The best parts of Cornwall by travel expert Simon Reeve
PUBLISHED: 13:47 09 November 2020
Adjusting your work life during a global pandemic poses all sorts of challenges, especially when you earn your money from travelling the world. TV presenter Simon Reeve has spent almost two decades exploring 130 countries to great acclaim, but now coronavirus has hampered long-haul travel, he’s explored somewhere closer to home for his latest series.
In Cornwall With Simon Reeve, there might be shots of the county’s golden beaches and sweeping coastline, but it’s not the idyll that’s typically flaunted on screen.
‘If you’re trying to make sense of Cornwall, you can’t just focus on the tourist bits because there is more to the county than the coast. When you go inland and see what lives are being lived, you realise there’s a side to the county that’s been hidden away in many senses, certainly from visitors and it’s quite shocking to learn how serious the poverty and inequality is in Cornwall,’ explains Simon, 48, who lives in Devon with his wife, Anya, and their son.
‘Most of the journeys I’ve done have been my idea. I try and think what’s viable and interesting, and where Michael Palin hasn’t been, but this time I was approached by Beagle, (the Cornwall-based production company). I wasn’t that keen at first. I thought I knew Cornwall too well, and it would all be too familiar but then you start doing the most basic research online and realise there are some real extremes in Cornwall.’
Simon travelled to the county at the end of June, shortly before lockdown lifted, and again at the end of the season, to witness how Cornwall was impacted ‘during a summer like no other’.
He meets Taco Boys, a group of twentysomething lads who live in campervans because they can’t afford rent while they work from their mobile food van in Polzeath. Despite a slow start to the season, the influx of tourists from July onwards meant they made their target. But it’s not viable to open their own premises in Cornwall, so they’re moving to Exeter with the hope of moving back in the future.
‘It’s such a crying shame they have to leave to fulfil their ambition, they have so much to offer,’ says Simon who acknowledges Cornwall’s isolated location is part of its great appeal, but ‘there are enormous logistical, practical, economic challenges as well’.
He also spends time with Don Gardner, an ex-mining engineer who runs one of Britain’s biggest food banks. Despite losing his wife shortly before filming, Don was determined to talk about the much-needed work he and his team carry out in and around Camborne.
‘It’s easy to get seduced by all your lovely fishing ports in Cornwall, they are gorgeous, but for me, the greatest delight is the people. I met so many wonderful and inspiring people, including Don who’s a total legend. It couldn’t be more poignant he talked to us despite his grief. That’s a level of dedication I’d previously seen from people in a war-torn part of Burma.’
The two-part series also shines a light on Cornwall’s mining heritage, and how the collapse of mines like South Crofty in 1998 impacted communities. ‘I never got the importance of Cornwall’s mining closing and what that meant to the place and the people but you can’t avoid it when somebody like Don is explaining the sense of loss that occurs when factories employing hundreds of people close. Then you get a real understanding of Cornwall for what it is, which is a post-industrial part of Britain that’s trying to find its feet again. Other parts of the country are trying to do that as well, but nowhere is quite so dependent on tourism at the same time and that creates opportunities and dangers in the same breath.’
Just like there aren’t enough year-round careers, there is also a lack of available and affordable homes. Simon chats to Catrina Davies who’s been living in a renovated shed for the past 10 years and talks about how the mass arrival of second homeowners has forced housing prices to exorbitant levels that are unattainable for many locals.
‘I think Catrina highlights a problem we face across the country but that’s really brought into focus in somewhere like Cornwall where the number of houses is fairly limited and the number of houses that are available are even more limited because some of the wealthiest people in the country keep them empty, just as their bolthole,’ he notes.
‘It’s a joy and a delight for them but as a country and society, we must think about the consequences for people who haven’t had that good fortune and the inequality it creates as a result. We really can’t afford to have that gulf between the haves and have nots. It can lead to instability and I would fear for that developing through the pandemic and becoming more of a crisis in the future.’
Simon was working as a postboy at The Sunday Times when he was spotted by the editor and promoted to the news floor. He became an expert on terrorism, in print and on TV, and then made his first documentary, Meet the Stans, part of the BBC’s Holidays in the Danger Zone series, which aired in 2003.
His next series will be Incredible Journey’s which airs this winter and sees the globetrotter reflect on his adventures. ‘It was quite eye-opening to look back and try and understand what connected the journeys I’ve done and draw some wider lessons and meanings from them. I hope I talk honestly about the joy of travel too, because I want to reassure people we will travel again. It’s very much in our DNA as a species. Whether it’s to Cornwall or Colombia, I think many of us have a desire to see what is around the corner and over the hill,’ says Simon who didn’t get on a plane until he was an adult.
‘Growing up on the edge of inner-city London in the Seventies and Eighties, my world was tiny, and I never thought it would expand and grow the way it has. It’s made me feel like the luckiest person alive.’
Simon plans to write another book ‘during this long winter,’ something he’s excited and apprehensive about in equal measure. ‘It doesn’t flow naturally,’ he admits, and hopefully he’ll hit the road again sometime soon.
‘Travel is always fascinating because people always have tales and culture to share. Whether it’s in Mousehole or Madagascar, people have experiences to relay and that makes travel endlessly fascinating, wherever you’re doing it.’
Cornwall With Simon Reeve airs on BBC Two in November and theN BBC iPlayer.