We receive some unusual tips and requests here at The Velvet Rocket. Nevertheless, whenever our hotline rings, we rush to answer it, eager to hear what the world is unexpectedly delivering to us. And so, when the call came in on The Velvet Rocket hotline requesting that we look into the Cornish National Liberation Army, we immediately booked our train tickets from London and got to work…
To tell the story of the Cornish National Liberation Army (CNLA) though, we need to start with the story of An Gof (pronounced Angove).
An Gof was a militant Cornish nationalist group that made its presence known in December of 1980 when the organization detonated a bomb at a courthouse in the Cornish town of St. Austell. This attack was followed in January of 1981 by the firebombing of a hair salon in the Cornish town of Penzance (Apparently, the hair salon was mistaken for a bank the group wished to attack – the Bristol and West Building Society).
Over the next several years, An Gof claimed responsibility for numerous fires, including a blaze at the Zodiac Bingo Hall in Redruth and an “attempted explosion” at Beacon Village Hall in Camborne. In other attacks, the group blew up a politician’s mailbox and in 1984 they placed broken glass under the sand at Portreath Beach.
This period was followed by years of silence until a statement from An Gof was faxed to the Cornish Branch of the Celtic League on March 12, 2007 which read as follows:
Out of respect for many of the decent and honourable Cornish people present today, we have asked our membership to remain inactive. We are aware that reputations were placed on the line by moderate Cornish Nationals who have been subject of death threats from the far right as well as threats of action by the police. However, we wish to make this point very clear: any attempts from hereon to fly the hated and oppressive Flag of St. George of England which we know as the blood banner in this our Country will result in direct action by our organization. For those who question our motives, we refer them to the events of 1497 and 1549 and the years of English Imperialistic repression which has followed. We shall not show the tolerance of those standing Vigil today and our action will be to remove and burn the flags of the English which may cause peripheral damage.
An Gof 1497
Cornwall has an alternative emblem: the Flag of St Piran, a black-and-white cross that denotes a mysterious figure who was supposedly tied to a millstone by unreceptive heathens in his native Ireland and magically washed up near Perranporth (hence that coastal village’s name):
This An Gof communication was followed by an English flag in the Cornish town of Tresillian being slashed to ribbons along with the slogan “English Out” being painted on a nearby garden wall. A string of additional vandalism culminated in June of 2007 with an emailed declaration of the formation of the Cornish National Liberation Army following a merger of the forces of An Gof and the Cornish Liberation Army.
The email – entitled “directive number one” – announcing the formation of the Cornish National Liberation Army (CNLA) garnered a fair amount of press attention by threatening to burn down restaurants in Cornwall belonging to celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein. The restaurants in question were Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant in the Cornish resort town of Padstow (the communication added that his customers’ cars were legitimate targets as well) and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in Watergate Bay, near Newquay.
The cause for the resentment of Mr. Oliver and Mr. Stein?
The CNLA declared them to be “newcomers” and representatives of the English cultural and fiscal invasion of Cornwall which has caused financial hardship (by driving up house prices and living costs) and a feeling of alienation for the Cornish people within their own country.
In its “directive”, the CNLA echoed comments from Stein that local businesses had benefited from the “rosy glow” of publicity his ventures had attracted and stated that, “At an unspecified date, Rick Stein will himself feel a ‘rosy glow’ in our Cornish port of Padstow.” To drive this point home, the CNLA added that one of its members had previously been involved in the burning of English people’s holiday homes in Wales.
The Cornish National Liberation Army stated that it was receiving funding from organizations based in other “Celtic nations” (Wales? Scotland? Ireland? Brittany? The Isle of Man?) and Irish American groups in the United States, and that some of its members had received training from the Free Wales Army, the Scottish National Liberation Army, and the Irish National Liberation Army, as well as the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
Upon arriving by train in the Cornish town of Penzance, we noticed few outward signs of a terrorism alert in Cornwall. Residents went about their business as usual and visitors unconcernedly strolled through the town and its shops. This didn’t feel like Afghanistan or Haiti.
While strolling through Penzance the next morning, I thought I was on to something when I spotted an armed man sneaking about on a roof. However, a closer examination revealed that my ebullience was misplaced:
Although relatively newly formed, the Cornish National Liberation Army’s roots go back, arguably, for centuries. Cornwall does, after all, have a long history of rebellion…
Over the last several hundred years, there have been three Cornish uprisings. The first was the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 when a Cornish army, led by Michael An Gof (from whom the An Gof group derives its name), a blacksmith from St. Keverne and Thomas Flamank, a lawyer from Bodmin, marched to Blackheath in London where they were eventually defeated by 10,000 men of the King’s army under Baron Daubeny at the Battle of Deptford Bridge. The leaders of the rebellion, including Michael An Gof and Thomas Flamank, were hanged, drawn and quartered.
