We’re in a rather swish hotel overlooking the beach at Mawgan Porth, one of our favourite coffee stops, watching a drama unfold. In the adjoining dining room a waitress had been standing, pencil poised over her pad, for quite sometime alongside a group of three ‘yummy mummies’ waiting for them to abandon checking their emails to give her a breakfast order.
It had been a long wait. Eventually one of the women looked up and said imperiously, ‘we’ll have what we had yesterday’ and then resumed her animated tapping on her phone. The waitress, obviously having no idea what the group had ordered yesterday, looked flustered.
A different woman looked around the room for her child and eventually located him on the outside terrace where the railings overlooking the sea provided an enticing challenge to an active toddler. We’d already noted the absence of adult presence in an area where several young children were running unsupervised, the game of the day being upturning all the outside furniture.
‘Theodore, do you want smoked salmon or eggs Benedict?’
Theodore, a hefty three year old, was too busy lobbing gravel at the plate glass window behind which I was sitting to reply.
His mother said, ‘could you check again in a few minutes?’
The waitress nodded politely and walked back to the kitchen, her expressionless face a perfect example of the well honed forbearance ingrained in the very fabric of Service Industries. The visage cracked as she muttered to Marigold in passing, ‘Theodore needs his backside tanning.’
We didn’t disagree.
Two young (ish) women are carrying on a loud conversation behind us. It says Tranquility Area on the entrance door, but they must have misunderstood the meaning. Marigold nudges me and we do that mutual eye rolling thing.
I can’t see the protagonists but their conversation reveals a great deal. (You know you’re entering your cantankerous phase when a few simple sentences uttered by complete strangers is sufficient to set your teeth on edge.)
Here’s a section of that conversation.
‘I brought 36 tops.’
‘36? For a week?’
‘Yeah, a week’s holiday, that’s loads of selfies. Can’t be in the pics always wearing the same stuff can I?’
‘Yes, but 36 tops? Don’t reckon I brought more than twenty.’
‘Couldn’t get any more in the cases. I can always buy some more if we go clothes shopping.’
‘Oh, we will, we will.’
As the unseen couple dissolve into raucous laughter, our regular waitress, the one who spoils us rotten due to our regular attendance as locals as distinct from transitory hotel residents, turns up with our coffee, toast and three newspapers intended for residents but intercepted in transit.
‘This lot,’ she mutters, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the dining room crammed with breakfasting guests, ‘they’re worse than the August crowd. We lose the school age crowd and they were bad enough, but this mob with a granny or nanny in tow and pre school kids left to run riot are even worse.’
‘Hotel looks busy,’ Marigold said.
‘We’re packed. When aren’t we? This place costs an arm and a leg and there’s never a free room. I haven’t had a day off for weeks. Give us our Cornwall back I say.’
It’s a recurring theme, this resentment of visitors. We hear it all the time. I have my sympathies. And yet, and yet…
‘He told him that he saw a vast multitude and a promiscuous, their habitations like molehills, the men as emmets.’
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
‘Once a dream did weave a shade O'er my angel-guarded bed That an emmet lost its way Where on grass methought I lay.’
William Blake, Songs of Innocence, A Dream.
Derived from the Cornish language word for “ant,” the ‘emmet’ is an analogy for the way in which both tourists and ants are often burnt to a vivid red colour and appear to mill around aimlessly. Emmets, the summer visitors, if you’re ‘Cornish,’ are a bit of a nuisance, blocking the roads with their cars and caravans, thronging the narrow streets of picturesque Cornish villages and the locals would rather they weren’t there at all.
In Devon they feel the same way, but their summer influx are termed ‘grockles.’ It makes a change from arguing about the correct way to present a Cream Tea which has been raging for generations. In simple terms a ‘proper job Cornish cream tea’ has the scone coated with jam, then and only then is the clotted cream applied.
Mix them up at your peril. It’s cream on scone with a jam topping in Devon and better to be termed an emmet than being confirmed as Devonian.
