“I am glad I reside on the west facet of the River Tamar,” mentioned Rob Tremain emphatically as we mentioned Cornish historical past and politics within the shadow of Launceston Castle. “Driving again residence over the Tamar, my dad would at all times wind down the home windows and say: ‘We will breathe once more; we’re in Cornwall!’.”
The River Tamar, which varieties probably the most historical borders in Europe, is central to Cornish historical past and identification, marking a 1,000-year-old divide between Celtic Kernow (Cornwall) and Anglo-Saxon England. Ever since Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon king, pushed the final native Britons over the Tamar in 936 AD, distinct identities have shaped to the east and the west.
Beginning as a seemingly insignificant trickle in a muddy subject just a few miles from the Bristol Channel, the river widens into a frightening pure barrier on its meandering journey 61 miles south to Plymouth Sound. Bounded on all different sides by ocean, I might see how Cornwall’s island-like geography has formed the peninsula’s historical past as I plotted my journey into this Celtic borderland to analysis the often-overlooked story of Cornish tradition, historical past and identification.
Positioned close to the Devon border, the Cornish city of Launceston sits within the midst of this once-bloody borderland and is the primary Cornish city that travellers attain when driving alongside the A30 from Devon. Crossing the river at Polson Bridge – the historic gateway into Cornwall – the inexperienced, black and white flag of Devon modified to the black and white of Cornwall as a highway signal welcomed me, in each English and Cornish, to Kernow.
Tremain has been Launceston’s city crier for 43 years. Sporting a Cornish tartan face masks and carrying a tote bag emblazoned with Cornwall’s flag, he defined how centuries of failed rebellions and bloody excursions over the Tamar finally suppressed the Cornish language and tradition – till the current Celtic revivalist motion trying to stake Kernow’s declare because the UK’s forgotten fifth nation – however the border has at all times been a relentless fixture. “This is not England, you see,” Tremain mentioned dramatically as we walked underneath a medieval stone archway into the courtyard of Launceston’s fort. “We’re proud to be British, however we’re not English. We’re Cornish.”
As he guided me by Cornwall’s outdated county capital, Tremain defined that whereas the remainder of the UK typically sees Cornwall as “simply one other English county”, Cornwall is technically a Duchy. Alongside the Cornish language, it is a curious historic quirk that is used to advertise the concept of a Cornish “nation” that is distinct from England.
Duchies have been semi-independent medieval fiefdoms dominated over by dukes and duchesses moderately than straight topic to the legal guidelines and taxes of English kings and queens. Traditionally, the Duke of Cornwall collected tithes and royalties from Cornish topics at Polson Bridge, a practice courting again to 1337 when the Duchy of Cornwall was first established.
To today, the Duchy and the huge Cornish estates and revenues that go together with it are routinely conferred upon the eldest son of the reigning monarch. Prince Charles, the present Duke of Cornwall, was invested with the title in 1973 at Launceston Fortress, and Tremain defined that the peculiar feudal dues he was offered with throughout the ceremony included: “A gray using coat, an ashwood bow, a giant bundle of firewood and a pint of cumin.”
Leaving Launceston, I crossed again east into Devon earlier than heading south. The Tamar is a formidable barrier, however historical past on both facet of the river is not as black and white because the Cornish flag. Throughout the medieval interval, the whole south-west area was a land simmering with discontent in opposition to distant monarchs; very often, the Cornish would discover comrades-in-arms amongst the equally disgruntled Devonians.