Simon Reeve unmasked deprivation in Cornwall in new programme

The first episode of Cornwall with Simon Reeve got underway last night and saw the TV presenter shine a spotlight on deprivation in the county.

He opened the episode by saying he hoped to discover “the hidden story of Cornwall that visitors don’t always get to see”.

And that was very much the case from the start of the hour-long episode.

The programme began as lockdown measures were lifted and there was uncertainty as to whether businesses would be able to survive trading the remainder of the season.

Reeve began by meeting The Taco Boys from Polzeath, a group of friends who used to work at St Enodoc Hotel in Rock but decided they wanted to set up their own customer-facing business.

The Taco Boys were seen oeprating from Polzeath beach in last night's episode of Cornwall with Simon Reeve
The Taco Boys were seen oeprating from Polzeath beach in last night’s episode of Cornwall with Simon Reeve
(Image: Taco Boys UK)

For more information about the Taco Boys click here.

It’s a quirky venture and immediately caught Mr Reeve’s attention, as the business operates from a pop-up food truck, a converted horse box.

Head chef Felix Craft said: “The future of our business is very uncertain. It’s a real hard time to be a young, small business. I kind of feel vulnerable as hell. I can prepare all the food I want, I can make food, I can, but at the end of the day, if no one buys it, there’s no wage for anyone.”

The boys informed Reeve that they had eight weeks to sell enough tacos to pay enough debts, earn enough to survive and get them through the winter – all the while, on the equivalent of roughly minimum wage.

Felix said the boys need to be making an average of £1,500 a day for the whole season to break even – a difficult challenge, when their trade is largely dependent on weather.

After leaving Polzeath, Reeve visited Padstow, where he met local fisherman Johnny Murt, who said if harbour businesses aren’t allowed to open up they will go bankrupt. Mr Murt’s family have been fishing crabs and lobster from Padstow for four generations.

And while there used to be dozens of boats operating from the port, Mr Murt’s vessel has become one of the last.

Reeve said: “Fishing used to be a much bigger employer in Cornwall but over recent decades, hundreds of boats have gone out of business. It’s partly because we got too good at fishing and targeting them with sonar and satellite mapping, too many fishermen chase too few fish, and stocks of some fish have declined.”

Mr Murt told Mr Reeve that his grandad worked 250 pots a day with two people employed on his boat, however, nowadays he (Mr Murt) works 500 pots. He said that where 250 pots could provide a wage for two men back then, it wouldn’t be able to do the same today.

Reeve said: “There’s only around 800 working fishermen left in Cornwall. Not much in a county of nearly half a million people, but fishing is still critically important to Cornwall.”

Reeve then met Ben Thompson of Imerys mining and metals at LittleJohns Pit near St Austell.

Mr Thompson said: “I’d say the majority of people who work here have some sort of family heritage of relationship with someone who has worked in this industry at some point.”

Mr Thompson said the site is home to the biggest china clay mine in the world, which is 170 metres deep.

Reeve explained how china clay was originally used to make fine porcelain in China. Today it’s found in dozens more products from paints and cosmetics to paper and plastics.

He was then given a demonstration of a 23,000 tonnes blast to release the material.

Mr Thompson said: “We employ maybe 750 people in Cornwall directly, the more material we can make here the better.”

Reeve explained: “There used to be thousands and thousands of people employed in the Cornish clay mines. Now it’s really just in the hundreds. This is one of the remaining major industrial employers left in the county, it’s one of the few that are left.”

He said it was foreign competition that hammered the industry, however, many people felt the government should have intervened and saved jobs.

Reeve then visited Camborne – which is one of the most deprived areas of the county.

He met with Don Gardner, who was born in the town, and used to work for its biggest employer, mining firm Holman’s, as a specialist engineer.

'When Holman's died a lot of the town died with it' - says Don Gardner of Camborne
‘When Holman’s died a lot of the town died with it’ – says Don Gardner of Camborne

The company built a factory around mining equipment and received worldwide recognition for air compressions, rock drills and other air equipment.

In its hayday more than 3,000 people were employed by the company.

Mr Gardner said: “It was heartbreaking when Holman’s died, a lot of the town died with it. And that’s how we got into the state we’re in now because wages have gone.”

As well as a former Holman’s employee, Mr Gardner founded Cornwall’s first independent food bank, for Camborne, Redruth and Pool, with his late wife Jen.

