“Cornish author Tim Hannigan gives a fascinating, lyrical account of an east-west walk across Britain’s westernmost and most mysterious region . . . Combining landscape and nature writing with deep cultural inquiry The Granite Kingdom is a probing but highly accessible and personal tour of one of Britain’s most popular regions, justaposing history, myth, folklore and literary representation with the geographical and social reality of contemporary Cornwall.”Tim Hannigan, The Granite Kingdom, 2023
I was only a few pages into Tim Hannigan’s new book about Cornwall when I started to ask myself some pretty uncomfortable questions but that, he told me, was what he was aiming for. The Granite Kingdom is not like the Victorian travel guides it uses as source material. It is written by a Cornishman for a start, but it is also written by a Cornishman who has clearly thought long and hard about what that really means.
What it actually means to be Cornish but also what Cornwall is, where it begins and ends, how it was and is seen and how it sees itself.
The Granite Kingdom is a travel book, Tim takes us on a 300 mile journey on foot through the land he loves but also through its historic and cultural topography. It’s an exploration of Cornwall from Tamar to toe, of roads and paths much travelled and others completely overgrown, of what makes Cornwall Cornwall, physically, psychologically and culturally. He is doing the leg work for us, in more ways than one, hunting out the treasures from the past as well as the pit falls, the dead ends, the dodgy signage and the stumbling blocks. And some of those blocks we have long avoided tripping up on, but being forced to face them is, I think, a good thing.
First Tim explores the banks of the Tamar and the movable, ever-permeable border and then zig-zags his way west towards his childhood home. The path takes him from coast to coast and back again all while he muses on subjects like the origins of many of our myths and legends, the not-so-Cornish roots of the ‘Cornish revival’ and why Cornwall is known as a place of dastardly wreckers and smugglers when those activities occurred with arguably greater regularity elsewhere in the country.
The book is packed full with fascinating snippets of local history woven through with personal anecdotes about growing up in this part of the world that were all too familiar to me. And there are stories that highlight Cornwall’s differences but also its connectedness, its global influence and reach – I was particularly struck by the story of James Hoskin’s journey to America in 1810, not just his adventures abroad but the fact that more than 200 years ago he could sail to New York direct from Penzance.
The Granite Kingdom is a fun, friendly book with an affable guide but don’t be fooled, this is not sugar-coated, day-dreamy, blue-sky flim-flam. It is thoughtfully and thoroughly researched, Tim has something to say, and at times the reader (particularly the Cornish reader) is forced to confront some uncomfortable observations. But for me this felt overdue. Cornwall is not a fantasy, it is not a place from the pages of a romance novel or somewhere to be understood through the lens of a glossy TV show. It is so much more than that and personally I want to know and understand every dark corner.
Perhaps there has been a little too much make-believe over the years.
While in Mevagissey Tim pops into the bookshop and notes the rows of pastel-tinted paperbacks all set in some whimsical, picture-postcard version of a Cornish village with made up Cornish sounding names that you couldn’t possibly translate from actual Cornish. He writes:
“This was the ultimate imaginative construction of Cornwall – a fictional location entirely unanchored from geographic, historic and cultural actuality, a Cornwall of the mind that no longer needed the real place as a reference point.”Tim Hannigan, The Granite Kingdom, 2023
Around Chapter Three – “A Hideous and a Wicked Country”, I suddenly realised what an absolute pleasure it was to be reading a local’s observations of the landscape I love so much, and perhaps most importantly what a novelty that was.
I have hundreds of books about Cornwall and dozens of travel guides mostly written by learned, wealthy visitors. Explorers of a strange land – or at least a land strange to them! A Cornwall they consistently viewed as ‘exotic’, as ‘other’, not as the one place in the whole world where they feel utterly and completely at home.
And Tim also rightly notes that the Cornish relish and even promote our own strangeness, our otherness, to our advantage (?). Something I had never really considered before.
“By the Victorian era . . . Cornwall was no longer a distant periphery in need of integration – quite the opposite in fact. It was a place where you could pretend to be abroad without having to confront full-blown cultural different or anti colonial resistance. You could claim you were among exotic Celts the moment you crossed the Tamar . . .”Tim Hannigan, The Granite Kingdom, 2023
On a trip to Australia a younger Tim visited the ‘Cornish’ mining towns of Kadina and Wallaroo, and perhaps a little homesick ate a pasty in the latter. His experience made me laugh out loud with sudden recognition. As I read about Tim’s outrage at finding carrot in his pasty I was reminded of a very similar experience I had had which resulted in me being asked to leave a bakery somewhere in Western Australia when I pointed out that a pasty should never contain peas!
And that is it, isn’t it – why are we so passionate about these things, why is it so important, why should it matter that a Cornish pasty on the other side of the world contains the wrong filling? Why must it be Jam First? And are we clinging on to the right things, the right differences?
Beyond pasties, Tim tackles some very complicated and thorny issues around identity and independence. The real and profound story behind the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 is particularly enlightening.
The Granite Kingdom filled me with joy, nostalgia and pride but it also made me think more deeply, more seriously, about what it actually means to say you are from this place.
“I’m certain the fact that so many people from elsewhere covet and cherish Cornwall helps to keep me and many others alert to its extraordinary qualities, to sharpen our appreciation – even if we don’t always like to admit it. But this raises a flicker of self doubt – do we need the gazing outsiders to tell us that our place is special?”Tim Hannigan, The Granite Kingdom, 2023
The stereotypes by which we have come to define ourselves. How the rest of the world views us and why and how we have cultivated and encouraged those stereotypes about ourselves and Cornishness. The idea that we should be careful not to get too caught up in our own mythologising because if/when the glamour of the fantasy fades what will be left for us of our real culture and heritage? Romanticism, myth and legend are very much part of Cornish character and heritage and hopefully nothing will change that but our nation’s story has to be an authentic one too.
The truth, uncomfortable or not, what we expect or not, what we’ve been taught or not, matters.