A letter from Cornwall

Beautiful Grebbe beach at the mouth of the Helford

I had been swimming in the sea. It’s something I do most evenings during the spring, summer, and autumn – always without a wetsuit, finding as I do that the cold Cornish water blows away the cobwebs like nothing else I know. Swimming that daily half mile or so has been the routine of decades and, during that time, has become something of a meditation too, a half hour’s brain rest during which I enjoy the feeling of gliding that comes with a well-practised front crawl. As I swim, I try not to think. It’s a lovely feeling, letting go and allowing sensation to take over – the burn of the sea on my skin, the colours of the underwater as they seep into me – almost golden on hot sunny days and in the chill of autumn, inky and dark. This time, as I emerged from the water, a little boy who was floating in the shallows on one of those inflatable stand up paddle boards (SUP) piped up with a cheerful, “Hello, did you have a nice swim? Did you see much?”

Did I see much? “No, not really, my goggles were steamed up,” I said, and immediately sensed he’d hoped for more.

If I’d been more on the ball, perhaps I could have said something about fish of which I’ve seen very few or jelly fish, of which I’ve seen very many. As far as the fish go, I’ve noticed they tend to keep a low profile during the summer months and only show up back in the relative shallows in the autumn. Pollack, wrasse, and dogfish mainly – you could say they’re the locals. Jelly fish, the summer visitors, tend to clear off by the beginning of September. This year though, they swarmed as never before. During July and the first half of August, there were so many that sometimes, having been stung two or three times during the first couple of hundred metres of my swim, I felt I had no choice but to turn around and abort mission.

It would be mean spirited of me to compare holiday makers to jelly fish, so I won’t. If that little boy, and his mum, who was sitting on a towel on the beach, were visitors, would I wish for them not to have come away on holiday? Not to sample a taste of the beautiful place that I get to enjoy all year round? No, of course not. If I’m honest though, this year has been the first year in the decade or so that I’ve lived in Cornwall, that I’ve really felt that the summer season has been ‘too much’, that the numbers have been so great that at times it has felt oppressive.

Us lot down here at the very toe of the country have a funny relationship with the rest of you. My gran, who was Welsh, not Cornish used to say about visitors, “nice to see you come, nice to see you go”. She was right. For me, the annual influx of visitors during the spring serves as a shot in the arm. It injects additional vitality into a place which can otherwise begin to feel too isolated from the rest of the country, too claustrophobic, too small town, too insular. That sudden increase in numbers comes with a sense of ‘gearing up’ for the summer season which, when it comes is frenetic. The roads are rammed with cars and the tourist town centres are awash with people. The summer trade means there are nice places to eat and drink which wouldn’t necessarily exist if it wasn’t for the tourist money. There are festivals and events which are fun for everyone whether they live here or not. Local people who might not have steady work during the winter now have jobs; the place is temporarily cash rich – buzzing. As August bank holiday approaches, we hit fever pitch, and then it’s all over. The kids go back to school, the pace slows. We go back to normal. Nice to see you come, nice to see you go. Except this year, not so much.

Look closer – how many fire sites can you see?

This year, the numbers have been insane and, while many argue and maybe rightly, that this is good because Cornwall needs the money, needs the jobs, needs the visitors, what is often forgotten is the other side of the coin, the flip side of the tourist pound. A negative impact that isn’t just about the locals complaining of feeling stressed out by how busy everywhere becomes, but which is also a physical strain on our local environment. As I cast my eye over my local beach near Falmouth, the evidence of overburden is everywhere. What do I see? I see plastic waste, not tonnes of it and not all of it recently dropped; some is old and tide worn, but when you look closely, it’s everywhere: food wrappers, the remains of a pair of swimming goggles. One flipper. A plastic water bottle. Over there, dangling from a low branch is a pair of pants someone forgot to put back on, and there, the glint of crinkled aluminium from a left behind instant barbecue. Yes, a lot of rubbish when you look closely. Birds eat it, fish eat it, they get sick, they die.

Every year I am amazed by how elaborate beach going has become, an evolution of habits that reflects what? Our rampant consumerism? Really, I have to hand it to the folks who make the effort to carry all this stuff down here from the car park. It has become the norm for me to trundle down for my swim, Asda ‘bag for life’ in hand, to be greeted by the whiff of charcoal and singed sausages. Sure, people like their barbecues these days, but now it’s a freestanding stainless double barbecue. It’s platters of marinaded chicken, steaks, salads, bottles of beer – a sound system. Deck chairs – an inflatable sofa! It’s incredible. Back in my home county of Devon, I used to ‘do sausages’ in a frying pan on an old camping stove and that seemed quite opulent in the nineties

The lady – the little boy’s mum tends a smoking fire of twigs and barbecue charcoal over which she places a grill and loads it with bangers and burgers. As the food begins to sizzle the fat drips hissing into the flames. She keeps having to get up to gather the family dog, a lurcher called Bonnie who periodically wanders off to lick the stones.

“Back here, Bonnie. Staaay.”

The hound gazes longingly at the stones surrounding it, its hindquarters atremble. It salivates.

