Cultural Landscape of West Penwith

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Two third year history students from Exeter University, Will Orchard and Abi Stocker, examine the cultural landscape in a research project of West Penwith, interviewing Cornish residents along the way. Read on to discover their findings below.

The aim of this project was to explore the relationships between landscape and identity through the collection of six oral history testimonies. This research was used to create a touring exhibition which was displayed at three of Cornwall’s libraries (Bodmin, Truro and Penzance) in May 2014. The experience was an invaluable opportunity to develop our skills as public historians while also engaging with and involving the local community.

We worked alongside the Cornish Audio Visual Archive, directed by our supervisor Dr Garry Tregidga (Institute of Cornish Studies, Tremough), and Anna Tonkin and Jay Pengelly from C.A.V.A. This project is one of a body of research, investigating personal relationship to place, individual and collective memory, and identity. All six interviews will be held by C.A.V.A and available for use by members of the public and anyone interested in understanding this topic further.

The decision to focus on photographs was framed by a photograph collection donated to Institute of Cornish Studies by Paul Rattenbury. The photographs, from c.1920, capture scenes from Newlyn, Mousehole and Penzance and as a result it was agreed that the project would focus specifically on West Penwith. This specific geographical focus was of vital importance to the success of our project, as it would have been very challenging to encompass voices from all over Cornwall given project time constraints. It also allowed us to discuss specific places and landmarks which became a very important part of our interviews.

Flooding at Tolcarne
Flooding at Tolcarne

When exploring existing literature on the landscape of West Penwith, we found that many books simply present photograph collections with little interpretation or analysis. For example, Penwith in Old Photographs provides an interesting collection of nineteenth century photos, yet fails to consider the significance of the scenes they depict. Therefore, we wanted to move beyond this descriptive focus to place our photograph collection in the wider context of cultural landscape and identity formation. However, as anticipated the initial focus of our project shifted as our research progressed. As Kathy Corbett found when researching a similar project, “Old photographs triggered memories and launched conversations, but memories unleashed had their own energy and followed their own logic.” [Corbett, 2006: 16]

While photos were important for evoking memories and feelings during the interviews, they were not central to our analysis as the interviewees often entered into more complex discussions of place and identity. This was possible because we used a semi-structured interview format; using pre-written questions to form the basic structure and then responding with spontaneous questions based on interviewee responses. Therefore, our experience supports Corbett and Miller’s idea of the importance of “creative give and take” between interviewee and interviewer because this enables both sides to shape the interview, capturing the “collaborative nature” of oral history interviewing. [Corbett, 2006: 16]

It became clear from the available literature and the testimonies of those whom we interviewed, that to understand a shared relationship to a physical landscape, it was necessary to understand many individual relationships with a cultural landscape. As such, the connection to a place was understood to be a result of its personal relevancy to the individual. Meanwhile, a collective memory could be defined as community attitudes, feelings, and memories towards, in the context of this project, a natural or constructed landmark in West Penwith, which are frequently congruent with each other.

St Michael's Mount
St Michael’s Mount

St Michael’s Mount was recurrently the most described monument amongst the interviewees. Not only did it seem to be the easiest subject to talk about, due to its dominating existence in the Mount’s Bay, but the interviewees gave similar accounts of returning to Penwith. Helen Musser remarked that, “It’s the first thing you look for when you come down in the train.” Julyan Drew felt that home was “signified by the presence of the Mount on your left.” This demonstrates Stephanie Hawke’s ‘elective belongers’; those with an ability to instantly relate to place, and was a characteristic apparent with every interviewee [2010: 1345]. The importance given to St Michael’s Mount by community members who may never come into contact with each other demonstrates that the enigmatic nature of the cultural landscape is more than stone or concrete, but is equally constructed with the memory of personal activity and relation to place. This provides shared meaning to objects and landscapes, as Hawke purports that it integrates landscape and culture to make the intangible, tangible [Hawke, 2010: 1331].

Cornish Stile

While the definition of a cultural landscape has been clarified, the method of its construction should receive some attention. In general sociological terms, Maurice Halbwachs believed that every individual memory constitutes itself in communication with others, and therefore supports the notion of understanding “the whole in terms of the detail and the detail in terms of the whole” [Gadamer, 2000: 117]. Likewise, this helps to discount critiques of oral history as being unreliable, based on subjective memory, and oral autobiographies, as oral history becomes more of a social experience by linking personal identity to collective memory. Thus, if one can start to understand the intangible linking of identity and memory, then one is also able to consciously think of this process when coming into contact with tangible objects. Jan Assman has suggested a similar characteristic in the process of cultural memory. Through two common strands of reflexivity, Assman notes that people relate to place and identities through:

1) practice-reflexive: the interpreting of place or identity through daily practice or ritual
2) self-reflexive: interpreting place or identity through individual experience (Assman, 1995: 125-133)

Photographs also help to add to a personal understanding which returns to the self-reflexive quality of collective memory. The response from Harry Glasson, on his connection to place, highlights how these two traits manifest themselves:

“Because in my lifetime St Michael’s Mount has always been a tourist attraction. And I think if you’re local, people used to say to me when I was on the tours, ‘Aww yeah, St Michael’s Mount. Fantastic. What d’you think about it?’ Yeah, it was there.”