Then, in the Autumn of 1497, Perkin Warbeck tried to usurp the throne from Henry VII. Warbeck was proclaimed King Richard IV in Bodmin but Henry had little difficulty crushing the uprising.
Finally, in 1549, Cornishmen rose once again in rebellion when the staunchly Protestant Edward VI tried to impose a new Prayer Book. Cornish people were still strongly attached to the Catholic religion and again a Cornish army was formed which marched across the border to lay siege to Exeter in Devon. This became known as the Prayer Book Rebellion. Proposals to translate the Prayer Book into Cornish were suppressed and in total 4,000 people were killed in the rebellion.
Disappointed in our lack of progress in Penzance, we decided to head deeper into Cornish territory in search of the CNLA and took a bus to the small town of Sennen Cove where we spent several days exploring the area.
The ocean is fairly rough in this part of the country and this seawall in Sennen Cove takes quite a beating:
Which, I would think, makes it a bit sporty to take these out:
Nevertheless, fishing is still a large part of the local economy:
In August of 2007, the CNLA approached a reporter with Cornish World Magazine and during an interview provided the statement below (“Kernow” is Cornish for Cornwall):
Many have asked if the Cornish National Liberation Army actually exist. I am here to say that they do. We have members from previous organisations who have taken part in direct action for what we firmly believe is good for Kernow.
We have a central directing council and devolved cells; each cell does not know the identities of those in the other cell, nor of their activities.
To avoid clashes, we have agreed geographical boundaries. We have around 30 members across Kernow. We have substantial support in the local community.
This support is not from criminals but from people who fear for our country’s future and for the future of its children. We have closet support within many local services and organisations. Our members and supporters, whoever and whatever they be, are Celtic Cornish first and foremost.
We have links with those in similar organisations in other Celtic nations. We have received funding from elsewhere but also from within. We are not prepared to discuss the amount of cash held. Some of our organisation have met members from other Celtic direct action organisations and have taken advice from them. It is natural that fellow Celts are prepared to help us as we would them.
Our active membership comprises younger people from many different backgrounds. Other Cornish nationalists from more moderate backgrounds try to stop direct action. We feel that we have tried democratic means to the point of exhaustion and the time is due for other means to be adopted. If only those in Westminster had listened to the moderate and liberal Cornish people.
We do not wish to cause injury and we want to limit any damage to the minimum.
Our motives are simple:
To have Kernow recognized as a Celtic nation and to be granted at least the governance that has occurred in Wales, and better still, Scotland.
Historically, we feel that our demand is justified. Kernow is not England; Cornish people are not English. This is a fact; the flag of Saint George of England is an insult to us and to many other liberal Cornish. Historically, it is a sign of imperialism on the part of the English. Its very existence is a reminder to us of events of the past and of English arrogance now. Nothing is more certain of provoking the direct action of our organisation, even if such flags are flown from churches.
The original people of Kernow are denied proper housing whilst their traditional homes are used by wealthy incomers for a few weeks of each year. It is a basic human right to have a roof over your head.
Cornish people are denied proper employment; they are paid very little for long hours.
Kernow receives a lower level of Westminster funding than many other regions and our health and services cannot cope. The Westminster politicians seem to ignore this or to quote facts and figures which are meaningless. A small grant to allow for the re-development of a Cornish language which was bloodily taken from us, whilst being good, is a case of ‘too little, too late’. We intend to continue to take direct action to further our cause.
The word will spread and we hope it results in better housing, employment and recognition of our little nation. Other nations are smaller then ours, so why should we not self-rule?
Cornish problems are better solved by Cornish people.
We do not expect sympathy; those involved in direct action have often been criticised, even placed in prison. They have often gone on to become leaders of nations.
Our members have ripped down English flags and sprayed graffiti.
This action will continue as long as there is a member left. This is a matter close to our hearts as Celtic Cornish people. We are not racists, we simply ask for parity and self-governance.
“Kernow bys vyken.”
Another event occurred in August of 2007 though that caused some to re-examine their take on the CNLA…
The Penhallow Hotel was situated on Island Crescent in the surfing town of Newquay, Cornwall. It was a well-known hotel for vacationers ranging from families to older residents.
