John Betjeman loved Cornwall. His impassioned lyric ‘Cornish Cliffs’ runs
Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles, With, as the everlasting ocean rolls, Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.
Today, 25-strong congregations have more than halved. The once bustling, cold, drafty, splendidly galleried chapels have thankfully been saved, converted for domestic use. Small fields too are being lost as piecemeal development has pushed the towns into the surrounding, poorly protected, green belts. Predictably the ocean stills rolls in but now laps against a changing coastal landscape where the ‘…wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills’ are at risk to scattered developments looking out onto horizons of wind turbines.
Close to the north Cornish coast, at Newquay, is Tregunnel Hill, a new eco-spam-development being built in phases by the Duchy of Cornwall. It is a cut-and-paste version of Poundbury near Dorchester, alien to the surrounding landscapes and unconvincing in its conception and design. It is in fact the polar opposite of Betjeman’s idyllic, calm, green, ‘Cornish lanes [that] lead inland to a usual Cornish scene, Slate cottages with sycamore between’.
And this is the main problem, there is nothing ‘usual’ about Tregunnel Hill. There are no slate cottages, no Cornish lanes, in fact nothing indigenous to Cornwall other than some locally sourced materials, mostly slate, that weatherproofs buildings like the bizarre Deco inspired, part rusticated, commercial style, mid-European office block. Alongside this piece of retro-modernism (and dwarfed by comparison) is a Spamadian town house, shamelessly cribbed from the Palladio inspired early 18th-century Enys house in Truro (below).
There is more than a hint of Dorset cookie in this Duchy Original, indeed the builders C.G. Fry & Son and Morrish Builders have worked on Poundbury − the very antidote to the Hardyesque − for many years now. Within seconds of arrival at Tregunnel the Dorset comparisons shout loud. The council house model with poor stone to glass ratios and beach hut style porches, house’s so cramped in plan that ‘bolt on’ chimneys are needed for articulation, the playschool house, the slate hung house, the ever-so-slightly-but-no-so-you-would-notice Georgian pastiche house and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Classic Colonial. Throughout the development we get glimpses of the same Chamberesque or Adamesque details that Captain Poldark (if we were passing through to see his cousins at Trenwith. Or should that be Chevanage!) would do a double take at.
Amongst these styles there is no hint of the locality, no touches of Cornish vernacular, no place for a take on the Cornish engine house. Sad that. Clive Aslet in the Daily Telegraph (15 July 2008) wrote
‘Then there is the vexed question of architecture. Hugh Petter of Robert Adam Architects has drawn up a detailed pattern book of the Cornish vernacular, showing the type of house features that builders might adopt’.
What happened there then? Were they stolen? Sold by those ruthless bastards, the Warleggan’s no doubt, to raise money for their failing mines? Whatever happened, these invaluable designs were clearly never used, to the detriment of the overall design.
Of course, in the spirit of balance, it’s not all bad. The masterplan for the site works well. Hatched by the Prince’s Foundation and the wild-haired architectural theorist and urban planner Leon Krier, well over a decade ago, the scheme was produced by Adam Urbanism and endorsed by Cornwall Council in 2011. The vistas are good at times and when fully landscaped will, I am sure, become more sympathetic in its surroundings. The houses look onto the busy road into the town which adds some much needed character to Newquay’s approach.
Experiencing Tregunnel Hill has prompted me to publish my first (and possibly last) ever poem entitled ‘The Song of the Cornish Vernacular’ which has been inspired by heroic Arthurian legend and the inappropriate use of heroic characters as non-heroic names of houses that inhabit the development.
Camelot, Carlion and Pellam, King of Listeneise.
Galahad, Normandy, Merlin and Morgause.
Saracen, a Pagan ripe to convert.
Good Knight Dinadan, with garage and forecourt.
Princely New Urbanism near the coast it doth sit.
This Duchy Original sure takes the biscuit.
Clearly I am no poet. My poem hardly rhymes, nor does it have good metre or alliteration. It has no emotion, conveys little meaning and relies on repetition to achieve incantatory effect. Nonetheless, it is a poem in the same way that Tregunnel is a mixed use estate.
My poem’s purpose is not to say that everything in is past was great nor to decry everything since is crap. It is not to hark back on some utopian Betjemanic state that only existed on the words of a page. Nor is it to gracefully and respectively suggest that some ducal architectural critic and theorist has turned poacher. Rather I am conveying a real concern that good architecture now appears less important to people than it did in the past. Such developments trivialises good design and by merely mimics the past but not in a good way. My questions include − what identity does Tregunnel Hill bring to Cornwall? Arguably little, as this development could be in Dorchester, Ayrshire, Herefordshire or Gloustershire. Is Tregunnel for the many? No Tregunnel is for the few. It is a product of those who perceive that good architecture is no more important than any other commodity.
It is therefore sentimentalist spam, mock-heroic Arthurian sentimentalist spam, but sentimentalist spam nonetheless.