North Cornish Coast Britain's Best Drives


North Cornish Coast

Richard Wilson gets to grips with a retro VW camper van as he drives the coast road from St Ives to Land's End and learns about St Ives's 1950s art heyday.


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Transcript


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For many, the 1950s were the golden age of British motoring.

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Back then, driving was leisurely, liberating and fun.

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Yes, things have changed a bit since then.

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But perhaps it's still possible to recapture some of that magic.

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Oh, yes.

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I'm setting off on six of the best drives from the 1950s,

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as recommended by the guidebooks of the era.

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And I'll be driving them in some of the decade's most iconic vehicles.

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Gone into reverse.

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I want to find out if these routes still thrill and inspire...

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This is a spectacular road.

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..and how in 50 years, Britain itself has changed.

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Oh, for God's sake!

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They wouldn't have thought to come here without a sat nav.

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I'm sure they wouldn't.

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People don't value each other as much as they did then.

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It was a different type of life, wasn't it?

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Cornwall contains all, or almost all, the ingredients

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that make for a good motoring holiday.

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Fine varied scenery, an exceptionally

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brilliant coast and an excellent summer climate.

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Cornwall has all the climatic advantages of continental residence,

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without the drawback of long and fatiguing travel,

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foreign language, unusual habits and strange attendance.

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I never thought I would be driving into Cornwall in a VW campervan.

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I would like to say that I've got a surfboard attached to the roof,

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but I haven't. I won't be doing any surfing, I'm afraid.

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When the VW van first appeared in 1950,

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it revolutionised leisure motoring.

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it was simple, adaptable and surprisingly spacious.

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With a top speed of just 56mph, this mobile 'home from home'

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might not have been the fastest vehicle off the block,

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but never mind, with its 11 picture windows, driving a campervan

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was as much about enjoying the journey as it was the destination.

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I haven't totally got control of the gears yet but, er,

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we're getting there.

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That was a change from fourth to third I was rather proud of.

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ENGINE STALLS

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Ah, bugger it!

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So time to take my '50s design classic on a classic '50s drive.

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I'm in Cornwall to explore a road described in my 1959 guidebook

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as "one of the finest coast roads in Britain,"

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so I've got high hopes for something pretty special.

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The B3306 starts at the former fishing village of St Ives, hugs the

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dramatic North Cornish coast, and will lead me ultimately to England's

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most westerly point, Land's End.

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The first stop on my road trip is St Ives,

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and my old guidebooks are united in their praise for the place.

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St Ives - a quaint and fascinating little town...

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it is one of Cornwall's gems.

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"All that is best in Cornwall

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"seems to meet in St Ives."

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Fifty years ago, St Ives was living a sort of triple life,

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at once a bucket and spade resort, a traditional fishing port, and

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perhaps most surprisingly given its far-flung location,

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an internationally renowned centre for abstract art!

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Working in studios converted from fishermen's cottages and old net

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lofts were some of the world's most significant abstract artists,

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like sculptor

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Barbara Hepworth, and painter

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Sir Terry Frost.

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All of them inspired by

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the Cornish landscape around them.

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Anthony Frost, son of

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the late Sir Terry, and himself

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a successful abstract artist, was born and brought up in the town.

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-Anthony, hello, I'm Richard Wilson.

-Hello, nice to meet you.

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Come in to my.. So what was it like living here as a boy?

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Well, it was fantastic, because you just lived on the beach, for a start.

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And I mean...

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when I first met my wife, I told her that I didn't have shoes,

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and that I only had shoes to go to school in.

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I mean, she never believed me, but it's true, you had your pair of shoes

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to go to school in. Because you didn't need them

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for the rest of the time, because you were on the beaches. Here,

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we used to have football matches, sort of like 40-a side.

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So in the late '50s, the art scene was pretty vibrant here, was it?

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It was fantastic, because it has sort of never reached that climax again

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in the sense of that you know America looked to St Ives, New York looked to

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-St Ives.

-It was the centre.