On the night of August 18, 2007, shortly after midnight, a power cut was reported followed shortly by the fire alarm activating and soon smoke was seen filling the building. Although fire crews were on the scene within minutes, the hotel was already fully engulfed in flames.
Over 80 guests and members of staff managed to escape, but three people were killed and five others injured.
The Penhallow Hotel fire was reported as the worst hotel fire in the UK in nearly 40 years.
In January 2008 police announced that the fire was a result of arson, and that the deaths were therefore cases of murder.
Although the CNLA has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the timing and the circumstances have certainly raised the question as to whether the two are possibly connected.
Beside Sennen Cove is a large and exceptionally flat beach:
Given how flat the beach is, it is completely submerged when the tide comes in:
Over a dessert of sticky toffee pudding in the evenings, I would chat up the locals in the pub below where we were staying in Sennen Cove about the Cornish National Liberation Army.
Everyone has heard of them. Some don’t take them seriously. Others do. However, after I have been around for a few days, all of the regulars eventually express sympathy, or at least understanding, for the CNLA.
A local in the pub explained it to me as follows, “If you can’t afford to live where your family has lived for generations because the houses have been all bought up by Londoners and you’re doing seasonal work for minimum wage, living on a council estate [public housing] on the edge of town, the nicer ones of which may be second homes too by now, it hurts. Cornish produce sold cheap to Covent Garden distributors always comes home again expensive. Out here in Sennen Cove, London and all it stands for, seems a long way away. The Cornish people are being cheated out of their own country. I wish I could do more for the liberation of Kernow [Cornwall] myself.”
Needless to say, the cosmopolitan denizens of the London area who do regularly breeze in and out of Cornwall are obviously often a focus of Cornish resentment. As alluded to above, the transformation of quiet coastal towns such as Padstow and St. Ives into upscale vacation destinations has caused a surge in property prices that sits awkwardly with Cornwall’s struggling economy: an area that is one of four in Britain that qualify for poverty-related grants from the European Union, and houses on the coast are well beyond the reach of most locals.
Sennen Cove may have been sympathetic to the Cornish National Liberation Army, but it was not exactly the hotbed of CNLA soldiers The Velvet Rocket had been hoping for. So, we set out to explore the surrounding areas…
Land’s End was completely deserted:
Although I did see graffiti reading “free Cornwall” painted on a stone wall at this farm:
Strengthening the Cornish claim to nationhood, there is the language – a relative of Welsh that had all but died out by the 19th century, but was revived in the early 20th century. Lately, its prospects have taken a distinct upturn. Although it’s spoken by only around 300 people, Cornish was given official European Union recognition in 2002, and is about to be tentatively reintroduced in the county’s schools.
There is also the (sort of) mainstream party of Cornish nationalism: Mebyon Kernow, which translates as “Sons of Cornwall”, and was founded in 1951. Spurning bingo-hall arson in favour of the ballot box, their focus is less on independence than a bold move towards Cornish devolution. Phil Rendle, their Penzance-based deputy leader puts it as follows, “We need to be recognised – not as some quaint little county, but a very specific kind of place. We’re after something similar to Scotland: law-making powers, essentially. We get a lot of questions about how big a country ought to be before it qualifies for national democracy. Our answer is, ‘The size it is.’ There are plenty of states in the world smaller than Cornwall.”
Returning to my dessert of sticky toffee pudding on another night in the pub, an old boy who’d spent his life in the area working as a fisherman contemplated a broader societal trend as a factor in the recent upswing of Cornish nationalism… He told me that he had rarely seen the Cornish flag – the black and white cross of St Piran – when he was a youth, but that one sees it all over Cornwall now. “The story is the same with Saltire and the Welsh dragon in Scotland and Wales. St. George in working class London too. They’re evident everywhere now and for the same reason: disaffection. Everyone is angry and disaffected everywhere. People want more regional self-government, protection of local interests and greater self-assertion,” he says.
We spent days exploring the coves and cliffs of Cornwall, hoping to find some sign of the Cornish National Liberation Army:
On October 9, 2007 the CNLA released a statement changing the name of the Cornish National Liberation Army to the Cornish Republican Army (CRA) as a necessary response to copycat groups and supporters claiming to be CNLA members. The statement also contained dismissals and acknowledgments of various publicized CNLA attacks.
