Writer: Tom Scott
Photography: Tom Scott
Was there time to harvest
September turnips before wire
went up around the common
to banish picnickers from Redruth
and asphalt and tarmac spread
over the wind-dwarfed gorse?
Later, they made enough VX here
to turn whole cities into cemeteries
and, when done, dumped
what was left down old shafts.
Only white space now on the map,
a tombstone with no inscription.
The “Nance” part seems easy – it’s almost certainly from the Kernewek nans, meaning valley. But there’s a twist.
The first historical reference to Nancekuke is in the 1086 Liber Exoniensis (also called the Exon Domesday), which records landholdings in the South West at the time of the Conquest. But it’s given there as “Lancuhuc”, and lan in Cornish place names typically refers to a sacred enclosure, often a cemetery. At that point, a hide of land at Nancekuke was farmed by one Cadwallon, a tenant of St Petroc’s church at Bodmin.
The “kuke” is thought to be from the Kernewek koog, meaning blind, empty or worthless.
A blind valley? An empty cemetery? These derivations seem to suggest a desolate place of evil omen.
But there’s another possibility. The memoir Nancekuke Memories by Ernest Landry – a local farmer whose land was appropriated by the Ministry of War in 1939 – claims that the name derives from the Cornish for “Swallow Valley”. The Kernewek word for a swallow is gwennel, so this might seem improbable. But kog (very close to koog) is a cuckoo. Kog also appears in the Middle Cornish drama Bewnans Ke as a term of abuse meaning an empty-headed person or fool – rather as the word “cuckoo” is sometimes used in English.
Could these two migratory birds have become confused in translation? Swallow/Cuckoo Valley certainly has a far more benign ring, and Landry remembers Nancekuke Common in pre-war days as a favourite spot for picnicking families and courting couples from Camborne and Redruth. Its thriving farming community was famous for its splendid turnips and had a popular pub.
Then the machinery of war descended, the farmers were evicted and Nancekuke was transformed into a very different place – at first an airfield, RAF Portreath, then in the Cold War a facility for the manufacture of chemical weapons, including the potent nerve agent VX, and later a radar station that remains there as part of the UK’s early warning system against nuclear attack. These are uses to which “empty cemetery” or “blind valley” seem much more fitting.
Looking up Nancekuke on a large-scale Ordnance Survey map, I was struck by the blankness of the cartographic space. No footpaths, woods, settlements – just a few straight lines marking disused runways. Empty indeed.
On an autumn day when the threat of nuclear war was once again very much on people’s minds, there was no sign of any swallows, or indeed cuckoos. Only a kestrel being mobbed by jackdaws over the vertiginous cliffs.
Inland, behind high wire fencing, decaying concrete blockhouses and pillboxes, and the giant white puffball of the radar looming over a field of kale.
But on one pillbox a message was spraypainted in bright pink and green: WILL YOU MARRY ME? And as I walked back into Portreath, the sound of a brass band and a crowd singing Country Roads came from a marquee next to the pub. A wedding party was in full, raucous swing.
It felt like life after death.