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Yeah, I mean, because you had Rothko, and Klein, all these people,

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and they came here. To meet Patrick Heron, Terry Frost,

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Peter Lanyon, he wanted to meet these people.

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Because for a short time, St Ives was as big as New York.

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You know, the abstract American expressionist painters.

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So the art scene today, how does that differ?

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There is still a fantastic, vibrant art scene, we still have wonderful

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studios. We have galleries everywhere.

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I suppose the difference now is that

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we also have the sort of factory galleries.

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I mean, there is supposedly, allegedly, you know, a gallery where

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the painters go along, somebody paints the sky, the clouds,

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-and the boats.

-No, that's impossible.

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But, er, it has changed in that sense. And of course, there is that

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thing of there is people here all the time and people do buy those sorts of

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paintings to take home almost as if like a stick of rock now.

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Because it's got a name for paintings.

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Yes, yes, St Ives has got that reputation.

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But there are still serious painters here.

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It's just that it has become diluted.

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One of those "serious" painters is Bob Crossley,

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a rare survivor from St Ives' abstract heyday.

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Incredibly, Bob is 95 years old and still an active artist.

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Believe it or not, he only gave up skiing four years ago!

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So when did you come to

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-St Ives?

-1959.

-'59?

-Yeah.

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So in 1959, of course, there must have been lots of artists here?

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-Yeah. I knew them all.

-And you knew them all.

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Yes, and I was the oldest of the lot. They've all died now.

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And I suppose the painters come here because the light is so...

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extraordinary.

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It's nice and clear and sunny, yes, it is, yes. Light's light.

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Light is for working, you don't look at the light, you look through

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the light at what you're looking at.

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Bob really is living art history.

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There aren't many painters around today that can claim that

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LS Lowry himself bought one of their pictures.

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And fifty years after he first moved here, he's still going strong.

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His work and indeed the man himself are inspirational.

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95 years, you...

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still haven't run out of ideas, and still doing wonderful stuff.

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Well, I'm lucky to have good health.

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-Well, yes, you are, 95, and you're still standing.

-Yeah.

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Thanks to artists like Bob, people no longer come to St Ives simply for

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sun and sand, the town now attracts a new kind of holidaymaker,

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the cultural tourist, drawn

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to sites like Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden.

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Beautiful.

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So it's no longer just the summer season that's busy,

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the town is crammed with sightseers all year round, and driving through

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the narrow streets can be an absolute nightmare.

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So it's with some relief that I'm heading out of town and

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up along the coast road that all my 1950s guidebooks are raving about.

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# Life is but a dream... #

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This is a spectacular road...ahead, it's just beautiful.

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I really can see why this is one of the best drives in Britain.

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The road behind the north coast,

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from St Ives to Land's End, meandering among boulder-strewn

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heaths, is one of the most attractive of Cornish ways.

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The coast from here out to the Land's End

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is as dramatic as any in Cornwall. To drive

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from St Ives and out along this coast

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is always exhilarating,

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an experience never to be forgotten.

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But, for me, driving this stunning road

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is not without its challenges.

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After owning nothing but automatics for the past thirty years, I'm still

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finding the campervan's retro gearbox a bit of a lucky dip.

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-Third.

-GEARS CRUNCH

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Ah, I'm going to have to try.

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Oh, I've gone into reverse.

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Just four miles out of St Ives, we arrive at the ancient

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and picturesque village of Zennor, a chance for me to give the gear box

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a rest, grab a spot of lunch and do some swatting up.

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Most of my guidebooks recommend a visit to Zennor. But this one

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is particularly intriguing. In the First World War, DH Lawrence

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lived here for a while, and hated it.

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In fact, he lived for a while in this very pub, The Tinners Arms.

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And then discovered that the reason

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that he hated it was in fact because he was chucked out.

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His wife was German and she was a cousin of the Red Baron, in fact.

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And when you think there were U-boats just off the coast here

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trying to sink British ships,

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and they were going along the coast road singing German folk songs,

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it's not really unreasonable that they were so unpopular.

