Hireth: longing, yearning, nostalgia (Cornish)

My Cornish heritage is very important to me. I am very proud of the fact that I can trace my family tree back to 1550. All in Cornwall, mostly farmers. Recently I have been thinking about our ‘connection to place’. That undefinable feeling of belonging to somewhere. A special bond that never leaves you, even after years of absence.

It won’t surprise you that I feel like that about Cornwall and more than that, the family farm where not only I but generations of my family grew up.

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My grandmother & great-grandmother outside the farmhouse c1900

I do realise however that not everyone feels like that about a place, which is after all just dirt and stone. Some might say isn’t family all you need to feel ‘at home’?

Perhaps so, but still so many people seem to have that one place where their heart belongs and where I wonder does that feeling come from? Is it the memories of a happy childhood that creates that bond or sense of belonging? Or is it something in your bones? Your DNA?

Cornwall Across the Globe

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries immigrants to the new countries being colonised around the globe took not only their languages and luggage with them. They took a little bit of home in their hearts too. That is why there is for example a Falmouth in 5 US states as well as Canada, Tasmania, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.

It is possible to develop those feelings though? Can you feel connected to somewhere you only know briefly?

I have left my family home on many occasions, sometimes for long periods of time, even years.

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But when I returned it was never landing in Heathrow airport that was important to me. It was crossing the Tamar river. I still get that same joyous feeling of relief every time I do it. I’m home.

But some people do loose their homes and homelands forever. You would think in this, the most globalised period of our human history, that it wouldn’t matter quite as much. But to many a forced separation can be very painful. Something from which they never recover.

The Loss of Place

There is a Welsh word, hiraeth, which means a homesickness for somewhere to which you can never return. A grief for a lost place.

The history of the village of Tyneham illustrates the effect a permanent and forced parting or dislocation of people for their home can have. Just before Christmas in 1943 the villagers were given an order to leave their houses. They were assured that this would be temporary while the MOD used the area for training. So they left, believing that they were making an essential contribution to the war effort and that they would one day return.

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Evelyn Bond, one of the older residents, even pinned a note to the church door asking that the village be treated “with care” as she added “we shall one day return”.

Of course, they were never allowed back. Many died in what they felt was a kind of exile. In 1974 John Gould, who had been born in the village, wrote to Harold Wilson. Despite having lived away from Tyneham for more than 30 years he begged the then Prime Minister to allowed him to return or at least to be buried there when his time came.

Gould said “I have always wanted to return . . . Tyneham to me is the most beautiful place in the world . . . most of all I want to go home”.

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Cottages, Tyneham village

Part of Gould’s plea was that all his memories were there, and all his friends and relations were buried in the churchyard. Something hard to describe was pulling on him to return. Not just to the bricks and mortar of his childhood home but to the very earth of the place.

Diego Garcia

Another group of dispossessed people are the Chagossians who were forced to leave Diego Garcia when the British took over the island in 1967. Some 50+ years later they are still fighting to return to what they call “our motherland”. They even have a special word to describe the pain they feel from this separation. They call it “sagren”, it means the feeling of deep sorrow caused by being apart from their home.

Many languages have a word which goes some way towards describing that feeling. “Querencia” is a word originating in Spanish, it means a place from which one draws one’s strength and a place where you are your most authentic self.

A yearning for something lost

The Cornish word “hireth” is closely connected to the Welsh but somehow deeper, it is something in your bones, a longing, a yearning for something lost.

On a personal level my family have lived in this same house for generations and perhaps that is the source of the connection I feel to it.


The hopes, dreams, tears and happiness of my genetic history are imbedded in the dirt and granite walls. The fields hum with my father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s sweat. My great-great-grandfather looked out on the same window as I do now writing this, and we remember him fondly for installing the inside toilet! Their processions and their stories surround me.

So what are the magical ingredients that combine to produce that wonderful sense of belonging? Is it just a bundle of happy childhood memories perhaps with a large splash of collective history thrown in? The dictionary describes ‘belonging’ as “to be connected with, native to or resident of” and perhaps it is that simple, feeling completely at home because it is the place that you know best. The place that you were conceived, born and raised.

Beneath the long barn in the farm yard there is our dark and dirty tool shed. It is full of the “what ifs” and “it might come in handy one days” of farming. On the back of the door there hangs an overcoat. Once pale green, or perhaps always light brown, it has been there for all of my life. It has never moved, the sagging shoulders have a thick layer of dark dust settled on them as do the drapes of the material and the top edges of the pockets.

Perhaps it was hung there after getting wet in a sudden shower or because the day turned out to be too hot for an overcoat. Perhaps it was always a little too small or just never quite comfortable, whatever the reason that coat was hung on the hook on the back of that door and it has never been moved since. The years, decades have swung by and there it has hung, summer and winter, my grandfather’s old overcoat. It, like so much that surrounds me, is a constant and there is a profound comfort in that. My life is built on and around the lives of my ancestors. In some cases it is as if they just hung up their coat and stepped outside for a moment.


“A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines”.

Kent Ryden

It has been said by psychologists that a special bond develops between a child and their childhood environment, that this “childhood landscape” forms part of a person’s identity. That the place is part of you and you are a part of it.

