Notes on...

Would Betjeman recognise anything about today’s north Cornwall?

The new-build houses, the galleries, the 4x4s… it’s a long way from sand in the sandwiches and wasps in the tea

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

In a documentary filmed at the end of his life, Sir John Betjeman, who lived in the village of Trebetherick on the Camel estuary in north Cornwall, famously regretted not having had more sex. That problem doesn’t seem apply to today’s party crowd in the area. Nearby Rock and Polzeath are thronging with bingeing public-school teenagers, traffic jams of gleaming 4x4s, and new-build houses with plasma screens, wet rooms and all that hedge-funders require.

David Cameron has body-boarded at Polzeath on recent holidays, his security detail bobbing like seals around him. For children of the 1960s, memories of frugal holidays in north Cornwall include pasties, fathers in baggy shorts, and limbs turning blue with cold. Betjeman may have evoked the ‘sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea’ in his poems celebrating the era of Morris Minors and unspoilt beaches. But the picnics I remember culminated in tangled kites, gashed feet, and appeals for cash for the Mr Whippy van. Even on occasions sunburn.

At Rock, Trebetherick and Constantine, quite a few holiday houses have been passed down the generations. My grandparents bought a place on the west bank of the estuary in the mid-1930s and lived there without electricity or mains water for 40 happy years. We still have the house. As grandchildren we raced up the drive to wave at and spit on the train as it passed under the bridge at Tregunna, between Padstow and Wadebridge, on the most idyllic line in England.

That line is now a bike-hire highway, so busy it is unwalkable in summer. The track terminates at Padstow beneath the gray Metropole Hotel (built in 1904), a subdued time-warp of clinking china and silverware. Padstow in season is booming; stuffed with galleries, boutiques, seafood (formerly known as fish) restaurants, and bakeries selling ambitious pasties containing Thai chicken and chorizo. The town can just about cope with its obese hordes, swollen by chef Rick Stein’s empire. But tiny Port Isaac, a few miles further up the coast, is now a hopelessly car-choked victim of the success of the Doc Martin TV series that is filmed there.

At the mouth of the Camel estuary, the cockles are gone and no one knows why. But the rocks, marshes and sands at low tide have plenty of mussels, razor clams, sea spinach and samphire for the picking. Bass bomb up the river with the fast incoming tide. Dabs lying in the sand can be piked with a rake-like implement that sends an electric jolt up your arm when you spear a fish. Their flesh tastes of mud. Otters have returned, and in colder months the curlews’ lovely bubbling trill is the soundtrack to a river that becomes increasingly lonely upstream from Wadebridge, its ancient bridge said to have been built on woolsacks.

The Regal cinema (still going) in Wadebridge opened in 1937. Before that, the big entertainment was the annual circus. The elephants processed past the Town Hall on their way to the circus ground where Lidl now stands. Everything — and nothing — has changed. The river’s patron saint is St Enodoc, a Welsh hermit who, if he were to return to his cave today, might hear the summery drone of waterski boats and think they were wasps.

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  • Cooper1992

    All sadly true.

    But what about his true home: London. Would he recognise that city now?

    Sir John Betjeman would be another great English figure who would be turning in his grave if he saw the cultural devastation that has been unleashed on his country and its people.

    • stedman_dantes

      There is no example of dystopian literature from a century ago, however pessimistic or bleak, that even imagined that English people would be a minority in their capital. All sorts of futures occurred to the novelists of that era, but nobody ever thought we would actually be slowly extinguished on purpose, and made to voice our approval of the process.

      • Gilbert White

        Very profound observation but artistically Richard Dadd aluded to it with his multicultural fairy worlds painted in Bedlam.

        • Richard

          Something interesting is the book “Starmaker” by Olaf Stapleton, which I read many years ago. He mentions there about how blacks would be elevated to the level of gods and be exempt from moral scrutiny (as I recall it), which is spot-on for modern UK. It is a sort of speculative book about the future of humanity. He also mentions something about another war between the UK and France, which has happened. Yet.

          • Western Wasp

            exempt from moral scrutiny…

            Exempt from expected standards of dress and talent too, if I’m to judge by a concert I attended last week.
            Superb orchestra, who incidentally seemed to be all white, but the two star singers who got top billing were black. The well known male soloist gets to perform while wearing a what looks to be a balaclava topped with a very large cap, and the female soloist had absolutely no feeling for the music she was singing, and looked like she had to read the lyrics from a book clamped to her microphone stand. Hard to sing “I Got Rhythm” when you haven’t.

      • ADW

        Camp of the Saints, a French book from the early 70s, got the present Mediterranean migration pretty well in spirit, especially how the locals react

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    • Mary_Carter
  • Dan Grover

    Things change. Things are always changing. But we only miss what we, personally, knew (especially when young). What may have changed to the eyes of Betjeman, were he to see it now, is exactly what’ll be missed by those same teenagers and jet-skiers when that, too, inevitably changes. Such is life, and it’s such a profoun and often overlooked benefit to mortality.

    In other words, never mind.

    • Kennybhoy


    • Michael990

      Just keep them on the North side, that’ll be fine.

  • Precambrian

    The greatest change now of course is that so many own second homes there that the locals could not afford to buy until developers dug up the countryside (that made it worth visiting in the first place) and covered it with housing estates.

    Welcome to Irony-on-Sea.

  • Keith Thomas

    Did the Editor chop the end of this? It just seems to come to a grinding halt!

  • Singularis

    Without tourism Cornwall would be empty, that is the sad truth but as a tourist myself ive never found it that difficult to get away from the crowds.

    • Gweedo

      There are 500,000 of us here all year around. It’s not empty; we’re just hiding from you.

      • Singularis

        I really dont blame you! Lucky beggars 🙂

        • Gweedo

          Well, yes, if by ‘lucky’ you mean ‘fashionably broke’. I’m starting to wonder if living in the Southeast and driving an SUV would have been a better plan…

          • Singularis

            Well yes but it is nicer being broke there than in the Midlands. I lived in the South East years ago, I dont miss it and nowadays it is just one big trafficjam.

  • trace9

    Betjeman Betjeman
    Cornwall is gone
    It’s not as it was
    When you were its’ Swan..

  • Ron

    It’s a good job you didn’t visit Newquay and tried to remember that 50 years ago.

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  • Freddythreepwood

    ‘beneath the gray Metropole Hotel,’

    Oh dear. Has the Speccie forsaken English?

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  • Roger Hudson

    I moved to Cornwall just after the war, actually it was really 1962 but it felt like the war had just ended. I always think the problem was the destruction of the small rail lines and the elevation of the god of the car. The A30 used to drive through the gate at Launceston which was a sort of filter.

  • Roger Hudson

    Daphne Du Maurier (or Lady Browning as we locals called her) wrote ‘Vanishing Cornwall’ in the late 1960s. A new expanded edition might be ‘Totally vanished and gone,Cornwall’.