Cornwall: pasties, pints and free enterprise

Pirates drinking © Alamy
Local breweries are prospering in Cornwall

Cornwall is a lot wealthier – and more entrepreneurial – than official data would have us believe. The rest of Britain should follow its example, says Max King.

Cornwall is supposed to be one of the poorest areas of the UK. Output per head, on one unreliable estimate, sits at barely 60% of the national average. Yet that’s not the impression that a visitor to Cornwall gets. Despite evident deprivation in some areas, it appears a prosperous, entrepreneurial place with a good standard of living – and rather more wealth generation than might at first be evident.

My admittedly limited experience of the area is based on an annual trip, when we stay at my mother-in-law’s cottage on the Lizard. This means that we avoid the rental market. As is common elsewhere in Cornwall, most of the holiday lets in the village are rented out via a community website, and many of the rental properties are owned by locals who live just a couple of miles away.

Residents include my brother-in-law’s family, who moved there about 12 years ago and soon entered into the spirit of enterprise. As well as holding down a job in IT in London, he co-owns a local brewery producing Cornish Chough – although his wife, a teacher, seems to do most of the work. They also have a plant stall outside their house to pay for Christmas costs. These stalls with their honesty boxes are a common sight, selling vegetables, eggs, jam, plants and other home produce. The £150 fine recently levied on a five-year old for selling lemonade in Tower Hamlets without a trading licence would be unthinkable. Every farm, meanwhile, has a farm shop (in reality, a shed) and quite a few operate campsites as well. Some of these farm shops, such as Roskilly (ice cream) and Rodda’s (clotted cream) have evolved into businesses with sales across the UK. More will surely follow.

Fishing boats still operate from the village, though there is no quay so the boats have to be winched up the beach. The catch features crab and lobster as well as mackerel and other species. Much of it is sold to the pub across the road (where my nephew first worked at the age of 14), at two sheds by the beach and at the weekly barbecue. The rest is exported across the Tamar. The fishermen, inevitably, have diversified, offering boat and fishing trips to visitors as well as painting, arts and crafts. “Nutty Noah”, having retired from the sea and now driving a taxi, is the artist behind the pictures on the bottles of Cornish Chough.

Vineyards haven’t reached this end of Cornwall (it’s only a matter of time), but there is a local distillery, Curio, to rival the better-known Tarquin brand from north Cornwall. Curio is based in some farm outbuildings a few miles away. As well as cocoa and cardamom-flavoured vodkas, it produces an excellent gin flavoured with locally collected rock samphire. The owners also operate holiday chalets; next door is an artisan chocolate factory.

Fast food in Cornwall is synonymous with pasties and there are two local producers. “Leggy” used to work for Ann’s Pasties, but left, thinking she could make better ones herself. She now has a thriving competing business. Down the road, “Bones”, a retired policeman, makes the best mango chutney this side of Lahore, while, in the other direction, a home bakery has recently been started. The local village shop-come-post office has been revitalised, offering a broad array of Cornish produce to supplement the essentials, so there is no longer any need to visit the Tesco store ten miles away except for petrol (and many drivers around here are on red diesel in any case). Anyway, the Wednesday market and car boot sale (cash only) down the Penzance Road beats Tesco on price every time.

Of course, the tourist season only lasts a few months, after which business quietens down, but equally, I’ve only scratched the surface of the enterprise economy in a small corner of the county. How much of this is reflected in HMRC tax returns or the economic data for Cornwall is anyone’s guess – but mine is that Cornwall is wealthier than the data shows. The European Union seems to agree. It announced a few months ago that, following various GDP revisions, it turns out that Cornwall was “not poor enough” for the £1bn of EU funding it has received since 1999, because income per head in 2000 was 83%, not 68% of the EU average (areas on below 75% qualify for funding). That percentage is surely considerably higher now. Post Brexit, Cornwall should do better still, due to underused farmland, fishing potential, the growth in tourism and the spirit of enterprise. The rest of Britain has much to learn from this part of the world.