The beaches are not the only places to be deserted in Cornwall in the winter. We visited Cawsand and Kingsand, two small villages joined at the hip, which at one time straddled the Cornwall/Devon border. (The border has now been shifted further east and follows the course of the River Tamar.) Had I known of the old border when we were in the villages, I would have looked out for the actual house which perches astride it and proclaims its unique position in its house name.
The villages are sited in a natural cove, and we could see the roofs of Plymouth across the estuary. I found it a trifle unsettling. Modernity and history seemed just a little too close together for comfort. And it felt rather sad to see the Christmas lights still strung across the streets. To be fair, it was still January (albeit the very end of the month), but it made me wonder.
Regardless of those small misgivings, it was a beautiful little place: pastel-coloured houses piled higgledy-piggledy on top of each other along topsy-turvy streets barely wide enough for people, let alone vehicles, to pass through.
Talking of people – we didn’t quite have the village to ourselves but it was more difficult to take photographs including people than not.
We passed a couple of ladies bearing bags of shopping, and a couple more with trailing children in their wake: it was school pick-up time. We saw one or two older couples who looked like we probably did: wanderers enjoying the peace and empty lanes. Though there was also a sense of desolation and lives paused as we passed chairs piled haphazardly and the occasional boarded window.
Essentially the village was quiet. Apart from the various building, renovating and decorating works that were underway. Cawsand was taking advantage of the winter emptiness to get those essential works completed before the tourist season resumes.
Perhaps because of Plymouth in the distance, it was more difficult to imagine the village in centuries past. Nonetheless, there was once a fleet of more than 50 vessels smuggling into Cawsand Bay, and evidence of the old pilchard industry remains on the beach to the east of Kingsand .
Richard Carew, a famous son of the county, High Sheriff and writer of the earliest History of Cornwall (1602), refers to the future king, Henry VII (1457-1509), stopping in Kingsand for a secret tipple. My 17th century English is stretched a little here, but was he going to be ambushed in Plymouth? Those dastardly Devonians if so!
“Kings Sand and Causam Bay ……. The shore is peopled with some dwelling houses, and many Cellers, dearely rented for a short usage, in saving of Pilcherd…..I have heard the Inhabitants thereabouts to report, that the Earl of Richmond (afterwards Henry the seventh) while hee hovered upon the coast, here by stealth refreshed himselfe; but being advertised of streight watch, kept for his surprising at Plymouth, he richly rewarded his hoste, hyed sppedily a shipboord, and escaped happily to a better fortune”
But back to our present: we were intrigued by the boards across many of the doors – and not necessarily those fronting the shoreline. It suggested high seas and flooding – yet to us the bay looked so peaceful.
A quick search online put me right: there were severe storms in 2012 and again, twice, in 2014, all of which caused serious flooding.
The old clock tower, built to commemorate the coronation of George V (in 1911) suffered significant damage in the storms of 2014. A year later it was fully restored. We had no idea, looking at it now, 3 years on. All was calm and quiet. The view from here in the present gives no clue to the drama in its past.
But I’ve wandered away from those wooden flood barriers lying across various doors. Their presence was certainly a clue – to what was already becoming clear to us. A sizable percentage of these houses were empty.
This article advises that of the 63 homes on a main Cawsand street, 36 are second homes and 9 are holiday lets. Only 18% are lived in all year round.
This is a serious problem in many pretty coastal Cornish villages. Properties are snapped up by purchasers from ‘up country’. Property prices in Cornwall are frequently out of the reach of local residents, where wages can be lower than elsewhere and can also be seasonal. Those same property prices though, are cheap compared with prices in London and the home counties. It’s a difficult and delicate dilemma and feelings can run high over it. In the middle of winter the issue is highlighted beyond the financial: how to maintain a vibrant community throughout the year when perhaps only a quarter of its homes are lived in?
I don’t feel it appropriate to stray too far into political or local debates of this nature. We too, are from ‘up country’, and we’re too recently arrived for me to feel competent in discussing how it might feel to experience this situation when you’ve lived here all your life. I can only testify that the seasonal contrasts extend well beyond the weather.
I will say that we have met with nothing but warmth and welcome throughout our first year here. We’ve been surprised by the number of people we’ve met – working people, not retirees – who have moved here from elsewhere in the country, or are local people who moved away and then returned. And we love talking to those who’ve lived here all their lives and are brimming with pride for their heritage. There is something here that speaks to many. What Cornwall lacks in wages and employment prospects, it makes up for in beauty, in passion, pride, history and tradition. Regretfully none of those desirable attributes pay bills or put food on the table but they do add significantly to the quality of life in other ways.
Some years back Cawsand and Kingsand (together with another local village, Millbrook) revived an old Mayday tradition: the Black Prince Flower Boat Procession. A day-long procession culminates in floating the decorated boat out to sea to banish the winter cold and welcome in the spring weather. This takes place on the May Bank Holiday which will fall on its earliest possible date this year: May 1st.
Which brings me full circle and back to my opening argument in the sister post to this one. Winter is not banished here until May 1st. My suggestion then, that winter remains until March departs is really quite tame in comparison.
I hope that this year we will return to Cawsand for the festival. We’ll see the procession for ourselves – and the village, no longer quiet and empty, but vibrant and alive. What a wonderful way to welcome in the sunshine!