Pick up most guide books and you will see Cornwall described as the pincer, toe or tail of England. This is of course mildly offensive propaganda. It is not the anything of England. Cornwall is a foreign country.
Crossing the Tamar by Brunel’s casually stunning bridge is an unapologetically liminal journey. Rolling high across a border active since the Neolithic, the river and gulp of its estuary is glimpsed in flickers between cable and girder. The flowing line of water is pure interzone uncertainty. Till you reach the other side, you are suspended, belonging to neither county, neither country.
I remember the first time I made this train journey aged 10. A Devonian ticket inspector joked: “Have your passports ready when we cross the Tamar.” Not understanding, I shot my mother a worried stare and hoped she could talk her way out of not having packed them. She tried to make me see what was funny. I did not get it. Two weeks spent on the Lizard peninsula explained it perfectly.
We push passed the Wivel – the shire of strangers – and keep going west. West to the end of the line. West to Penzance and Penwith Hundred. The name might mean last promontory or end-district, but to me it is the first of Cornwall.