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So the locals didn't take to them, and DH Lawrence

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didn't take to the locals.

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There's a quote here of what he said about them...

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"Like insects gone cold, living only for money, for dirt.

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"They are foul, they all ought to die."

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So the locals said that they were spies and that she was hanging out

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her red knickers as a signal to the U-boats.

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Which seems a highly unlikely thing to do, but anyway, they thought that

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they were spies and so they kicked them out.

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Lawrence and his wife were expelled from the entire county,

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and it left him with a bitterness for the Cornish

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and their highly individual outlook.

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It seems that even as recently as 50 years ago, the Cornish people

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were still very much a breed apart, as is borne out by my guides.

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The inhabitants are, racially,

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quite different from those in other parts of England.

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It is, in truth, a very foreign land, the whole atmosphere of

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the county is different from that of any other part of Britain.

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To find out if there's any truth in these statements, I'm heading to one

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of my route's recommended stops, Zennor's 12th-century church,

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to meet Cornish storyteller Graham Whitford.

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Graham, my guidebooks which are from the '50s, um, most of them

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talk about the separateness of Cornwall

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and how it was almost a foreign land where the people are very different.

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Is that still true today, do you think, the separateness of

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-the Cornish?

-It is to some extent, but it's fast disappearing, I think.

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Um, in the '50s,

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Cornwall was very Cornish, probably 95% of people were

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born here. Whereas today, 70% of the people aren't born here.

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So there's been a massive influx from out of the county.

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I mean, people have seen that Cornwall is a lovely place...

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-Yes.

-..and people like to go to lovely places.

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But politically, all these second homes are not popular in Cornwall,

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-because young people can't afford to buy houses here.

-Yeah.

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But I think that's

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fired people up, it's fired the Cornish people up

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to keep hold of their history, their culture, and their heritage.

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And storytelling is burgeoning.

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-And Zennor has a few tales to tell, doesn't it?

-Yes.

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The mermaid of Zennor, the story is closely attached to this church.

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And some time ago, um, Matthew Trewhella, a local fisherman,

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used to sing in the choir in this church.

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Now, the legend says that his voice was so beautiful that it

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passed out of the church and was heard beneath the sea by Morveren,

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-one of the mermaids.

-Ah.

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And she thought that the voice was so beautiful and enchanting,

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she wanted to find out where this voice came from.

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And then on one occasion, Matthew Trewhella happened to look up

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and see her standing in the doorway.

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And with her long tresses and beautiful face, he was in love

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in an instant.

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And he chased after her,

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and several of the congregation

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chased after them as they ran down towards the shore.

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But he said as he disappeared beneath the waves, "This is my true love,

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"and we will be happy together, and I will follow her wherever she leads."

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So he became a merman?

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-One would like to think so.

-Sprouted a few gills.

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You can draw your own pictures.

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I'm not mocking you,

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I believe every word of it.

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Well, my guidebook backs up Graham's story,

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"The Zennor, the picturesque village of Zennor, church town 4.5 miles

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"due west of St Ives, is famous for its legendary mermaid,

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"whose image is carved on a pew end in the lovely 12th-century church."

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And this is the pew end, and it looks extraordinarily old,

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and here is our mermaid.

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So, there she is.

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And for those interested in mermaids,

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well worth a visit, but frankly, I wouldn't bother...

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You did ask!

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MUSIC: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers

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Leaving Zennor behind, I'm now headed a further 13 miles

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up the coast to renowned beauty spot Sennen Cove.

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And despite Cornwall's huge popularity,

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this beautiful road has remained remarkably unspoilt.

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A wonderful smell of manure coming in now.

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Ooh, yes, that's a pungent one.

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But of course,

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it's pointless to talk about it

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on television, because you can't smell it...fortunately for you.

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'The makers of this programme, in their infinite wisdom, have decided

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'that because I've got such an obvious natural affinity with

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'this special vehicle...'

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Come on, you stupid...!

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'I hope you note my irony.

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'..I should immerse myself in the '50s

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'driving experience still further.'

