Cornish Culture & Tourism – A Fine Line Between Authenticity and Disneyfied Kernow – Part III

In this week’s third part of the paper that I presented to the Gorsedh Kernow Conference, we look at the outcomes of my interviews with Visit Cornwall, English Heritage and the National Trust and see a mixture of some potential grounds for positivity and confirmation of the rather worrying stance and views of English Heritage.



Malcolm Bell of Visit Cornwall has highlighted that his organisation does not outwardly use the Cornish language or wider examples of Cornish culture in his company’s promotion of the territory because:

“All our customers would not be aware of it, let alone being able to understand it…(but) we did ask a question in 2015 and discovered that 33% of visitors knew that there was a Cornish language.”

Bell pointed out that “The tourism industry is responsible for over 20% of all jobs in Cornwall, and in 2015 brought in £491,755,000 into the Cornish economy”, and pointed to a 2012 ‘Community Attitudes survey’ that identified that 89% of residents feel tourism is good for Cornwall. When I questioned him about the more recent criticism surrounding ‘Disneyfication’, Bell replied:

“We have to be honest and authentic and to some that may be Disney, to others it is not. We need to ensure that the culture is interpreted in a way that firstly gains the support of local people and local communities as well as being able to be understood by tourists coming to Cornwall.”

In our interview via email exchange, I suggested to Bell that other Celtic nations are using their separate identity, history and heritage in marketing tourism, he answered:

“We will weave language and culture in a sensitive manner that honestly reflects its role in Cornwall. We will not ram it down the throats of a visitor like Wales has done, but soft sell through education and inspiration.”

The views of Malcolm Bell were put to the members of my focus groups, and the general consensus was that the percentage of visitors demonstrating a knowledge of the Cornish language without any marketing was far higher than they would expect – and therefore could quite conceivably be used in an advertising campaign by Visit Cornwall to “emphasise a notion of Cornwall being a different land within England” and that “Visit Cornwall should and indeed could be able to deliver authentic Cornish cultural things through their campaigns.”

English Heritage, who are responsible for seventeen historic sites in Cornwall also responded to my queries about how they aim to reflect and use Cornish Culture in their sites. Sophie White, who is the body’s Western Marketing Manager began by highlighting the importance of the sense that Cornwall is ‘different’:

“Cornwall’s distinctiveness and interest is what attracts many visitors in the first place. Making steps to reflect Cornish culture will help to ensure visitors return to learn more about a place they love, whilst helping those who live in Cornwall to feel their story is properly represented. At English Heritage, we use Cornish culture and language to educate visitors about the story of a place that is different to the other parts of the island of Britain in the hope that they will leave having learned something new about the place they have visited.”

However, there then followed a slightly disconcerting definition of what the body believed to be “distinctive signifiers of Cornwall”. White went on:

“Many of the more obvious signifiers of Cornwall may not actually be culturally distinctive to Cornwall – sandy beaches in sunshine, fine food, picturesque coastal villages, wild upland landscapes. These phenomena are credible as attracting tourists to Cornwall, but if we accept a distinction between ‘culture in Cornwall’ and ‘Cornish culture’, they tend to be associated with the former rather than the latter, and thus they are often not unique to Cornwall.”

I pointed out to White that if, as she stated originally, it is Cornwall’s distinctiveness that attracts many of its visitors, then surely it would make sense for English Heritage to keep their focus on the elements of indigenous Cornish culture rather than her later descriptions of sandy beaches and coastal villages in what they believe to be the most important distinctive signifiers of Cornwall. In her response, she said:

“We liaise with Cornish interest groups and some of our signs and leaflets feature the Cornish language. We have been investing in a new interpretation of Tintagel Castle and have made extra efforts to make use of the Cornish language as part of these new displays. Resources are often scarce and visitors only spend a relatively short period of time at tourist attractions, so it will never be possible to provide a comprehensive education on all aspects of Cornish culture. We participate in the St. Piran’s Day Celebrations at Launceston with a special St. Piran’s flag flying at the castle.”

It is worth pointing out at this moment White’s reference to the St. Piran’s flag. This is only a recent change after a former Grand Bard asked English Heritage why permission should be sought to fly our own flag from one of our own monument’s on our own saint’s day! As White had mentioned Tintagel Castle, it seemed a good time to turn the conversation in the direction of the large amount of criticism that has come English Heritage’s way for what they term a “new interpretation” and what others have termed “vandalism”. White’s response was:

“We believe a place like Tintagel Castle deserves to be communicated effectively, and our new exhibition and scheme of outdoor interpretations aims to take visitors on an informative tour through the history and legend associated with the 18 acre site. Highlights include a series of interpretive panels exploring 1,500 years of Tintagel’s history and making use of the Cornish language, and an eight foot bronze sculpture Gallos, by artist Rubin Eynon inspired by the legends associated with the site. We are proud of the steps we have made to better tell the stories of the places in our care in Cornwall. The term ‘Disneyfication’ is difficult to define, but the suggestion is of a globalised homogenisation and of stripping a real place or event of its original character. This was certainly not the case at Tintagel, where we made every effort to reflect the unique story of Tintagel in particular, and Cornish culture. We feel confident that our new interpretation provided a sensible balance between the various aspects which make the place so special, whilst ensuring that there was no stripping of the original character of the place.”

 I suggested to White that, at best it could be argued that the elements that English Heritage have included at Tintagel misinterpret Cornish history. In response she said that she feels that her organisation are doing everything they can to reach out to Cornish cultural movements. She pointed to the body’s:

“extra efforts to make use of the Cornish language, following input from other Cornish stakeholder groups, and the Cornish Language Partnership, and the fact that we are active members of the Ertach Kernow Forum and the Ertach Kernow Board, where we liaise with a range of Cornish cultural groups on a regular basis. We find these relationships are very helpful, and we very much appreciate the work of the Gorsedh Kernow and other Cornish cultural groups in making us aware of local feeling on various issues.”

It’s fair to say that my conversation with English Heritage left me with a sense of deep unease about the organisation’s grasp of Cornwall’s heritage and history.

One of the groups that English Hertiage identified as having a relationship with was the Cornwall Heritage Trust. A trustee for this body spoke to me about their personal concerns about English Heritage and wider concerns with the representation of Cornish culture in tourism:

“English Heritage have got a lot to answer for at Tintagel and of course, there is the infamous Lands End fiasco. Existing bodies such as Visit Cornwall and English Heritage seem to be nervous of exploiting Cornish culture – perhaps because they have the perception that it lowers the standard of their offering.  Somehow we need to overcome this vision, created mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries, of the Cornish being somehow old-fashioned and backward.”

In contrast, the views of the National Trust’s General Manager for West Cornwall, Ian Marsh did provide some grounds for optimism for the future representation of the Cornish language and culture at his organisation’s own sites in the territory. Marsh was aware that the National Trust had not always got things right in Cornwall and were open to learn and improve. He told me:

“Our use of Cornish culture is becoming better. We have formed relations with the Gorsedh Kernow to work specifically on projects. When we do Cornish culture badly, and we have done at times, it can appear Disneyfied. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that different people have different tolerance levels.”

So, where do we go from here? I ended the initial stage of my primary data generation with a feeling that we were, potentially at a crossroads. The greater visibility of Kernewek, National Minority Status and the burgeoning indigenous cultural scene around Cornwall means that greater pressure can, theoretically be applied to tourism groups and site owners in the territory. Yet, what steps need to be taken before we can travel towards a more widely accepted representation of Cornwall’s identity in the tourist industry? This is what we will explore in next week’s final part of this paper.


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