One row back: the hidden face of poverty in Cornwall | Amanda Evans [ANVIL vol 36 issue 1]

Amanda Evans, in blue clergy shirt and jacket aboard a boat

Almost without exception, when I travel “up country” from my home in Falmouth and people find out that I live in Cornwall they are delighted to share with me their fond memories of childhood summer holidays, favourite secluded beaches and of a place set apart from the rest of the UK, which somehow escapes from the usual realities and preoccupations of modern British life.

Last summer Time Out magazine evocatively echoed this, saying that “Cornwall is a county of contradictions. There’s myth and mystery, misty clifftops and sharp, rugged rocks rising out of restless waves, as well as peaceful coves, sleepy towns and vitamin D-soaked beaches packed out with surfers.” [1] Of course, it is a beautiful, special place to live and the county’s thriving tourist industry is key to the its economic stability, but it is also a place of long-term deprivation, poor transport links and physical distance from the south-east; there is another story to be told and to be heard.

Just one row back from the elegant 1930s houses on the drive into Falmouth, and squeezed in above the now-gentrified captains’ town houses overlooking the marina, are the serried ranks of “long, dense rows of grey terrace houses and drab, low-rise flats” easily identifiable as the Beacon and Old Hill estate. [2] Once described as the “Beirut” of Cornwall, “blighted by violent crime, drug dealing and intimidation”, [3] the estate underwent a massive regeneration process at the turn of the last century and yet remains, in many ways, out of sight and out of mind of Falmouth’s many visitors and, critically, many of its wealthier inhabitants. A recent summary provided by CAP (Christians Against Poverty) highlighted that Falmouth has more than double the national average of households where no adults are in employment and, shockingly, “in Falmouth Penwerris [the parish containing the estate], the child poverty rate rises to the equivalent of around 14 children in each class of 30”. [4]

This is in a country where the “poverty gap” continues to widen, [5] and in a county where tourism is one of the main sources of income – ironically resulting in poorly paid seasonal work and a prohibitively expensive accommodation market. Many parts of the Beacon and Old Hill estate would seem to be caught not only in what the Church Urban Fund (CUF) identifies as a “Web of Poverty” (poverty of resources, relationship or identity) [6] but also, as highlighted by the new bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, in his inaugural sermon, in a “poverty of aspiration”. The reality is a hard one. As Lynsey Hanley reminds us in her book on respectability and crossing the social divide, “The essential problem is that, increasingly, we are born into geographical areas which ever more closely map a sharp social and economic hierarchy.” [7]

As an Anglican priest living on the estate, this multilayered reality of poverty informs my ministry and compels me to share the story of those who live “one row back” whenever I can; as Sedmak says, “Jesus invites us to share the view of the excluded, to embrace an outlook on reality that is not the mainstream position.” [8] But in contrast to the closely packed terraces just over the hill, we have the privilege of a large detached vicarage set back from the road and surrounded by trees. This obvious contrast with our neighbours, which Sam Wells has also identified, [9] can at times be both theologically and personally difficult to reconcile. One day in particular last summer it was brought into very sharp focus for me in a story that also needs to be told.

It was a beautiful early morning and the sun streamed steadily through my bedroom curtains, swaying a little in the breeze – my day off, my sabbath, a day full of promise… Even the usual 4 a.m. frenetic and ear-piercing wake-up call from our resident seagulls hadn’t dented my inner sense of anticipatory joy.

I stuffed my old, rather crumbly wetsuit and favourite large beach towel into my late mother’s 1970s shopping bag – blue and white bold stripes on nylon, approvingly “vintage”, say my two adult daughters – and dodged my way to the beach, weaving in and out of the usual randomly parked cars on my crowded council estate, travelling only a mile or so in real terms but a world from home in aspirations… from making-ends-meet families, every other household living below the poverty line (that’s official), to second-home owners and visitors, with well-mannered children, buckets and spades and cool boxes, swelling the town to near-bursting like a ripe, ready-to-eat peach…

I love the sea. I love the beach. And, just for the day, I guess I longed to be one of “them”.

There is no doubting that Falmouth in the summer is straight out of the glossy Sunday supplements… glorious gardens laced with Darwin-inspired pineapple-like tree ferns, cool beach cafes serving sourdough and slaw, and breathtaking beaches lapped by a gorgeous deep blue sea.