Why’s it licking the stones, I think, but of course I know the answer because haven’t I been tiptoeing around the very same pebbles trying not to tread on them? Here, there, everywhere I look are the blackened remains of fires, and the tarry runoff from instant BBQs and, yes, pebbles slathered with a thick layer of sausage and burger grease. It’s not that I begrudge this little family their al fresco supper. On the contrary, how nice that they’re here enjoying the evening, having their tea, and storing away some happy memories. It’s the cumulative effect of it all that gets to me. All those many, many fires and the mucky residue they leave behind. The winter storms will hopefully wash this beach clean but for now it’s filthy and it smells.

What do I see? I see that back when going to the beach meant spreading a blanket, swimming until your skin was mauve and your lips blue, and then wrapping up in a damp towel and sitting down to devour your sandwiches and maybe sip warming tea from a flask – the experience was actually no more or less enjoyable than it is now. Before barbecues were ubiquitous, before you needed a wetsuit to get wet, a floating platform to play on and all the comforts of home transported to the tide line – can you honestly say you had less fun? Think back to when you were a child and how exciting it was to visit the seaside. What was it that was so special? What did you see?

I’m guessing it was the beach and the ocean that you saw, and that what excited you was the elemental thrill of this most dynamic of environments, where the sea meets the shore, the sky pours over the horizon, and all is lit by the glare of the (occasionally) unshaded sun. Am I close?

The Cornish have something of a reputation for being anti-visitor and, particularly in terms of the way second homes and the airbnb bonanza deny local families the dignity of a place to live, you can understand why this might be the case. By and large though, I see far more welcome than hostility; I don’t know many people who refer to visitors using the derogatory ’emmets’, Cornish for ants. What I do see though, is that we who live and work here, whether born Cornish or not, and you who do not live here, could both do better. As I hop around on one foot trying to stuff my leg back into my shorts while avoiding landing on the grease and charcoal strewn everywhere, I remember lifeguard friends who spent their winters in Australia. Stories of Auz told of different ways of doing things. Over there, if you want to barbecue at a popular beach, you bring your food to a communal cook site, pay for your gas, grill your shrimp and snags over the barbie, and take it all back to your patch of sand to consume. If we’re going to continue to accommodate more tourists, why don’t we put some infrastructure in place to handle the numbers while avoiding turning our beautiful beaches into the equivalent of the bins out the back of a greasy spoon?

A dirty beach might seem a small price to pay for the financial benefits that accrue from tourism, but it’s not just the sand and pebbles which finish the summer season feeling worn down and over used. I could easily say the same of our roads and town centres, parks and open spaces, and our public services. Take our local NHS which, despite caring for all the extra people who use its services while they’re on holiday, receives not so much as one penny extra to help pay for it. Just how does our one main hospital, and an ambulance service designed to cater for a population of around half a million, cope with the annual trebling or quadrupling of numbers. Answer: it can’t. Witness last week’s announcement from Treliske hospital in Truro, that all routine and urgent surgery is to be halted due to pressure on services resulting from a combination of Covid, case numbers of which exploded after the G7 conference and later, the Boardmasters festival, bed blocking, plus continuing high demand from among others – tourists. This unwelcome announcement came along with a plea for local people and holiday makers to think twice before calling 999 for health emergencies because the ambulance service can’t cope with the numbers. Clearly, it’s not just beach barbecuing which could be better organised.

Did you know Norway has the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world? It’s because they licensed the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas reserves to the benefit of their citizens. I see that tourists could be to the Cornish what oil is to the Norwegians. Why not tax the businesses which make a killing from camping, eating out, entertainments, and accommodation rental, to create a Cornish wealth fund to help pay for the upkeep of our infrastructure and environment, and to benefit the health, wealth, and wellbeing of the local population who, as-well-as living in one of the most visually stunning parts of the country, also live in one of the poorest.

Would you object to paying a little extra for your holiday to boost such a fund? Does that seem unfair? What if you knew the money was going to help to provide housing for local families who, even as you enjoy your stay in a pretty Cornish cottage, have been completely priced out of the housing market by holiday accommodation companies, Airbnb landlords, incomers, and second home buyers, and have nowhere to live? What if your money was used to boost the Cornish NHS services so that they could carry on serving the local community even as they pick up the pieces when your holiday goes wrong? Maybe you could save money elsewhere – and do something concrete to help the environment – by, for example, hiring a surfboard for the week rather than buying one forever. Hire wetsuits – that way no matter how much anyone has grown (or shrunk) since your last visit, you and your children can always wear a suit that actually fits and keeps you warm? Or just don’t bother with wetsuits at all and try getting cold instead – it’s good for you as long as you don’t overdo it. Maybe avoid buying boogie boards and try body surfing instead; it’s actually far more fun. Why not cook on gas which doesn’t release a cloud of particulate matter into the air, and clean the grease off your frying pan at home? Or bring sandwiches like we used to.

What do I see? I see a child chattering excitedly as his mum towels his hair, and then he sits and sinks his teeth into the freshly cooked hotdog she passes him. Somethings never change – a dip the sea makes you ravenous. Me too, I think and waving the pair goodbye, I head back to my car, my mind set on chips. This year of all years, despite the feeling of overwhelm, it has been good to see so many people enjoy a holiday. It’s just that if you’re going to keep coming in such numbers, and if you’re to continue to find a warm welcome here, we have to think differently and do things a little differently. That, I do see.

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