In 2011, I visited Plymouth University for an open day. Plymouth was actually my second choice, and I didn’t have any particular feelings about going there, until that day.
The journey down from Hertfordshire took around 5 hours. As soon as we parked up and got out of the car, tired and stiff, I breathed in the sea air, and immediately found myself relaxing. I don’t remember much about the open day itself, but I do remember that feeling; I felt as if I’d come home.
As it turned out, I didn’t go straight to Plymouth University, choosing instead to study a foundation degree in Police Studies at Duchy College in Cornwall, but I did move there straight away. That September, I packed my bags, and was deposited outside a 5-bedroom, Victorian-style house in Mutley. Again, that feeling.
I’ve heard many stories about how students take a while to settle in, about how they get homesick and take their washing back to their mum. But I fell instantly in love with the city by the sea, and rarely wanted to leave. I didn’t just study there – I made a life. I was friendly with my mechanic, the staff in the local shop, and the incredibly talented tattoo artist who was then located just round the corner. I worked, joined the university paper and the Literature Society, and had a network of people I could go to, come rain or shine. I doubt I’ll ever be able to build such a life elsewhere.
Cornwall took a bit more getting used to than Plymouth. Coming from near London, Plymouth was perfect – it had everything I needed, shops, pubs, restaurants, with the added bonus of the sea within walking distance. But Cornwall was an entirely different beast. My college was located in the depths of the county, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, and the roads were treacherous and sneaky. When it rains in Cornwall, it rains from all sides, and the landscape can be just as harsh as the weather.
The people also took some getting used to. The thick accents, the regional slang, the people who had known each other since birth and were not-too-distantly related. All of this feels foreign to a girl from upcountry, where you rarely know your neighbours, and faces seem to change every day. But it didn’t take long for me to settle in. I’m adaptable if nothing else, and my accent is particularly weak – if you put me in a room with someone from Australia, or America, or Cornwall, I’ll pick up some of their twang. And so, within just a few months, I was accepted.
There’s the impression that Cornwall is unwelcoming, that the locals hate anyone from elsewhere (even just across the Tamar), and while this was joked about at least once a week, I never felt like an emmet. I used to be – my dad, having spent some time in Cornwall as a child, regularly packed us off to St Ives for a holiday, where we’d sit on the beach and barely move for a week or two. But this time, it was different. I was there to stay, and while I lived on the wrong side of the Tamar, I became an honourary Cornish maid.
I supposed I proved myself, in a way. I braved the roads to Polperro in gale-force winds; I rarely had any phone signal (I’m surprised my then-long-distance relationship lasted!); I learnt the lingo, and still put up with funny looks when I say “where’s it to?”. I made life-long friends, visited the most amazing places, and had the best time.
So why did I leave? A number of factors made me move back upcountry, but it’s temporary. I long for the smell of the sea, seagulls waking me up in the mornings, the sight of the Tamar bridge. When I came back after going upcountry for a visit, I’d get excited as soon as the M5 became the A38. I never used maps or a sat nav; I relied in my sense of home, calling me back. Because the West Country is a siren; it calls to you, in your dreams, in the cries of a seagull or the crashing of waves. I’ll always call the West Country home. And so, I give you the Cornish Reading Challenge, to take us home.