Of course, without the despised emmets Cornwall would be a virtual Third World Country - I say ‘Country’ not ‘County’ as every Cornish born and bred local knows Cornwall is not part of England and never has been. Cornwall, even whilst still seeking, or even demanding, separate nation status could not survive without tourists.
Part of the trouble, of course, is that Cornwall has never been rich in anything much except fish and tin. Fishing stocks have dwindled and tin mining exists only on the set of ‘Poldark’.
Tourism, mass tourism, became the only game in town. The beaches are glorious, 400 of them dotted around a vast coastline - the ramblers’ path around the coast of Cornwall is 300 miles long – and wherever you are in Cornwall you’re never more than 20 miles from the sea.
We’ve lived in close proximity to Mediterranean beaches, wandered along the shorelines of Australia, New Zealand, California and many other exotic locations and can honestly say nowhere we’ve ever been exceeds the sheer beauty of many of the beaches and sparkling blue waters we found in Cornwall. Add in the Eden Project, the Tate Gallery in St Ives and many more ‘attractions’ of that ilk and it’s easy to see why the tourists come.
They come every year, in vast numbers, despite a woefully inadequate road network and the environmental damage caused by far too many seasonal visitors. Pubs, restaurants, hotels and car parking spaces are deluged with trade every summer. When the visitors leave there’s virtually nothing left.
No jobs, that’s for sure, locals can’t afford a house as the outsiders have bought up most of the housing stock to use as holiday homes and the beaches revert to one man and his dog status until next Easter.
We pop into Newquay every now and then, it’s only just up the road but in July and August it’s a madhouse. On our last visit we went for an early morning walk on Fistral Beach, not a very strenuous walk but glorious in the early morning with just a dozen or so surfers on the water.
We intended to wander up to the Headland Hotel for a coffee, but on the spur of the moment decided to go to the Atlantic Hotel instead. They’re both Newquay icons and while we prefer the rambling splendour of the Headland it’s never a bad thing to act on a whim.
The Atlantic it would be then. The uniformed man guarding the revolving doors welcomed us inside and then asked if we were here for the party. Marigold was looking lovely as usual, but I had dressed for a wander along a beach and was looking fairly dishevelled even by my lamentably low standards.
We said we weren’t here for a party and he grinned and waved a hand at the selection of high end limousines in the car park. ‘Wall to wall toffs today,’ he confided, ‘there’s a party getting set up to celebrate the end of the season but I reckon they’re a bit premature. We’re chock a block for October and my mate at the Headland Hotel says they’re the same. Looks like we’re stuck with the emmets for even longer this year.’
We walked into the lobby, both a tad pleased to be so readily taken for Cornish ‘natives’ and immediately saw what the planned party was all about. There were tables being laid, flowers placed in vases and a group of women dressed up to the nines bustling about with place cards.
‘Hello,’ one woman called out and we turned to see the owner of an artisan bakery we occasionally chat to when our paths cross. We went over to say hello and received news of a celebratory party to mark the official end of summer.
‘Last day in September,’ our informant said, ‘from tomorrow all the beaches revert to being dog friendly, not just some of them, and the visitors vanish until Easter.’
Behind her the dining room was packed with hotel guests and we’d just been told of buoyant bookings for the following month, but we’re far too well mannered to argue the point.
‘Newquay becomes our town again. We can park our cars, get a table in a restaurant, walk on the beaches, isn’t it marvellous?’
We agreed it was indeed marvellous and went in search of a restorative coffee. Our waiter wasn’t slow in putting an alternative view. ‘My last shift,’ he muttered, ‘only told me yesterday there’d be nothing doing here after today. I’m summer relief, see, not permanent, but most of them will be off at the end of next month as well.’
‘What will you do?’ Marigold asked. She’s a worrier, usually on behalf of other people.
‘Dunno. Might have to go back on the dole. There’s loads of us being laid off and every other place will be the same I reckon.’
There’s the conundrum. Locals begrudge the influx of visitors but without them, what’s left? Very little I fear.