But, yeah, that’s right – the CNLA is now officially the CRA…
Nevertheless, although they may have officially changed their name to the Cornish Republican Army, everyone still knows them and refers to them as the Cornish National Liberation Army. So, due to popular demand, that is the name The Velvet Rocket has stuck with as well…
In November 2007 Per Svenssonn, a writer for the internet periodical Ciudadanos Europeos, successfully gained an email interview with a member of the Cornish National Liberation Army through the Cornwall24 website forum and confirmed that the CNLA had indeed changed its name to the Cornish Republican Army. Additionally, the interview outlined (among other topics) the structure of the organization, confirmed official CRA attacks and suggested future plans.
When questioned on forthcoming events the CNLA/CRA spokesperson answered, “2008 promises to be an interesting year for the English occupying forces and their establishment. Beyond that, no comment.”
One thing we did discover on our investigation was a fair amount of Cornwall’s mining history.
Cornwall used to be a significant center for the mining of tin and the countryside and cliffs of Cornwall are still dotted with countless numbers of abandoned mine shafts:
The skills needed for deep tin mining turned out to be the same skills needed for hardrock gold mining and so, many former Cornish tin miners ended up in the California gold fields where their skills were much in demand.
Grass Valley, California (located in the heart of California’s Gold Country and home to the Empire Mine and North Star Mine, two of the richest mines in California history) is actually twinned with the Cornish town of Bodmin and still holds on to its Cornish heritage, with events such as its annual Cornish Christmas and St Piran’s Day celebrations. Pasties are a local favorite dish and several restaurants in town specialize in recipes handed down from the original immigrant generation.
Another abandoned mine shaft in Cornwall… The discovery of gold in California coincided with a disastrous fall in tin prices as large alluvial deposits began to be exploited elsewhere, providing even more incentive to head to the gold fields of California:
Nevertheless, a fair amount of Cornwall’s mining history can still be observed:
I speculated that the abandoned mine shafts and stone structures left over from Cornwall’s mining past would provide excellent areas for weapons caches, training areas and hideouts for members of the Cornish National Liberation Army. However, we observed no evidence of this aside from “Burn Second Homes” and “Free Cornwall” painted in a few places.
Despite the rough seas…
…And sheer cliffs, dear readers…
…I made a strenuous effort to explore every possible weapons cache or hiding spot and to follow up on every rumor:
A Velvet Rocket staff member (not your editor) was very nearly swept off the rock pictured above by a gargantuan wave that destroyed a fair amount of our camera equipment.
We’re putting ourselves out there for you, dear readers…
Unfortunately, the nature of an insurgency is to blend in. Insurgents do not wear uniforms or operate tanks. Thus, a quaint farm scene such as the one below, could be just that or it could be a hotbed of CNLA insurgents:
There were arrests made in Cornwall of people, who, the police implied, had some connection with the CNLA. However, none of these individuals were formally charged with anything and the arrests were strongly criticised by many, including the Celtic League as being completely spurious.
Specifically, the Celtic League stated:
Member B was released on the same day of his arrest to answer police bail on 16 January 2008, over four months after his arrest. On the day of his arrest Member B had a large number of items confiscated from his home by the police, including Cornish flags, a history book and papers relating to Kernow Branch activity and he was hoping that his possessions would be returned to him on the day he answered his bail.
On 16 January 2008 Member B was accompanied by several supporters from the Kernow Branch to Camborne police station for 11 am to answer his police bail. At 430pm the last of the Branch supporters had to return home, after not being informed when or if Member B would be released. Member B was finally released at 9:00 pm after ten hours of interrogation with little money or means of returning home.
Member B later informed other Branch members that the police had asked him about his possible contacts with the Free Wales Army, threatened to charge him with conspiracy and led him to believe that they would arrest further Cornish activists who, they seemed convinced, were part of a Cornish ‘army’.
We scoured the towns of Sennen Cove, Penzance, Marazion, Bodmin and more looking for a sign of the CNLA…
The below is a picture of St Michael’s Mount which is united with the town of Marazion by a man-made causeway of granite, passable between mid-tide and low water.
Perhaps she is looking for the CNLA too?
Journalists from The Telegraph, The Sun and The Sunday Times, along with countless freelance writers, have descended upon Cornwall along with camera crews from several television stations; all to leave empty-handed with no leads to the CNLA. I suppose we can take solace in the fact that we are in good company in our failure to track down the Cornish National Liberation Army (unless as any good insurgents, they were hiding in plain sight all along).
However, we at least have a better understanding of the CNLA and other Cornish nationalists – their complaints, their concerns and their country. And a conflict that has been going on for centuries may ebb and flow with the times, but it is unlikely to disappear completely…