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The producers thought it would be a very nice idea

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if I was to camp out in the campervan.

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And I said, "Well, that's a wonderful idea,

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"but...no."

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Trevedra Farm has been welcoming campers for more than 65 years, but

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while once upon a time, it was first and foremost a working farm,

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there's now been a complete turnabout.

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Oh, here we are, all these caravans.

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Former owners Jean and Michael Nicolas

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have watched as tourism has become the predominant Cornish industry.

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Would you say that the farm now is more of a campsite than a farm?

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-Definitely.

-Definitely!

-Yes.

-And is that good, or bad?

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Well, it's just different, isn't it,

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-we change with the times, like, isn't it?

-Yeah.

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You've got to change where the money is. If there's not the money

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in farming, you've got to change your lifestyle...

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and step up the camping...

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-Yeah.

-..and slide the farm back.

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Jean and Mike possess that admirable British quality of adaptability.

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I only wish I could be so flexible.

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I'm driving a...

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split-screen VW.

0:18:420:18:44

-Oh, yes.

-I think they are trying to get me to stay in it tonight.

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-Are they?

-Do you think that's a good idea?

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-Yes. It will be a marvellous experience for you.

-If I was

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staying out there tonight, could I book a toilet just for myself?

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Because I don't like sharing toilets.

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Yes, you can have the key to the family room.

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-And what about a Jacuzzi? Have you got a Jacuzzi up there?

-No.

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-No, no.

-Do you have a television room, and things like that?

-No.

-No.

0:19:050:19:08

Do you have a wine list?

0:19:080:19:10

-No, we haven't got a licence for...

-Oh...

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I don't know, it's getting worse and worse.

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I suggest that that might be the next step.

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-You get a nice wine list.

-We shall have them all out there drunk!

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They'll be out talking to the cows!

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Oh, well, I suppose it would be churlish of me not to give it a go.

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And the producers have assured me they won't let me go hungry.

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Apparently, they've packed my picnic hamper with everything I need

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for a hearty supper.

0:19:390:19:40

HE LAUGHS

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"1950 - corned-beef hash."

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I don't think I've had corned-beef hash for 50 years!

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And I can't honestly say I've missed it much in the interim.

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Still, all this fresh air does give one an appetite...

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as indeed does trying to find my way around all this van's

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little nooks and crannies.

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I'm just looking for a tin opener.

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Ooh, I can smell gas anyway.

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Ah, this is just what we want...

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a hammer

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to bash the cooker with to create a spark and set it alight.

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So, hold on...

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No, I'd better not do that.

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Ah!

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Ah... See, it's easy really.

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Oh, this is a sink, that's handy.

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There we go.

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Oh, yes. I bet everyone at home is just wishing they were here,

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down on this campsite.

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Ah, look at that.

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What more could you ask for? A perfect setting,

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there is going to be the most extraordinary sunset behind us.

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Mmm!

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Really nice. Has it made me have second thoughts

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about sleeping in a campervan?

0:21:270:21:29

Er, frankly,

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no, it hasn't.

0:21:310:21:33

Well, you didn't really think I was

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about to suddenly take up camping at my age, did you?

0:21:410:21:44

GEARS CRUNCH

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This morning, I'm backtracking five miles along my route

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to the village of Botallack...

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an area dominated by the remains of

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Cornwall's industrial heritage...

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Whoa! Bumpy.

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..and I've managed to bag myself what must be one of the

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best parking spaces in Britain.

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Quite spectacular.

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Everywhere one looks, there are relics of

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Cornwall's tin mining past,

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an industry that was once an inseparable part of life down here.

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I've arranged to meet Author and former tin miner Allan Buckley

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at some of the area's most dramatic ruins.

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So, we drive past roads with a lot of mines.

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In fact, the first one I saw, I thought was an old castle ruin.

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Yes, yes. Well, people call them Cornish castles.

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But they're engine houses, and they are

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just the tip of the iceberg, because beneath them underground, there are

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literally hundreds and hundreds of miles of tunnels and workings.