I settle down slowly and contentedly onto my towel – carefully tucking everything under my beach bag to deter the seagulls… and drift off into a dreamy sleep, nicely warmed under the hot summer sun…

The first jet of freezing-cold water hits me square in the back and neck. I wake up abruptly and – momentarily startled – my ministry autopilot kicks in, so I smile, admire the little lad’s giant water pistol and agree that “Yes, the water is still surprisingly cold for this time of year”, then I drift back to sleep.

The second time, both my tummy and the paperback I’m now trying to read are targeted. I appear less magnanimous but the mother is apologetic so I smile, and, admitting defeat, pull on my wetsuit and go for a nice therapeutic dip.

A little while later, back on the beach and drying nicely, the lad’s rubber ball hits me heavily and squarely in the ribs and it hurts. I am really quite annoyed, and – much to my additional annoyance – once I let that annoyance in, others start to tumble in too… the young woman in her bright pink shiny bikini cackling on her mobile; the large family in front annoyed by their children’s repeated whinnying to “come and play”…

The mum of the little boy with the giant water pistol and the hard rubber ball threatens to take them away… but in that moment – when she looks at me with an expression that says, “I’m tired, he’s a bit of a handful, you do understand, don’t you?” – to my total and utter shame, I refuse her that compassionate response, and instead I look away.

Jesus didn’t look away… but in that instant, the generous and genuinely inclusive “me” – the one constantly championing the place of many of those living in unacceptable poverty on my estate – chose to look away, to join the ranks of those faithful and lovely people in our churches whose language is often peppered with “them” and “us” and who just don’t see that the “they” is “us” too: that we are all part of “we”.

Many children living only a couple of miles from the sea in Cornwall will never be able to afford to go the beach and you’ll not often see anyone from my estate down there; that is, apart from me.

This was how a trip to the beach full of promise ended for me that day. Of course, in painting a picture of a particular place there is an inherent danger in stereotyping the subjects, the culture and even the narrator themselves. As Gerald A. Arbuckle reminds us, culture is far from a multi-faceted concept: “No one definition of culture can capture the complexity of a culture.” [10] There will always be hidden assumptions at play. We inevitably bring with us as observers often unspoken biases and prejudices that can cloud our understanding and objectivity, [11] and, just as the person least likely to help the mugged traveller in Jesus’ parable was the Samaritan, [12] we have a natural tendency as human beings to categorise people and communities into “them” and “us”; all too easily we lose sight of “we”.

We all need a sense of self-identity and belonging within a given community to enable us to flourish, but what does it mean to be “born and bred Cornish” in deprived communities like the Beacon and Old Hill? In 2014, the UK Government officially recognised the Cornish as a national minority, but as Philip Marsden reflected in The Guardian a few years ago, “Retaining a sense of being Cornish has been made more challenging by the growing influx of visitors, many with their own strong ideas of what Cornwall represents.” [13] Even in the 1930s, of the famous painters who made up the St Ives School, thought by many to epitomise the essence of Cornwall, only one of the more prominent artists, Peter Laynon, was in fact Cornish.

Indeed, what does it mean for my neighbours who have moved here from Poland or recently arrived refugees; where do we all fit in? Perhaps the most difficult aspect to talk about here is that of class and to what extent people self-identify, if at all, as middle, upper or working class. As Tex Sample explains in Working Class Rage, “… the people of the white working class are a complicated people. The great majority of them bust their tails working at hard jobs that rack their bodies and don’t pay enough.” [14]

Writing about mission on estates, Tim Chester warns that “You will be crossing a deep cultural divide as you live among people on a council estate”. [15] There is a twofold assumption here: both that council estates are inherently working class and that the reader is not working class. Although I have lived in Cornwall for nearly 15 years, drive pretty ordinary cars and shop at Lidl down the road, as a middle-class well-educated white woman from “over the Tamar” I am painfully aware that I can often seem “different” to my neighbours. Interestingly, my greatest ministry tool is undoubtedly my two fairly badly behaved and scruffy class-neutral terriers because they make me and my neighbours equal partners in community; I become part of “us” not just “you” and “me”.

