Friday, June 29, 2007

Revisiting Cornwall’s Legendary World Heritage Coast

The Atlantic Heritage Coast of North Devon and Cornwall
Cornwall has been in the headlines this past week, over the threats from Cornish extremists to burn out English TV-celebrity chefs Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver who have set up seafood-restaurant businesses here. The United Kingdom is officially 200 years old this year, but England’s conquest of its “Celtic” neighbours – Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall – remains a touchy issue. Economically a depressed region, Cornwall is perhaps the least recognized of these Celtic “national regions” as a separate state, though the ancient kingdom of Cornubia or Kernou maintained a quasi-parliament into modern times. This was the Stannary Parliament, which has only “traditional” rather than legislative powers within the UK. Stannary refers to tin-mining (from Latin stannus, tin), its leading industry since records began. Its members sometimes collide with English authority, e.g. by removing the English Heritage signs from the region’s chief tourism site, Tintagel, and by promoting re-establishment of the historically-defunct Cornish Celtic language in official documentation.
Looking towards the Celtic Sea
The “tin mining” coast of Cornwall and North Devon was designated a year ago by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, putting it on the map, for better or worse, as an international tourism destination. Yet the real heritage of the “tin mining” coast may be more substantial than that represented by the 18th-20th Century industrial ruins along this coast which are the WHS’s official basis. The tin trade stretches back into pre-history, no one knows how far. This is of interest here as the underpinning of the ‘Grail’ legend that Joseph of Arimatheia was a tin-trader who came here bringing the grail and various disciples here post-Crucifixion, as well as the ‘Holy Visit’ Legend, whereby Joseph brought the boy Jesus on one of his earlier voyages. Both were part of the foundation legend of the Church Of Britain in bringing Christianity here soon after the Crucifixion, becoming the first church in Christendom. The CoB was submerged into the Church Of England in the 6th century, which maintained its claims of precedence over Rome for many centuries before trying to shrug it off as the handiwork of a few eccentric vicars in recent times. (It won’t go away entirely, as the legend is referenced in Blake’s Jerusalem – now England’s alternate anthem.)
This month Cornish local authorities are preparing a presentation to the European Parliament to have the county designated a “region of culture” which would open the way for more studies of this neglected, disputed aspect of Cornish heritage. In fact, if Christianity did arrive via this route, it’s more a matter of world heritage.
There’s no dispute that the tin trade stretched back to the Bronze Age, for tin was needed to make good-quality bronze and there was no known tin source in the Mediterranean. Thus Mediterranean traders, usually labelled ‘Phoenician’, sailed here in antiquity, making a flourishing Bronze Age possible, and the market for Cornish tin continued through the Iron Age into the industrial age. Though the most famous site associated with the legend remains Glastonbury, no-one knows the exact port these elusive ‘Phoenicians’ used, and various sites along the Cornish and Devon coast where the tin mining industry was centred also have local “holy visit” legends.
Tintagel [Wiki photo]
Surprisingly, Tintagel has no local version - even though it’s the most famous of all Cornish heritage sites, it’s all Arthurian. The Visitor Info Centre has a display board quoting a leading 12C churchman that the legend of ‘Arthur the Briton’ was just as well known thousands of miles away in the East. The long-distance tin trade would be an obvious conduit for such legends, long before the Crusades. Another display shows the ancient tin-trade route from ports all round the Eastern Med to Cornwall, while another shows evidence the place once had a proper harbour, with the Homeric name the Iron Gates.
In future posts, I’ll try to trace more of this key legend, when I’ve integrated my notes and photos from my trip down there this past week with earlier research and field notes. At the moment I’m writing this up while listening on CD to music by Sir Arnold Bax, Celtophile English poet and composer of tone poems like The Garden Of Fand and In The Faery Hills. The Tintagel Visitor Centre also plays a video of his most famous work, “Tintagel”, written after his 1917 visit. If you want to conjure up a vision of the lost world of Romantic Celtic myth, you can’t do much better than listen to this symphonic evocation of a legendary seascape.