Thus, the responses highlight the validity of Assman’s theory, yet it probably could not be concluded that respondents do this knowingly. Nor does Harry’s alternative response support Halbwachs’s theory that, “an ‘affective community’ ensured that individuals remembered primarily those memories which were ‘in harmony’ with those of others,” as it does not explain divergent beliefs amongst individuals as already exhibited [Halbwachs, in Green, 2004: 38].

Yet, the apparent anecdotal quality of oral history arguably prevents objective analysis [Leffer and Brent, 1990: 121]. However, this implies that some history is objective and historians of such history have not been influenced by the forces which construct a collective memory. According to Anna Green, “all forms of historical understanding […] are increasingly classified as memory,” therefore the supposedly more objective sources are arguably a memory also [Green, 2004: 37]. Accordingly, public or shared memory has the potential to influence personal memory, and vice versa. Consequently the strength in oral history lies ironically in the diverse feelings and attitudes which according to Fish, “do not proceed from an isolated individual but from a public point of view” [Fish, in Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 122].

Walking along the coastal moors
Walking along the coastal moors

In terms of selecting interviewees, we kept in mind Ken Howarth’s claim that “everyone has a history and can be involved whether he or she is an affluent company director or the person who stokes the boiler.” [Howarth, 1998: 76] As a result we managed to interview individuals in (or retired from) a range of occupations – from the former Mayor of Penzance to a Cornish Dance teacher.

However, Alessandro Portelli argues that while an interview with a social ‘protagonist’ such as a politician is “very legitimate oral history”, it “verges toward more established genres of historical writing”, i.e. the grand narrative [Portelli, 1997: 6]. This is the type of history that many researchers have been trying to avoid because it often excludes the voices of ‘ordinary’ people. Nonetheless our decision to include such a ‘protagonist’ reflects the evolution of the debate over who should be interviewed, which has moved from a discussion of the respective merits of ‘elite’ versus ‘non-elite’, to an understanding that “no one group [has] an exclusive understanding of the past,” [Richie, 3003: 3]. Therefore, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible and did not want to exclude anyone based on their occupation or social status.

Tanning the nets near Cornish Mine supplies
Tanning the nets near Cornish Mine supplies

The challenge facing us once we had collected the interviews was how to select material for the exhibition. To facilitate the selection of audio clips we identified several themes which recurred throughout the interviews. This process was framed by the work of Anna Green, who chose to include the most ‘representative stories’ (i.e. those with recurring themes) in her exhibition [Green, 1998: 421]. The themes include a sense of home and a sense of timelessness, which underline the narrative of our exhibition.

However, Green does express caution against the risk of stereotyping when trying to find ‘representative’ stories, which is supported by Trevor Lummis, who warns that “…historians simply assume that their informants’ experiences are in some sense typical of whichever group they come from” [Lummis, 1998: 257].

Nonetheless, we attempted to ensure that our exhibition did not present the views of our interviewees as typical of a specific age, occupation or gender. Rather we have taken Gadamer’s idea that, “We must understand the whole in terms of the detail and the detail in terms of the whole” as central to our analysis [Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 117]. Thus the decision was made to select individual stories and memories which would enrich audience comprehension of the ‘big’ themes that our exhibition relates to.

The Ross Bridge, Penzance
The Ross Bridge, Penzance

The notion of a sense of belonging came out in all of our interviews and was especially prevalent when interviewees reflected on places which give them a sense of coming or being ‘home’. This sense of ‘home’ was often linked specifically to St Michael’s Mount, which was triggered when interviewees were by presented with a picture of the Mount from Rattenbury’s collection.

For example, when presented with the photograph, Helen Musser reflected “… that Mount, it’s the first thing you look for, isn’t it, when you come down in the train, when you come home …”. This suggests that the Mount plays a symbolic role in helping individuals to identify that they are back in Cornwall. This links with another of our interviewees, Simon Reed, who said, “It is the iconic image I have of coming home, if you like.”

Furthermore, the iconic status attributed to the Mount strongly suggests that certain sites can play a very important role in forming people’s sense of identity and connection to place.

Another theme which recurred was the linkage of landscape to ancestors. This ranged from discussing parents and grandparents, to unknown ancestors from the more distant past. This supports the idea that ‘the family’ can act as a vehicle to connect individuals to a time “long before living memory” [Tregidga and Milden, 2008: 23]. For example, Loveday Jenkin commented, “… if you look at a farm and you think, ‘My great, great, great whatever lived there and they might have built or rebuilt that hedge …” This reflects her later comment that “… the whole landscape is a memorial to all our ancestors”.

Therefore, this strongly reinforces the idea that ‘cultural landscape’ is linked to both past and present and the formation of identity. It also brings into question Jan Assman and Jon Czaplicka’s idea that the ‘temporal horizon’ prevents memories from reaching more than 80-100 years into the past because Loveday was clearly able to connect with a time long before living memory [Assman and Czaplocka, 1995: 127]. This reinforces ideas of collective memory and suggests that the landscape provides an important window into the past.