A couple of weeks into lockdown, some strangers entered a corner shop in one of Cornwall’s most visited towns. “Oh how wonderful!” they cooed. “You have everything! We’ve come down from London where the shelves are bare!” The owner told them that his stocks were for locals, and that they should “**** off”. Second-home owners have been banned from his premises ever since.
Forget King Arthur: the ballad of the Spar shop, as we call it, has quickly transmuted into local legend down here in Cornwall, where there’s nary a smile between us as we brace for an onslaught of visitors on Saturday, once overnight restrictions are lifted. Local Facebook groups are ablaze with frightened talk of cottages booked solid until September.
One friend, who has a shop in a particularly pretty village, is preparing to physically barricade himself in, so ambling tourists can’t breathe on him. Not because he hates them (those bite-the-hand-that-feeds-them Cornish stereotypes travel fast) but because he can’t afford to get sick. He and his wife run the shop singlehandedly; if they go down with Covid-19, they lose their livelihood.
This is Cornwall’s summer of 2020 conundrum. We need tourists – they contribute 20 per cent of the county’s GDP – but whether we can deal with their consequences in the heat of a not-yet-quenched pandemic is a question that’s tearing the county apart. People like Gordon Ramsay – who’s spent lockdown at his palatial second home in Rock, baiting locals with pictures of illicit bike rides – paint the Cornish as unfriendly nimbies, jealous of outsiders. Second-homers think we’re being vindictive when they’re reported to the police for moving in mid-lockdown. But the true nimbies, if you ask me, are those same visitors who seem to think the pandemic is happening everywhere except their backyard.
The problem is, the things which attract visitors to Cornwall – the wild open spaces, the unsullied coastline and the cute little towns with high streets intact – are the very things which make this a dangerous place in a pandemic. For a county of 549,000 inhabitants, there is only one A&E and one intensive care unit – with just 15 beds (there are plans to expand to 60 in the event of a second spike).
Now know that in a normal year, Cornwall’s population almost doubles in summer (overall – Newquay’s peak-season population is said to increase tenfold). And that bookings for 2020, according to one group of rental websites, rocketed by 172 per cent in the 12 hours after the July 4 date was announced, with Cornwall the UK’s most popular destination for post-lockdown trips. Around one million people vying for 15 hospital beds is not the kind of odds I want to play.
And that’s before you get onto the practicalities. Services have been stretched to the limit by lockdown – Cornwall Council has requested people stagger their recycling, as lorries can’t cope with the tonnes of extra cardboard from all our online shopping. Cars have been stranded on beaches, after their owners got stuck in the sand. One Saturday in May, the coastguard was called no fewer than 160 times.
With toilets closed, the bushes on the coastal path behind my favourite beach already stink of urine; the protected dunes are being wrecked as people nip off the beach to relieve themselves. When the tourists descend and our coastline turns into Bournemouth beach, who knows what carnage awaits?
Of course, most of the people behaving badly at the moment are locals, but the attitudes of some incomers beggar belief. The woman who hit up a local Facebook group to ask for a hairdresser on July 4 as close to her second home as possible (at least get your hair done before you come down here). Gordon Ramsay casually mentioning in an early lockdown interview that he goes daily to the local butcher (why put people at undue risk when you could do a weekly shop?). The woman who strolled into my friend’s closed shop last week, casually announcing that she’d just moved in to her second home. She, we think, was part of a group evicted by police last week.
The thing is, despite the stereotypes, we don’t dislike visitors. Second-homers – also known as community-gutters – yes, but tourists, no. Sure, we roll our eyes as you practise your yokel accents, smear your jam on top of the cream, and fail utterly to navigate roads without lines down the middle. I’ve unleashed some choice expletives when I missed a hospital appointment because my one-hour drive took two on an August Friday, the single-carriage roads plugged by your caravans.
But actually, I love sharing this landscape with people who don’t have access to it. In past years, we rented out my grandparents’ cottage, and I got a real kick from seeing people get something from it. But visits have to be made at the right time. Two weeks ago, I walked past a camper van parked cliffside at 10pm, its occupants preparing for bed. I said hi – then reported them to the police.
Things are just levelling out post-lockdown here. You can get the odd delivery slot. The queue at the greengrocer is no longer 10-deep. On a weekday evening, you can go for a beach walk and stay socially distant. From Saturday, all that will stop. With the council calling on the government for clarity about its powers, is it any wonder many of us don’t want you down here? If you really loved Cornwall, you’d stay away this summer. We’ll have enough to deal with from those who don’t.