Saint Piran is generally regarded as Cornwall's patron saintEmily Lawson-Todd for Varsity

“A good sword and a trusty hand / A merry heart and true / King James’ men shall understand what Cornish lads can do…” darts around a dimly lit hall in St John’s College’s Old Divinity School. The enticing aroma of newly imported life-sustaining pasties teases the senses. Brown Willy, a quintessential piece of Cornish cinema, arrests our attention. The Cambridge University Cornwall Society’s termly film night has begun.

A few hours later, aided by some remedial pints of Rattler, all pards (people) in attendance engage in some well-earned troyl: Cornish folk dancing. Torsos twirling, arms linked in unison, and smiles adamantine, one cannot help but admire the distinct communal camaraderie that has flowered.

“Torsos twirling, arms linked in unison, and smiles adamantine, one cannot help but admire the distinct communal camaraderie that has flowered”

You may object that one may find similar displays of cultural expression at other ethnic societies in Cambridge. However, the traditions upheld by the Cornwall Society are particularly striking when one considers Cornwall’s rather unusual position within England. Together with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany, it is one of the Celtic nations; it vehemently guards its Brittonic language, Kernewek, which was revived in the early twentieth century after facing extinction in the mid-eighteenth; it boasts its own anthem, ‘Trelawny’; and has a national day, St Piran’s Day, on which Cornish flags are waved, traditional attire is worn, and ballads are bellowed. In short, it possesses nearly all the elements of a separate nation.

Yet it is a county of England. In many ways, it feels like England. But it retains an air of distinctiveness that is difficult to ignore; one rarely finds St George’s Crosses flying there. Take a comparison of different groups of Cornwall’s inhabitants. Wealthy second-home owners in Cornwall will insist on their Englishness. Others, however, view themselves as Cornish rather than English. Not quite English; not quite a separate country. The word liminal springs to mind.

Armed with my finest ‘geddon’, I spoke to the Society’s president, Maddy-Rose Hunter, to find out how the Society grapples with this dichotomy. Founded in the murkiness of Lent 2022, it is a product of difficulties of adjustment. “I found the people whom I was living with and I was meeting, so different to people at home,” she tells me, before adding, “I felt weird about my accent.” It’s an experience to which nearly anyone who doesn’t happen to be middle class, possess an RP accent, and live in the Home counties can relate. Yet, for Maddy, such difficulties relate specifically to Cornwall’s regional liminality. She recalls, for example, responding to a person saying, “I’m gonna get my hair done,” by quipping “Where to?” (a Cornish slang term, meaning “where”). She was met with a “blank face”.

In this light, the Society symbolised an antidote to the consequences of Cornwall’s regional obfuscation. Reflecting on the Society’s wider function, she “think[s] that having Cornish representation here is really important.” The pasties. The songs. The flags. The troyl. The swiftness with which members’ Cornish accents sprang out of their RP oral caves. It seems to me that the Society is a purified slice of the Duchy herself, wholly stripped of its English qualities, here in Cambridge.

“this cultural intensity, Maddy thinks, that allows the Society to provide a ‘sense of familiarity’”

It is this cultural intensity, Maddy thinks, that allows the Society to provide a “sense of familiarity”. It acts as a “home from home” for its new Cornish members, many of whom, of course, cannot “go home for the weekend” in the way that many Home Counties-dwellers can. Accordingly, Seb Gentile, a year after its founding, was prompted to join as a fresher because of this strong emphasis on distinctive Cornish traditions. “Getting everyone together to […] watch Brown Willy and eat pasties” was a prospect too enticing to resist. And it’s well-justified. It is rather tempting, I think, for us students to relish in all those elements of home, however small, that differ from Cambridge’s. It allows us to cope with being in a strange, familiar-yet-new, environment. Exhibit A: I find myself scoffing down scones, nearly falling into a trance while staring at images of my local hill, and lamenting the demise of the ancient Kingdom of Dumnonia. For every pasty devoured together, every verse of ‘Trelawny’ bellowed together, and every St Piran’s Flag waved together, English-Cornish difference burgeons.

How, you might ask, does this assertion of difference impact members’ Cornish identity? To truly understand home you must leave it. For Seb, the Society’s activities have made him “appreciate the traditions” of Cornwall to a greater extent. Maddy concurs, but makes explicit its strong impact on her identity. “We’ve really immersed ourselves culturally […] [and] I think it’s 100% strengthened my, like, Cornish national identity.” Her use of the word “national” is significant. Here, in the stuffy halls of the University of Cambridge, will we witness the birth of a new Cornish nationalist movement?


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Though this is of course speculation, one of the Society’s members thought along similar lines when joining the Society, despite not being from Cornwall. Rob Monteiro, from London, held an “interest in Cornish nationalism” before joining, leading him to attend CS events with Ella, a Cornish collegemate, when he came to Cambridge. One of the aspects of the Society Maddy cherishes is its inclusion of non-Cornish people, referred to as “Kernow fans”. “I think lots of people at Cambridge can relate to feeling, like, different or ‘OMG, it’s so posh here! ’ and, I think, Cornwall Soc […] doesn’t take itself too seriously, so I can understand why [non-Cornish] people come,” she tells me. Accordingly, Rob relished in being “kindly treated as one of their own”. Yet he also found further comfort through noticing similarities between Cornwall and his native Brazil. For him, a “dual culture” was discovered, derived largely from its provincialism and shared agricultural milieu.

So, the Cornwall Society is much more than a facilitator of an endless Rattler binge session. Engaging with Cornwall’s distinctive traditions, one pasty at a time, the Society is a testament to the true value of exploring home while away from home.