once again.
Porthtowan will be the backdrop to a not-so-picture-postcard scene this weekend, however, when it hosts a rally of rage against the tide of second home ownership that is threatening to wash away the very soul of Cornwall.
The county has been romanticised as a dreamy destination for decades. Television schedules are full of programmes on Cornwall, espousing its long walks and pub lunches. Centuries of remoteness, and a life once dominated by farming, mining and fishing, have given way to Instagrammable photo opportunities and aspirational ideals of life by the sea. But locals are increasingly fearful that it has become over-exposed, overpriced and in danger of losing the essence of what makes it such a unique place.
The pandemic has stirred up these tensions by further fuelling a property boom, with locals finding themselves priced out by housing wealth from up country that Cornish wages can’t compete with, while at the same time record numbers of visitors use Cornwall as a holiday playground and then leave.
The divisions are evident – graffiti was daubed on a holiday home in St Agnes last month. Days later, comments by the chef Gordon Ramsay, who has a second home in Cornwall, about “loving” the county “but hating the Cornish” stoked the fires further.
Given that £2bn of revenue comes from tourism, up to a fifth of all private sector income in the county, some say that Cornwall shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds it. But for many who live there, it’s as much about incomers and visitors showing appreciation and consideration as it is about money.
A nurse walking on Porthtowan beach, who didn’t want to give her name, turns to look back at the sea before getting in her car. “It’s so beautiful, it’s such a special place. Look at what we have. Who am I to say that someone from Liverpool or Huddersfield or any town anywhere can’t come here and enjoy it too? We are so lucky to live here and we want to share it with others, but we do want Cornwall to be treated with respect,” she says.
“I grew up here, I’ll never leave. Some people say Cornwall should just be for the Cornish – I don’t agree with that sentiment at all. I mean, what does it mean to be Cornish? There are people who live here who’ve come from all over the world, and they have every right to make a life here and be part of communities here. I don’t even have a problem with second homes in principle – but people who live and work here should be able to afford to live here too.”
Retirees John Adey and Penny Avant have also been enjoying a brisk walk on the beach. They moved from neighbouring Devon to be nearer their daughters, both of whom live in fields, one in a caravan, one in a cabin, because of lack of housing options.
“There is a myth that Cornwall is totally dependent on tourism. It’s not. It’s full of lots of people who have normal jobs. And those that do work in tourism need jobs that are all-year-round. We can understand why people come, why it’s so attractive. But it feels like Cornwall is on the edge now. It can’t exist just as a holiday destination. Once communities are gone, then the whole place becomes a theme park,” says Adey.
Kim Conchie, who runs the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, admits tourism has put the county close to breaking point. “Visitors provide a lot of colour to Cornwall, a lot of custom, and have driven a rise in standards in restaurants, food offerings and accommodation. If people are coming here and paying for services that Cornwall has to offer in a vernacular way that suits the Cornish psyche, then I’m all in favour of them.
“But there were visitors last year who hadn’t got any feel for the soul of Cornwall, and I think that upset locals a lot – especially those with brand new Range Rovers that won’t pull into the hedge because they might scratch the side. Those attitudes create conflict,” says Conchie.
“The second homes debate is a real one, and anyone denying it is burying their head in the sand,” he says, adding that he would like Cornwall to have the power to do the same as the Welsh government and heavily tax second homes.
He wants to see a much more balanced economy. “There is more to Cornwall than tourism. We want a thriving hospitality sector, but one that works alongside other industries, like technology and renewable energy. If Cornwall’s future is based around those things, then it could be quite a rosy one – we could be on the cusp of a new golden age for Cornwall.”
Jess Ratty is part of that vanguard fighting for a future far removed from the perception of Cornwall as nothing more than holidays, cream teas and pasties. The 37-year-old grew up in St Austell and never left. She began as a waitress at the Eden Project and now runs a thriving PR and communications agency, Halo, which works with global technology and space industries.
“We have soul, culture, history – and opinions – here in Cornwall,” she says. “I think problems lie in the lack of communication, which many of us are trying to fix. We actually have one of the best tech scenes in the UK – marine tech, rocket science, agri-tech, health tech, clean tech. And we’re working on new skills, powered by bodies like Cornwall’s Digital Skills Partnership.
“The space sector alone is going to bring the types of jobs our engineering and mining ancestors would give their back teeth for, and opportunities for young people that just don’t get talked about enough.”
“I have a young daughter and I want her to grow up here and feel like Cornwall is a place where she belongs. It is her home and it should also be her place of work as well as a playground for all,” she says. “I think we can do that – with ambition, support and understanding of the true situation many people face.”
She has offered to have a friendly pint with Gordon Ramsay any time. But it’s not just Ramsay who has raised hackles. The co-founder of the Eden Project, Sir Tim Smit, recently suggested the Cornish are prone to harking back to imaginary “good old days”, and moaning about their lot while not being “articulate enough” to speak up for themselves.
Smit was speaking in a podcast made by the comedian and musician Seamas Carey, who grew up in and lives in Cornwall. After tuning the piano of a second-home owner while struggling to find somewhere to live himself, Carey, 28, decided to make a podcast exploring the issues he was facing. From gentrification and second-home ownership to nationalism and Cornwall’s cultural heritage, he went on a personal journey through Cornwall’s soul.
“I wanted to spark conversations and debate,” says Carey. He worries for the future of Cornwall, but as he finishes editing the last episode of his series, ultimately feels more positive about Cornwall than when he started. “I worry massively about where I am going to live. But the narrative is changing, and it’s wrong to put the blame on certain scapegoats.
“The Cornish can be grumpy, although people do come here and trample all over the place. But look at the history of Cornwall – it’s been a global trading hub for thousands of years,” he says.
“I think some of the traditionalists are holding on too tightly to what they think is Cornish culture. The spirit of Cornwall, well – it can be anything and can be embodied by so-called newcomers as much as anyone. Things always change. I remain hopeful about life here – it’s frustrating and challenging. But totally worth it.”