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At its peak in the 1860s, there were several tens of thousands worked

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underground in Cornish mines. There were over two hundred miners working.

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Amazingly, some Cornish mines are 3,000 feet deep, that's

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considerably more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.

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And they don't just run underground.

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So you can imagine the workings go under the sea for half a mile,

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-three quarters of a mile beyond there, where that boat is.

-Yeah.

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-So you were working under the sea?

-Oh, yes, yes.

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Looking at these noble ruins, it would be easy to romanticise

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a miner's life, but the truth is, it was a tough and archaic existence,

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even when Alan first went down the mines just under 50 years ago.

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-Was it like coal mining, did you get very dirty?

-Oh, yes.

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And you had showers and all that?

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-Very primitive showers.

-Right.

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A one-inch pipe with holes in it was actually it.

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And a great big bath that was filthy after the first person got into it.

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-Of course.

-So it was different, much more primitive.

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And as I say, we used lamps instead of electric lights. And there was

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-a lot of hand labour, as opposed to mechanised labour.

-Yeah.

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-So it was a primitive place in those days.

-And no conveyor belts?

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No, none at all underground, no.

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What tough men those miners must have been.

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It's bad enough just standing out here at this exposed spot,

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especially when the director insists on shooting everything

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from 100 different angles!

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We'll give you two more minutes in this shot.

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-I'm freezing!

-'It's not like you've ever warmed up.'

-Oh, bugger you!

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Like so much of Britain's heavy industry, Cornish mining declined

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dramatically over the past half century, and the last mine closed

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in 1998, spelling the end of an era

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that irrevocably shaped the landscape and people of Cornwall.

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You realise that those tin mines did employ a lot of people, so I suppose

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the sad thing about it going is that these communities all shifted.

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And finally, just 20 miles after this fascinating drive began,

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I'm coming to the end of the road, quite literally.

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MUSIC: "All I Have To Do Is Dream," by The Everly Brothers

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Land's End is England's most westerly point,

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and it's been attracting tourists for generations.

0:25:510:25:55

Oh, wonderful, look at this, spectacular,

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spectacular coastline.

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A proud boast, to have been to Land's End.

0:26:100:26:13

Mere description can never hope to give even the illusion of the thrill

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its name and significance produce in those who have been there.

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Journey's End.

0:26:270:26:30

Land's End. Beautiful...

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Beautiful.

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The colours of the rocks down here,

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the sea, the white and the blue and the dark browns

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and the greens. You can see why people come to paint here,

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the light is quite extraordinary.

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And I suppose there is a feeling of...

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being at the end, there is so much light, so much horizon.

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It's worth driving - it's certainly one of the best drives of Britain.

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You do realise that there are great big stretches of Cornwall, which are

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pretty unspoilt still.

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It's only when you're in the...

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really touristy bits, I suppose, but the road is such a beautiful road.

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A lot of the road and places like this you, can get away and...

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I suppose this was just the way it was in the '50s.

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And it is...

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a spectacular drive, without a doubt.

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Sat here at the edge of Britain, it's easy to see why the Cornish

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people were once so isolated.

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I mean, it really is the road to nowhere.

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But with its rugged good looks and inspirational vistas,

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it was inevitable that outsiders would want to live here.

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Cornwall may be losing the uniquely provincial charm that it had

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50 years ago, but I think that's probably true of much of Britain,

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and indeed the world.

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But, no matter who settles here, with landscapes like this,

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Cornwall will always be a very special place.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:490:28:52

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:520:28:55

Actor Richard Wilson takes a journey into the past, following routes raved about in motoring guides of 50 years ago.

Richard struggles to get to grips with a retro VW camper van as he drives the coast road from St Ives to Land's End.

He learns of St Ives's 1950s abstract art heyday and meets a 95-year-old painter still at work in Porthmeor Studios. He discovers why DH Lawrence was expelled from the county, hears legends of Cornish mermaids and gets to know his van on a blustery clifftop campsite.


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