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Rebel with a cause

Just like its people, Cornwall can be a wild rugged place. I have loved it for years. I first went there for family holidays when I was still attending my village junior school, before the age of 10. It was a journey that seemed to last forever, packed into a 1948 Hillman Minx, travelling along narrow, winding country roads. Motorways? There were no such things.

Once there we stayed on a farm near Constantine Bay, close to Padstow, and apart from the wild seas and rocky coast, the two most amazing things that stick in my memory are those ancient woollen bathing trunks. Yes, incredible as it seems today, swimming costumes were made from wool, so uncomfortable and heavy when wet. The other thing to stick in my mind were the hundreds of yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars, years later confirmed as the ragwort-eating offspring of the cinnabar moth.

At my village school, Cornwall came up again in a steam-radio programme entitle Singing Together. Do schoolchildren still sing along, accompanying the radio? I doubt it. My favourite song was Cornish, which the whole school sang with gusto:

A good sword and a trusty hand,
A merry heart and true!
King James?s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do?

And shall Trelawney live?
Or shall Trelawney die?
Here?s 20,000 Cornish men
Will know the reason why

We were never told whether he lived or died, and it was only before writing this piece that I discovered that Jonathan Trelawney was one of seven dissenting bishops imprisoned by James II, in 1688, in the Tower of London. He got away with it and was eventually released, all in one piece. Earlier, in 1497, Cornish rebels were not so lucky. When they marched on London to protest against taxes, their billhooks and scythes proved no match for the weapons of the King?s professional soldiers. The ragtag army was defeated and its leaders taken to Tyburn, where they were hung, drawn and quartered, ending up in several pieces.
Fortunately, the Cornish spirit of rebellion was not quashed. For those who took part in the Countryside Marches through London, one thing was always certain: wherever and whenever the marches took place, Cornishmen would be there, marching proudly behind their national flag.

Two years ago, out of the blue, I received an invitation from one of Cornwall?s leading modern-day rebels, who wanted me to speak at a fundraising dinner for the Countryside Alliance. How kind ? it took place in a freezing cold tent before the spring had properly started and the assembled throng looked at me in a most peculiar way. It was an ordeal; the year before, the speaker, claiming to be thirsty, had drunk large quantities of a certain Highland liquid refreshment. After 10 minutes of rambling incoherence, interrupted by rapturous applause to persuade him to finish, he slumped into his seat and promptly went to sleep for the rest of the evening.

As I was about to speak I could feel the audience wondering whether I was going to behave in a similar way. Fortunately, my talk seemed to go all right and I was thanked by the host, Charles Williams. There again I was expecting something different ? the Charlie Williams of memory was a very funny black comedian, who had once played football for Barnsley. The Cornish Charlie Williams was also a very funny man, but white, an old Etonian, an entrepreneur and a rebel in the best Cornish tradition.

Ideally for a rebel, Charles Williams will one day live in the family home, Caerhays Castle, near St Austell. It is a magnificent sight, designed in 1807 by John Nash and built in totally the wrong place for a castle ? it sits practically on the beach. As a habitable folly, however, it is perfect.

The Williams family bought Caerhays in 1860. They were in the business of tin, mining the ore and taking it to Wales to be smelted, rather than carting the Welsh coal for the operation back to Cornwall, which would have been more expensive. In the 1890s, however, deciding that tin was being found too easily in Malaysia and South America, the Williams family thought it prudent to get out of active mining. The family?s ups and downs could well have been the inspiration for the Poldark novels. Certainly much of the filming for the television series was undertaken at Caerhays and Charles remembers Winston Graham, the books? author, watching the filming. ?He was an old man,? Charles recalls, ?a bit grumpy, sitting in the middle of the film set, making rude remarks ? generally ignored ? and needing large glasses of whisky.?

After tin, the family turned its attention to the land, an interest that is the driving force at Caerhays today. Charles was born at Caerhays and spent his idyllic childhood at the castle. Not only did he enjoy the farm and countryside around him, but also had his weeks planned out for him by his mother, so the young Charles spent time with the shepherd, the gardener, the gamekeeper and the cowman, learning about milking, lambing, gamerearing, horticulture and all the things that make a good estate ? and the countryside ? tick.