Recent years have not only seen unprecedented voluntary movements of people around our planet but also mass migration due to economic deprivation and the escalation of violent conflicts. I wonder if the word “home” will take on more or less significance for those displaced people.

Further Reading:

Rock Solid Love

Cornwall’s Influential & Inspiring Women – Past & Present

Cornish Connections

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32 thoughts on “Hireth

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I love Cornwall and couldn’t bear to be anywhere else. But, if I was Hireth would definitely apply to me! Tracey xx

  2. I’ve only recently discovered your account as you kindly ‘liked’ one of my IG photos. I’ve now had the joy of reading your blog. My Grandad was a Falmouth boy and ran away to sea when he was 14! I used to enjoy hearing his stories of far away lands but his heart was always in Falmouth. Thank you for sharing such beautiful photos and evocative writing!

    1. Thank you so much Nina! I am so pleased you liked it! This is a new thing for me so it is really encouraging to receive such a lovely comment!

  3. I was born in Birmingham, moved to Clevedon, Somerset, when I was 4, left home and moved to Crediton, Devon when i was 23 and then moved to Calstock, Cornwall in 2001. My job takes me all around the world and I completely agree, its not the landing in Heathrow, it’s the crossing of the Tamar Bridge that makes me feel i’m home. Also, the copse of trees on the left hand side of the A30… Nearing Bodmin, I think? Funny that Cornwall is the place my soul has chosen for Home.

    1. Thank you for writing Nikki, I know exactly the trees you mean, funny that I used to think I was the only one that noticed them 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for your moving words. I’ve lived away from my soul’s home on Exmoor for thirty years but still hireth calls me back. Do you mind if I share your blog on my author Facebook page? I look forward to reading more from you! Tracey Gemmell

  5. Yup – wherever I go, Cornwall will always be where I feel most at repose. My maternal grandmothers family is my link back through the generations and it’s my birth place. I remember being out on the Lizard peninsular one time, early in the morning and feeling so at one with the world, in a place I “get”. Likewise, it’s crossing the bridge that makes me feel at home!

  6. Apparently the A30 trees are known to many of us border-crossing travellers as the ‘Nearly home trees’. If you search Instagram for the tag #nearlyhometrees I’m sure you’ll recognise them. Story goes that the farmer planted the trees in a heart shape as a memorial for his recently deceased wife. I have no sources for this info apart from local chit chat.

    Lovely piece, although I didn’t grow up in Cornwall I have it in my blood thanks to my mother. Finally made it ‘home’ this year.

  7. This is a really beautiful article, very pointed for a day in which many struggle over the idea of community. I didn’t realize that Hiraeth specifically referred to a place to which you simply cannot return. I’m writing something not dissimilar and this new understanding of Hiraeth gives me something to think about for the essay.

  8. Beautiful piece of writing that I can absolutely relate to. Very poignant. A large number of my ancestors left Cornwall in the 19th century to seek work in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, USA etc but, to this day, their descendants still consider Cornwall to be home and are very proud of their heritage – so there must be something to ‘Cornishness’ and belonging. Very much enjoyed reading it

      1. Thanks – yes I can go back nearly 500 years. Miners for most of that time and then coppersmith. Very proud to be Cornish.

  9. Beautiful piece of writing, I’m not from Cornwall but I can certainly appreciate the sense of coming home that you experience as you cross the bridge into Cornwall and even more so for me when on the train, and the Cathedral hoves into view over the city of Truro, magic. x

  10. Thank you for your beautifully written blog. We were forced to leave our homeland, Zimbabwe, 15 years ago and chose to emigrate to the U.K. where our ancestors had originated from. It was a tough decision and we have made a very good life here. But there’s still a place 6 000 miles away where everything I once loved and held dear, lived.
    I went back to Zimbabwe three years ago to attend my niece’s wedding, but the place I knew and loved no longer held the welcome foothold of familiarity. It has changed that much that I no longer recognized it as my homeland. ‘Hireth’ exists only in my heart now, in my memory.
    We are very happy in the U.K. and only occasionally visit that place in my heart (usually Jan/Feb time when the icy rains beat down on the window panes). It’s a bittersweet pain, not a gut-wrenching grief. The memories are happy but they belong to a place which no longer exists.
    Recently, on a trip to Cornwall, we visited the Truro museum and I saw a section devoted to ‘Hireth’ so I looked it up on the internet and found your superbly written blog. Thank you. It made my day.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely message, it was so moving to read about your experiences and I am so happy that you enjoyed my blog. It sounds to me like you have some stories to tell yourself, do you write? Take care, E

  11. Absolutely wonderful narrative which I totally understand and feel. I lived away from Cornwall for a short period many years ago & have travelled extensively, but nowhere else will ever be quite like home to me. I have seen some marvellous places and hope to see more. Cornwall will always be home to me. Nowhere else will do.

  12. Just found this site, while looking up ‘hireth’ as there was an article in Cornwall today that I receive every month… I am not Cornish born but grew up there from the age of four and would come back tomorrow if I could but that’s very unlikely! My maiden name was Scrace and apart from my nephews and their families who were born and live in Cornwall I do not know of any others of that name in Cornwall. I am very careful when asked where I come from( must be the accent!) not to claim to be Cornish but, oh, in my heart I am! Thanks

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