Monday, 9 August 2010

Cornwall is Another Country - They Do Things Differently There

On my holidays I met a lady who runs a tea shop. This is of course nothing unusual, when you visit Cornwall you eat pasties, go to the beach and drink plenty of tea. However, this lady is from the village where my sister lives. Her children were born in the same hospital as my children, she says she misses the blue cheese salad dressing they do at the pub at the end of my street. To many women this lady is living the dream: she chucked in life in the midlands and opened up a teashop in Cornwall: so I asked her how things had changed for her. She told me that Cornwall felt like another country. I've been thinking about this and I can see what she means. Cornwall does feel like a different country, with different landscapes, a different culture, different foods - but for me, so does the North East. When I first went to Sunderland and Newcastle it felt different, there was a distinct Geordie culture, even the North Yorkshire coast feels "elsewhere" to me. I don't know whether it's these far out of the way coastal places have retained their traditional regional cultures more than Warwickshire or Leicestershire or that, as a midlander, the culture of the sea-faring counties is far removed from my own traditions and landscapes. Either way, it is remarkable that in an age where nearly every town has Next and a Costa that this small island of our has managed to retain as much tradition and difference as we have.
Above is a picture of Looe Bridge. Looe is quite a bustling little seaside town, and rather old-fashioned and not a bit chi-chi (unlike Falmouth and perhaps St Ives). My children loved Looe, but on the whole, I think I preferred Polperro - the village 3 or 4 miles down the coast. It was very beautiful and individual and less packed full of sun-scorched holiday makers.

Up until the early twentieth century, when the coastal Cornish economy was dependent on fish rather than tourism, the village women used to supplement their income by hand-knitting Guernseys (or what they called knit-frocks). Whilst I was in Looe I picked up a lovely little book on the history of Cornish knitting, Cornish Guernseys and Knit-frocks, by Mary Wright. In it she writes:
In Looe, knitters regularly organised collections of guernseys from their group, packing about eight or ten each upon their backs. They walked over the cliffs to Plymouth - "about twelve miles, if you know the short cuts" - to deliver them to "W. Johns and Co., General Drapers of Old Town Street", and other agents. They walked in their "pattins", a sort of wooden clog with an iron rim at the bottom which raised their feet an inch or an inch and a half off the ground, to protect them from the wet. They knitted all the way, often pinning and extra skein of yarn to their skirts, "so they would never run out". On their return journey, they brought fresh supplies of yarn.
I'm a keen knitter and a keen walker, but I cannot imagine doing a twelve mile cliff top walk, in clogs, whilst knitting. Did I mention that these guernseys were always knitted in the round? If you're a knitter, or interested in social history, do try to get hold of Mary Wright's wonderful little book, which includes many traditional Cornish guernsey patterns.

Above is a short film on the beauty of Polperro. However, if you look at the photos of the steep cliff paths you may get a sense of the lives of those Cornish knitters.

And finally, here's a short film of the opening of the Polperro festival...a treat for all you folkies!

Anon, goode huswives, anon!


Left-Handed Housewife said...

I heard a radio show recently about a treadmill that goes very, very slowly--a mile an hour or so--that you can use while you're working (it has a platform attached for your computer). I thought it might be nice for knitting. Unlike walking along steep cliffs and knitting, which I would find hazardous to my health. Nonetheless, when I'm on a knitting binge, I knit pretty much every where except at the wheel of my car (and even then, sometimes I knit at red lights), so I get what these women were all about. When you gotta knit, you gotta knit.

Sue said...

I think every blogger I read has been holidaying in Cornwall this summer. We're off to the Lizard for a week later this month too. I agree with you that Cornwall does feel like a different country. I think it's the sea -it affects everything down there and the fact that the whole county is a peninsula means you're never far from it.

Knitting, in the round, whilst walking - give me a granny square any day ;o)

GretchenJoanna said...

I had to miss Cornwall when my daughter and I visited England some years ago, but my husband's family are from there. I learned a lot from this post!

Gumbo Lily said...

I think I would like to see Cornwall one day. Come to America and see the variety amongst our states.


Like sunshine in the home said...

Ahh, Cornwall. I love Cornwall, and you are right it does feel like a totally different country. Of all the places in England, Cornwall is my idyllic paradise (well the pretty bits anyway) :).

For me, Sunderland and Newcastle didn't feel like a different world. I lived in Sunderland for three years (did my degree up there), the culture seemed very similar to my north-west town (as you know we aren't coastal). Except there were no hills, I yearned for my hills when I resided there - oh and warmer clothes, it's a parky when the east wind blows off the sea.

Did you have good weather in lovely Cornwall? It's been tipping it down around here almost constantly. I've had good reports of Cornish weather from a couple of people I know who have visited there recently.

Left-Handed Housewife said...

p.s. I've been watching a show set in Cornwall called "Doctor Martin." Beautiful setting, whacky townsfolk. Love it!


GretchenJoanna said...

I sent a link to this post to a friend who loves to knit in the round, and she said she was currently really focused on Cornwall because of the Doc Martin series! So I added it to my husband's Netflix list.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Southpaw
I know what it is to be on a knitting kick. I, however, have not kintter for nearly a year! I'm doing a bit og redwork embroidery atm. Jazzing up some napkins. Could I walk on a treadmill and knit? If it were just a bit of stocking stitch...anything more would have me weeping over my cable needle. I'm glad you like Doc Martin!

Hi Sue
One day you'll have to do an online tutorial for those of us desperate for a bit of granny square input!

Hi Gretchen
It's quite out of the way, for an English county, so I'm not surprised you didn't manage to get there. Apparently, lots of Cornish emmigrated, both to the USA and Australia, many Cornish men would send money earnt abraod back to their relatives. I know your friend will love the Mary Wright book. Enjoy Doc Matin!

Hi Jodi
There have been mutterings amongst the Domum clan of taking a trip to the USA. Must save pennies!

Hi Sarah
I thought of you when I was there, old bean. The weather was very good, apart from the last day when we had a very atmospheric walk on Bodmin Moor.

My best friend went to Sunderland - I used to visit. It was a culture shock. They eat chips with cheese on! Crazy Geordies!

Dulce Domum said...

Typos, typos, typos. Sorry folks!

Lisa Richards said...

My hubby's family came to America from Cornwall a few generations back. I'd love to visit! Thanks so much for the wonderful videos.

Like sunshine in the home said...

Not as crazy as the Scots' battered Mars Bars that they sell in their chippies. Urgh!

Oh and don't call a Sunderlandish person 'Geordie', for some reason they get rather upset, it's 'Mackam' (not sure how you spell it).

Waye Aye Pet!

Wartime Housewife said...

Great Post DD, particularly loved the Folkie treat! I can knit but I don't enjoy it; my mother watched me knit when she wants a laugh.

Incidentally Dr Martin is filmed at Port Isaac in Cornwall and is well worth a visit.