After prep school in Northamptonshire, Charles went to Eton, where he was lucky to survive the first year, finishing 253rd out of 257 students. Fortunately his tutor, David Evans, was a kind man and a good teacher, inspiring the neo-dunce to enjoy history. Charles obtained a scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford, received a 2:1 degree in History and from there moved into merchant banking.

After a successful career in London he moved back to Cornwall to find that things had changed. With his father heavily involved in local politics and thence becoming handicapped in old age, Charles has been running the estate for more than 20 years. He found no longer could the farm and castle be run on the rents from the land and the income from the home farm ? the estate had to be run like a business.

Plants ? particularly magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons ? had fascinated Charlie?s great-grandfather. It was he who paid for an expedition to China by two of the most famous plant hunters of the age, George Forrest and Ernest Wilson; in today?s money, the 1911 expedition would have cost him £300,000. It was worth it, however, for the seeds the two men brought back from the Far East have since grown into magnificent trees. Forget the small specimens found in suburbia; the huge, mature magnolias of Caerhays are a sight to behold, as are the many other trees and shrubs that made the journey from China.

Consequently, in the spring, Caerhays opens its gates to garden and flower tourists, and is well worth a visit. The Lost Gardens of Heligan, four miles away on the beaten track, receive 450,000 visitors a year. Caerhays, off the beaten track, gets 15,000 and, overlooking a fantastic seascape, deserves thousands more than that.

Because of the deep family interest in magnolias, new hybrids are being bred and a thriving nursery at Burncoose, near Redruth, has been created. One of Charles?s ambitions is to breed a perfect yellow magnolia ? the problem, however, is that each new type takes 20 years from seed to flower. Every year Burncoose has a stand at the Chelsea Flower Show and almost every year the nursery wins a major award.

The emphasis of the farm itself has also changed; it has become nearly all grass, with agri-environmental schemes adding to its status as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The land is extensively grazed by sheep and cattle, including a hardy herd of French ?Saler? cattle, ideally suited to some of the harsh weather of the Cornish coast (and affording every walker and holidaymaker the opportunity of saying, ?Hello Saler?).

There, among the valleys woods, cliffs and towering magnolias, Charles Williams has developed one of the best shoots in Britain ? 80 days a year of top-of-the-range shooting, traditionally rearing the spectacularly beautiful Kansas pheasant. To accommodate guests, Lizzy, Charles?s wife, has converted a dilapidated rectory into a superb eight-bedroomed lodge, The Vean, complete with its own chef, for shooting parties in winter and unforgettable flower and coastal holidays in the summer.

With all the cooks, gamekeepers, herdsmen, gardeners, horticulturalists and so on at Caerhays, Charlie Williams has succeeded in doing something almost unheard of in Blair?s depressed countryside: he has created jobs. He employs nearly 100 people ? the electorate of Caerhays is only 75, but he has maintained all the houses on the estate for local people and confined the holiday lettings to dilapidated barns. He has pulled off something truly remarkable: he is helping to create a thriving rural community with farming and shooting at its heart.

And where is the rebel in all this? Charles Williams is a tireless missionary for both BASC and the Countryside Alliance, and takes no nonsense from Blair?s growing red-tape army. For his Single Farm Payment, he recently had to point out to the Rural Payments Agency that one of its Caerhays fields was in fact open sea, and he was the first landowner to stand up to DEFRA ? the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs ? over its buffoonery involving Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, known as SODS. For years botanists and horticulturalists in Britain have known that Phytophthera ramorum occasionally causes dieback in rhododendrons.

DEFRA discovered this and suddenly decided that SODS was a menace to all the oaks in Britain ? DEFRA law had become SODS law. Charles Williams declared it was nonsense and has since been proved right, for, however hard its tries, DEFRA has not been able to create SODS in English oaks from Phytophthera ramorum. To me, all this suggests only one thing: Cornish Rebel, 3; Blair and DEFRA United, 0.