My name is Ben, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Cornish Studies, based in the University of Exeter’s campus in Penryn, Cornwall. My research, generously financed by the Cornwall Heritage Trust is on ‘The Cornish Language: 18th Century to the Early 20th Century’. This PhD was the culmination of a MA Cultural Geography Research degree in the outstanding Faculty of Geography and Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, where my dissertation was entitled ‘The Renaissance of Kernewek: The Indigenous Cornish Language: 1900 – 2017’.
Going back to study Geography at the age of 35 was the culmination of fifteen years of self-promise that eventually I would return to university to read the subject. You see, I was greatly inspired at school by a fantastic Geography teacher – Mr. Laing. He was one of those teachers that everyone remembers. He clearly loved his subject and installed in me a deep love and fascination of Geography, notably Human Geography. Whilst not being a Geography teacher, Mr. Laing had a sideline as a DJ, and his unique personality and musical knowledge once earned him a week’s residency on Channel 4’s ‘The Big Breakfast’ – remember that??
When it came to applying for university at the age of 18, I wanted to combine my enjoyment of Geography and Journalism – however hard I tried to find a combined honours course covering the two, the timetables always seemed to clash. Therefore, a choice had to be made. I went with Media & Journalism and made a vow to return to university to study Geography at a later date.
As the years went by, I went into Primary School teaching in South-West London, and developed a passion for planning and delivering creative Geography lessons with the aim to make the young children that I was responsible develop a love for the subject that I had. There was still that sense of frustration that I had never taken my love of Geography further. Finally, an opportunity presented itself in a rather bizarre way. I took several pupils from my school to Royal Holloway, University of London as part of a project to introduce children from families who had never attended higher education to foster aspirations of university study. Whilst there I got talking to a member of university staff about my passion for Geography, and she just happened to mention Royal Holloway’s status as one of the leading Cultural Geography centres. It all went from there and now, in September 2014 I finally fulfilled my dream of studying Geography again. The Cultural Geography MA at Royal Holloway is a research based course which allows individuals to pursue a specialism around which to frame the papers and dissertation you write. For me, it was Cornish Culture & Identity – hence the name of this site Doronieth Kernow – Doronieth is the Cornish word for Geography and Kernow the name for Cornwall in the native tongue. At Royal Holloway, I was fortunate to be researching in a high quality department full of influential academics. One of whom, Dr. Oli Mould and his work on gentrification and social movements influenced me greatly.
But why is a guy who was born in Roehampton SW London and has always lived on the SW London/Surrey border researching Cornish Culture & Identity, I hear you ask.
There is no one simple answer. Firstly, I am very proud to admit to my Great Grandmother being Cornish born and bred. At the present time, I have been able to trace her to Redruth where her and her sister before moving to Hertfordshire when she met my Great Grandfather on my mother’s side. Ever since then, my family linage has been from around the London and Home Counties area. But the Cornish roots are there and I am excessively (or is that obsessively?) proud of them. Then, there’s the unique Cornish identity which is something that you cannot help but notice the minute you cross The Border into God’s Country at Saltash. Immediately the place names lose their English connections. There’s the proliferation of the Cornish national flag. There’s the language. There’s the sense of pride of being Cornish. There’s the wonderful male voice choirs, and The Cornish National Anthem of ‘Trelawny’. From the prayer book rebellion, King Athelstan’s setting of the border, Plymouth trying to encroach on Cornish territory to present day demands for a Cornish Assembly there is the wonderful sense of being ‘the other’ – being separate from those ‘on the wrong side of the Tamar’. Yes, my Cornish roots are distant, but they are there, and everytime I cross the Tamar Bridge on the train, there is an undistinguishable feeling of being back in a place where I belong. I feel I belong in Cornwall in a way that I don’t feel when I am in Surrey.
Then, there’s the rugby. Rugby Union is stated as The National Sport of Cornwall. There’s the tales of yore of Trelawny’s Army and the 40,000 strong Cornish invasion of Twickenham for that famed County Championship Final against Yorkshire – along with many other Cornish invasions since. One of my most unforgettable days was at Twickenham Stadium in 2007 when the Cornish Pirates rugby team took on Exeter Chiefs in the EDF Cup Final – the fact that the Pirates were playing a Devon side certainly added to the occasion. Twickenham was a sea of noise, with Cornish singing, Cornish instruments and an incredible 2nd half comeback from the Pirates to win capped a memorable day. The fact that Pirates’ neighbours Mounts Bay also played at Twickenham that day in a cup final for lower league clubs also added to the occasion. I love rugby union, I have published a book on it (The Game: Tales From A Season Travelling Around The Rugby Union Grounds of Southern England) and believe me, you have never experienced a vocal rugby crowd until you have been to Cornwall. From the fantastic Hellfire Corner at Redruth RFC’s historic and atmospheric ground, to ‘Naughty Boys Corner’ at Cornish Pirates to the stunning cliff top location of St. Ives RFC’s ground, this is a place of true sporting theatre. The local ale and post match singing should not be missed!
If you have any doubt about Cornwall’s sense of being ‘separate’ from England, just consider this. Rugby has clubs representing exiled communities – there is London Irish, London Welsh and London Scottish. In the lower echelons of the game there are clubs called London New Zealand and London French. But there is also a very proud club based in South-West London for the past 55 years known as London Cornish.
So, perhaps now you understand a bit about why I am fiercely proud to have specialised in Cornish Culture and Identity for my Masters degree, and now for a PhD. As this blog goes on and develops, my aim is to discuss both contemporary and historic notions of Cornish Culture & Identity. Some of it may be academic in style, but a lot of it won’t be. I hope there will be plenty of interest for all here. Feel free to add your own comments.