He was praised by viewers after last night’s episode. You can read more about that here.

Reeve was invited to look around the food bank’s warehouse.

Mr Gardner told him between 400 and 500 families use the food bank a month.

He explained: “I get dads that can’t eat for three days to feed their children.” He said families ask for food they don’t need to cook because many can’t afford their gas and electric bills.

Reeve said: “When Don and Jen started the food bank 12 years ago they were serving 72 meals a month. Now it’s a staggering 14,000. Hundreds of families depend on the food bank. It’s the scale of what you’re doing here that I find particularly – I was going to say overwhelming, but it’s quite humbling as well.”

Mr Gardner then explained that he agreed to meet Reeve the day before his wife Jen’s funeral.

Don Gardner volunteers at the food bank in Camborne.
(Image: Greg Martin)

Clearly emotional, he said: “She would want me to talk to you because she was part of this. I know Jen would want me to tell people of the hurt, the deprivation, the constant worry of – where am I going to get next week’s money from.

“I wake up every morning and I say in my prayers, ‘please lord help me make a difference to somebody today’. And that’s what I do and I want to carry on in Jen’s memory.”

Reeve said: “Perhaps Cornwall’s reputation as a sunny holiday haven might be a dangerous mask and it’s too easy to overlook the fact that areas of Cornwall are actually among not only the poorest in Britain, but the whole of Northern Europe.”

After speaking to Mr Gardner, Reeve and his team went to the Pengegon estate in Camborne – which is the most deprived neighbourhood in Cornwall.

There he met with the WILD Young Parents group, which helps young mums and dads on the edge of the estate and gives them a chance to get out and meet others.

The group told him about the difficulties finding a career in Cornwall and whilst there are jobs, none of these offer career progression, so a lot of youngsters are encouraged to leave the county.

Reeve then turned his attention to Cornwall’s housing crisis.

He met Catrina Davies, an author and housing campaigner who lives in a shed in Polgigga.

CornwallLive has previously spoken to Catrina. You can read our story here.

She originally decided to live in her dad’s shed on a temporary basis, but over the years it’s become more and more difficult for her to find somewhere else to live.

She said: “It’s not a housing crisis, it’s an affordability crisis. So particularly somewhere like this, we have loads and loads of empty houses, we just don’t have houses which are affordable for people to actually live in.

“By making houses into assets we’ve kind of lost the point of houses which is that they’re homes. There’s a small generation that’s made a hell of a lot of money from housing becoming a lot more valuable than it was.”

Reeve then discussed how the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a lot more people occupying second homes.

He said: “That could mean that Cornwall’s homes are inhabited all year round and that could help to build local communities, spread some of London’s wealth around the county and reduce inequality.”

Mr Reeve stayed a night at Cligga Cliff Farm in Perranporth which is run by Davina Foster and Todd Read Bloss

Viewers were then given an insight into South Crofty tin mine in Pool.

Owen Mihalop, chief operating officer, said: “The price of tin metal has gone up significantly since the mine closed. In the Nineties the dominant use of tin metal was in tin cans and plates, whereas nowadays the dominant use of tin is solder, which we find in all electrical items.

“Tin is really the glue that holds all of our electrical items together.”

Reeve was told how reopening the mine would cost around £100 million but it’s thought there could be at least £700 million worth of tin down there. If the mine reopens it could also provide 250 skilled, well-paid jobs and another 1,000 jobs indirectly.

Mr Mihalop said: “In London we raise the capital to finance mining operations all over the world and I think now we should be investing in our own resources, and also we can produce tin responsibly here, in a manner that doesn’t involve child labour or sponsoring conflict.

“You know if you go and buy a mobile phone you should be aware that the rainforest has been destroyed in order to create the tin metal to go in that phone.”

Mr Mihalop explained that producing tin in the UK is a lot more sustainable than in places like China and Indonesia, where the environmental destruction is far greater.

Reeve then revisited the Taco Boys at the end of their season.

The boys managed to sell more than £90,000 worth of tacos. However, rather than continuing to trade in Cornwall they have decided to leave for Exeter.

They told Reeve that they’ve bought an eight-year leasehold for a restaurant and there’s nothing available on the market.

Cornwall with Simon Reeve will continue next Sunday (November 15) on BBC 2 at 8pm.

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