Living in Cornwall means living with an awareness of history. It’s one of the things I love about the place. I can leave my house and in less than half an hour drive to (and I’m naming just a few spots) a stone circle, the remains of a medieval field system, the vague hints of a medieval hamlet, the ruin of a 16th century castle, and behind the castle a much older set of foundations that may have been a monastery. At least I think the current theory says it was a monastery. A more romantic theory holds that King Arthur was conceived in an older castle on the same site and that his final battle was fought a few miles away, at Slaughterbridge.
In November, the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter (just over an hour from here) caught fire, and the news reports said it was the oldest hotel in England. That led the Guardian to run an article on other hotels that are also the oldest in England. It turns out they all have a reasonable claim, because there’s more than one way to define oldest hotel: oldest building now used as a hotel; building used as a hotel for the longest time; oldest building originally used as an inn but now used as a hotel; oldest small piece of a building now used as a hotel but that’s been added on to and changed over the years. The list could go on, I’m sure. Everyplace wants to be the oldest. Because people here value the history. Which, to be crass, means it sells.
Visiting heritage sites is a national pastime, and in 2015 over 40 million people did exactly that. That’s almost 75% of the adult population of Britain, although some whacking big chunk of the visitors must have been foreign tourists. But never mind, because an even larger chunk weren’t. That’s based on Hawley’s Small and Unscientific survey of the accents I hear when I visit those places myself.
Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey is never wrong.
Heritage sites include castles, stately homes, and archeological sites but doesn’t seem to include the old ships, churches, mills, factories, and small bits of steam railroad dotted around the country. The steam railroads are lovingly refurbished and run by volunteers. A lot of Wild Thing’s family worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and she grew up around steam trains, so I’m particularly conscious of them. We once drove halfway across Minneapolis to figure out why we were hearing one. It turned out to be a beautifully restored Canadian train that had been brought in for who knows what reason.
Add the people who go to those sites to the heritage site numbers and you can probably bump up the number of visitors by some impressive amount. By my calculations, 136% of the British population has visited one of the sites in the past year.
No, I can’t be trusted around numbers. The point, though, is that history isn’t just a high-end obsession here. The article where I found the number of visitors notes that the participation gap between rich and poor and between white and everybody else had narrowed in five or so years.
I used to wonder what it would be like to grow up surrounded so visibly by history, then I met a kid who told me in all seriousness that he was descended from King Arthur. I didn’t ask how that worked, being descended from a king who may well be mythical, I just took it as a tribute to the power of story and to the way history affects the imagination.
But history’s a tricky thing, and when it collides with imagination it gets even trickier. A lot of us like to imagine knights and lords and ladies and King Arthur and all those Druids, whoever the Druids were and whatever they actually did. We look at the stone circles that haunt the landscape, and because they’re silent we can imagine them to mean anything we want. Someone once told me that at one of them she felt a powerfully female energy. I don’t doubt that she felt it. I do doubt her feelings had anything to do with the stones, the place, or the history.
Popular imagination holds that the bowl-shaped rocks on the moor were used for blood sacrifices, but a geologist neighbor says they were formed by the wind spending eons blowing pebbles around in the hollows. Which is a lot less evocative but more convincing.
As easy as it is to edit in a romantic tale or three, it’s also easy to edit out the conflict and misery behind the archeological sites. The gorgeous hill forts that dot Cornwall stand witness to warfare and the expectation of attack. The field system I mentioned in the first paragraph was originally a common, which means it was owned collectively by a group of people who had the right to use it in certain traditional ways, which would have been spelled out. It continued as a common until at least the seventeenth century. In 1844, fourteen owners were recorded. By 2000, the field had one owner.
I’m inclined to mourn the loss of common land. The families who had a right to it depended on it for food at a time when food was scarce and hunger wasn’t. The loss of commons is commemorated by a folk poem that says, “The law locks up the man or woman / Who steals the goose off the common / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.”
I don’t know how that one particular field changed from common land to owned land. If it had followed the usual pattern, the change would have come earlier and the marks of the medieval system would have disappeared by now. But in general, the change was marked by desperation and the destruction of a way of life. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a good way of life (unless you lived somewhere the top of the class pyramid) or an easy one, but for anyone on the wrong end of the change, what came next was worse.
And the great houses so many visitors admire today? The money to build some of them came from stealing the common from the goose. For others, it came from slave plantations overseas. For the rest, it came from other charming arrangements. But the houses are beautiful. We pay our admission and drift through, admiring whatever we’re inclined to admire—the dishes, the architecture, the clothing, the lush life they housed.
In a great house outside Bodmin, the lady’s parlor is laid out with a permanent afternoon tea and, if I remember right, four chairs. I can’t help imagining myself into one of those chairs, drinking tea, eating scones and little lovely whatevers. Set out food and I’ll imagine myself eating it. Then I imagine doing that every day, and the perfect boredom of a life where that’s pretty much all you can count on to break up the day. Then I remember how many underpaid, overbossed servants it took to keep one lady eating little whatevers at 4 p.m. every day, and the poverty and lack of alternatives that drove them to take those jobs, and how long the work day was, and how little of that beauty they could claim as their own.
Isn’t it just fun hanging around with me? Don’t you just feel uplifted? I’ll see if I can’t be more fun next week.