It is, I think, in allowing ourselves to be authentic and open that we are able to genuinely connect on both a surface and deeper level. Jesus, of course, sat with people and ate with them, [16] and Henri Nouwen beautifully said about his experience of ministering in Bolivia and Peru, “I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own” [my italics]. [17] But, as the established church in unfamiliar places – at the last census, 53.7 per cent of the residents of Falmouth described themselves as being “Christian”, and 35.6 per cent as having “no religion” at all [18] – we can run the risk of being seen as givers of “charity” rather than simply genuine hosts. There is often a middle-class churchy assumption that “if we put on something nice then people will come”, but in my experience, it is in receiving that we are seen as authentic. It was only when we held a garage sale in aid of Oxfam last summer, receiving donations from those on the estate, that we began to “learn the language” [19] that was needed, to have the sort of dialogue and exchange of stories that meant real connection. It is from that, and our pancake party last February, that I think that our work with CAP can start to grow and flourish.

And it is with these authentic relationships that we can begin to understand a little of why for some people living on the Beacon and Old Hill, a day trip to the beach – and by extension a walk across town to our lovely trendy church-run coffee shop or new church service – might be just one step too far. By nature, we like to go places where our self-identity and sense of belonging is upheld, where we feel at ease, where we are able to feel socially and economically accepted – that’s what community is, but Gylly beach with its award-winning café and bistro is a particular type of beach for students and visitors and second-home owners where it must be easy to feel excluded.

Falmouth was recently voted among the top five best places to live in the UK: “A buzzing beach babe that’s [as] close as Britain gets to the California/Barcelona city-by-the-sea lifestyle.” [20] In many ways, that day on the beach at Gylly I wanted very much to be part of that Times lifestyle, so near and yet far from my estate. But in doing so, I found myself caught between these two worlds and, in looking away from the mum of the little boy with the giant water pistol and the hard rubber ball, I returned shamefully and almost unconsciously to that place where, once, I was probably most comfortable. And yet, living here as a priest has changed me: I am no longer content with “them” and “us”. I want to do as Jesus would have done, to not look away but to continue to tell the stories that need to be told and the stories that need to be heard of those who live “one row back”: to fully embrace “we”.

Amanda Evans is a priest, mum and self-confessed fitness freak and lover of creation. She lives and ministers in the far south west of the UK with particular interests in identity and belonging “on the edges”, church as community and whole-person spirituality.

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Notes

[1] Ellie Walker-Arnott and Lucy Lovell, “The best places to visit in the UK in 2019,” TimeOut (31 July 2019), accessed 20 December 2019, https://www.timeout.com/uk/things-to-do/best-places-to-visit-in-the-uk-2019.
[2] Linda Jackson, “How the Beacon became a haven,” The Guardian (15 November 2000), accessed 6 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2000/nov/15/communities.housingpolicy.
[3] Robin Durie, Katrina Wyatt and Hazel Stuteley, “Community regeneration and complexity” in Complexity and Healthcare Organization: A View from the Street, ed. David Kernick (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2018): 279.
[4] Christians Against Poverty, “The Need for CAP – Falmouth and Penryn” (2019).
[5] Kevin Peachey, “Gap between rich and poor starts to widen,” BBC News (26 February 2019), accessed 29 December 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47370739.
[6] “Web of Poverty,” Church Urban Fund, accessed 20 December 2019, https://cuf.org.uk/resources/web-of-poverty .
[7] Lynsey Hanley, Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide (London: Penguin, 2017), 208.
[8] Clemens Sedmak, Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity (New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 100.
[9] Samuel Wells, Incarnational Mission: Being With the World (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2018), 132–34.
[10] Gerald A. Arbuckle, Culture, Inculturation, & Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 10.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Luke 10:25–37.
[13] Philip Marsden, “Cornish identity: why Cornwall has always been a separate place,” The Guardian (26 April 2014), accessed 20 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/apr/26/survival-of-cornish-identity-cornwall-separate-place .
[14] Tex Sample, Working Class Rage: A Field Guide to White Anger and Pain (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 17.
[15] Tim Chester, Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-Class and Deprived Areas (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 158.
[16] Mark 2:13–17.
[17] Henri J M Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 68
[18] “Local Area Report – Falmouth Built-up area sub division,” Nomis, accessed 20 December 2019, https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/reports/localarea?compare=E35000462 .
[19] Wells, Incarnational Mission, 223.
[20] “Best Places to Live in the UK,” The Times (14 April 2019), accessed 3 December 2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/falmouth-cornwall-best-places-to-live-83d66zswg#.

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