A closely guarded secret?.. not really!
The past three years in Poldark production have been a bit like waking the world up to something that we in Cornwall have known for decades, centuries and back to the dawn of time. Poldark is so much more than a decent story, Cornwall is so much more than a fabulous film set.
When Winston Graham first found the inspiration for his renegade hero the name Poldark wasn’t even in his writers’ vocabulary. The name Poldark didn’t exist and yet now it has become part of Cornish folklore. Ross Polgreen (the original name for his hero, based on a shopkeeper in his home town of Perranporth) just didn’t evoke the layers of the man who had his “dark” sides so Graham invented a surname that sounded both plausibly Cornish in origin and shaded by the traits of humanity that made him irresistible as a flawed hero.
Reality becomes Romance, becomes reality once again
Yet already, in less than a century the name Poldark has become synonymous with a romantic Cornwall of old, a Cornwall that was not in fact romantic but a remote and harsh environment where mere survival was at times a challenge too far. This has been further augmented by the transition of other names into popular culture. Demelza, now one of the most enduring popular girls’ names of Cornwall and in Cornish communities throughout the world was merely the name of a tiny hamlet not far from Bodmin. It fits our heroine to a tee. The name has grown out of the character he wrote and the actresses who have portrayed her.
Similarly, the hamlet of Warleggan which nestles just north of the Glyn Valley now enjoys a notoriety because of the greed and jealousy of Ross Poldark’s sworn enemy; George Warleggan. Whilst living at Demelza sounds like a warm and pleasant thing, there’s almost an enmity surrounding the village of Warleggan. Frequently Poldark fans like to seek out the village sign of Demelza to photograph themselves standing next to it, and by association; her! By stark contrast, visitors to the Warleggan village sign, are fewer in number! Possibly, Warleggan might be a quieter place to live!
Winston Graham. A stickler for detail, well mostly…
Winston Graham was a studious historian and with the possible exception of professing Demelza’s success with Hollyhocks in her north coast, Atlantic gale battered garden, his accuracy and research was of spectacular detail. Therefore Poldark has become part of the intrinsic folklore of the county. Whilst reading accounts of the varying fortunes of the mining industry and the social and political unrest of the Cornish uprisings might be a bit ‘dry’ and academic for most, seeing these through the eyes of Ross Poldark makes it instantly understandable, accessible and brings Cornwall to life as so much more than a pretty holiday destination with glorious beaches.
So how do the Cornish view Poldark? Well, if we didn’t have a patron saint there’s a good chance he may be a very valid alternative. Ross Poldark is to Cornwall, what Heathcliffe is to the Yorkshire Moors, what Mr Darcy is to wet shirts!
As a result of the current production of Poldark, millions of people now have an idea how hard scything was as a means of harvesting. Some of these millions may even now know what “Crying the Neck” was about!
Poldark has given the world a renewal of Cornish words: “Balmaiden”, hitherto something that was only known to the Cornish and the mining communities around the world that depended, at their inception on the skills of Cornish men and women, is now a label recognised as meaning a “maiden who works the “Bal” (one of the many cornish words for “mine”).
“Seiners”: the fishermen who worked with the seine net method with which the pilchard shoals of old were brought ashore were highlighted in a scene from Poldark series one. Salt, a commodity which we take for granted was so heavily taxed in the eighteen century was a necessity to the preservation of these fish and that of course made the difference between life and potential starvation for the peasant population.
Wheal (meaning “place of work”) Leisure, was indeed a real working mine in the north coast village of Perranporth, where Winston Graham lived and wrote. Now all that remains of it is one standing chimney, unmarked and largely unnoticed and a municipal car park that bears its name.
Poldark’s Cornwall refers very much to the stretch of coast extending westwards from Pentire and Crantock in the east to St Agnes in the West. ( pictured above is Cligga Head looking north east and Cligga Head during the First World War ). Illogan, from whence Demelza hailed would have been considered almost foreign lands despite its close proximity and business trips to Truro or Falmouth would have been major expeditions having to be timed carefully because of nightfall or the presence of “footpads”(ne’er-do-wells who may rob you merely to survive). Don’t forget, there were no roads! Everywhere had to be negotiated on foot, or if you were lucky; horseback.
The Poldark effect
So what do we learn from Poldark? We learn of the changing political and socio-economic fortunes of both our hero and of Cornwall. We learn that smugglers and wreckers were not necessarily the evil law breakers that they are often portrayed but were merely men trying to keep their families alive by whatever means necessary. We learn that the remoteness of Cornwall worked both for and against this and that it held a unique position both geographically and in terms of how it was governed. Today some of this is still true. Those who choose to live in Cornwall tend to be strong and resourceful, just like the Poldark’s! We love our place in the world and thanks to authors like Winston Graham, we delight in sharing its uniqueness with the world.
( author: Karen Colam )