Traffic is a nightmare at times in the town but it has a heck of a lot going for it
Camelford is one of those towns you will drive through and possibly never stop in, yet ironically, it wants nothing more than for cars, tractors and lorries to bypass it.
As its name indicates it is located on the River Camel but is too far out to be on the famous Camel Trail. Some 10 miles from Wadebridge, Camelford has lost some of its past lustre as a town whose wealth was founded on agriculture, attracting trade from outlying villages. When the A30 was built, large chunks of Cornwall fell by the wayside, bypassed literally by the big road.
Yet while the A39 Atlantic Highway takes you through Camelford on the way to Bude or down to Rock, Polzeath and Padstow, it has done nothing to improve the lot of the town.
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“We are a place that you bypass on your way somewhere else,” admitted Mayor Rob Rotchell during a chat in the Grade-I listed town council building, decorated with its domed green clock tower and unique gold camel weather vane. “Historically Camelford was much more important but farming is not what it used to be and there are not so many job opportunities around here.
“We’ve been fighting for a bypass for years. All we’re waiting for is for the Department for Transport to say yes or no.”
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A majority of the 3,500 residents and more if you count villages and small towns like Tintagel, Boscastle, Delabole or St Teath which depend on Camelford for services, are in favour of the £50 million project going ahead. If approved, locals and holiday traffic would be in for three years of road hell but Camelford could be transformed into a destination town. That’s the plan anyway.
Already home to some pretty cool second hand trendy vintage clothes shops that are much in demand with teens all over North Cornwall and festival goers on their way to Rock Oyster or Boardmasters, the town would see its pavements widened to give way to a more ‘continental’ cafe culture. While it will never become Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, Camelford would hope to pull in new visitors, trendy food places and new shops too attracted by the cheaper rents and properties than many of the towns on the coast.
Cllr Rotchell, who has been mayor on and off for nine years, is pinning his hopes on the Government giving the oven-ready project the thumbs up soon. But he’s also realistic and as the cost of everything is going up on a daily basis, he knows that the powers that be could easily say no even though North Cornwall is represented and supported on this by a Conservative MP, Scott Mann.
“It could be either,” he said. “So we have a strategy in place for both options. Our preferred one of course is for the bypass to be built. 87% of the traffic would be diverted away from the town centre which is great for the health and wellbeing of our residents and our buildings too. It would allow us to be more creative and create more of a ‘boulevard culture’. We had a first bypass project approved seven years ago so all the environmental studies have been done. We’re just waiting for the Treasury to give us a cheque.”
He added: “From a traffic flow perspective it would be so much better as we could focus on our town centre and make it more of a destination. If the bypass is refused, it certainly will make Camelford a less interesting proposition but it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do anything.”
The town council has set up a community interest company to act as a BID team to go after the various funding pots available like the Levelling Up Fund.
One such project is about extending the Camel Trail, which currently stops at Wenford Bridge outside Bodmin, up to Camelford as a way to promote healthy living and attract cycling green tourism while the Camelford Hall would become a community hub, hosting the tourism information centre and other services like Citizens Advice.
Despite the A39 running through its high street where all the traffic gets stuck at two pinch points, Camelford is quite isolated. It is a 60-minute drive to either the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske in Truro or Derriford Hospital in Plymouth while the nearest minor injury units are in Bude, Bodmin and Wadebridge. There is no supermarket in Camelford, so people have to travel to Bodmin or Wadebridge for their weekly shop – a 30-minute round trip at the best of time or if you do not own a car, a bus journey of epic proportions.
“The public transport service here is terrible,” admitted Cllr Rotchell. “That’s what we want when they talk about levelling up. We want the small towns like ours to be brought up to the level of investment the bigger ones in Cornwall receive.”
Despite the lack of big employment opportunities (Davidstow creamery down the road does not have as large a workforce as one thinks for a lot of its processes are automated) and the A39 bypass which does not seem to be going anywhere fast, the town continues to grow. So much so that in the last 10 years more than 750 newcomers moved in attracted in part by its affordability, proximity to the north coast beaches without being swamped by tourists like Polzeath, Padstow or Bude can be.
Camelford keeps attracting both retired people and families and Camelford Community Primary School and Sir James Smith secondary schools are both rated good by Ofsted. There is feel of independence about Camelford and a strong will to do its own things away from County Hall politics. “The sense of community and the sense of belonging is really strong,” insisted Cllr Rotchell.
Paul Pound came to Camelford from Cheshire in the 90s after his parents moved to Cornwall and he decided to follow them when his marriage ended in divorce. Now he owns the two cool vintage clothes shops – The Really Groovy Shop and 2 Groovy – which stock one of the largest number of jeans you will probably see this side of the Tamar.
“Our customers are from all over the UK. Mostly young people,” he said. “We get a lot of trade from the festival goers. They just love all our stuff.”
He added: “Camelford can be quiet at times but it’s certainly cheaper to set up a business here than in most parts of Cornwall. Every day is different. Last Sunday was probably the worst Sunday I ever had but the one before was one of my best ever.”
Camelford is also independent from Cornwall Council in that it bought its own car park from the larger authority and parking in the town is cheap (£1 for four hours) as a way to encourage visitors to the town without penalising the locals as the first two hours are free.
The town council also runs the library, public toilets, leisure centre and town hall and financed the £200,000 skatepark without any meddling from Cornwall Council. In recent years new housing estates have sprung up at either end of the town with each newly built three/four bedroom house being snapped up as soon as finished.
Cllr Rotchell said: “Property prices are definitely cheaper here than on the coast but there remains a lack of affordable homes. People can afford a mortgage but not a deposit so they are trapped into paying high rents.”
While crime levels are relatively low, the town has its problems other than a lack of a bypass of course, including isolation, addictions and mental health issues, poverty and a lack of opportunities. One third of the children Camelford are classed as living in poverty and the foodbank (a satellite branch from Wadebridge foodbank) has sadly never been so busy.
Kelly Lamb runs the Grow Centre on Market Place as part of the Souls Harbour Church outreach programme and also volunteers at the local foodbank. She believes many of the problems Camelford faces are not being addressed fast enough.
“There are not enough services here," she said. "There is a problem with drugs, alcohol, boredom, and a lack of job opportunities. The bus service is shocking. We help people through their crisis by giving them practical solutions and work with Christians Against Poverty to give advice on debt management. I think things have got worse in the town since the banks closed. Mental health issues have increased.”
She added: “There is a good community feel. People do care for each other but I also think people are at a loss about what to do.”
Kelly said she looks to the Newquay Orchard project for inspiration and hopes a similar project tailored to her town can be created whereby a patch of land can be set aside to become an orchard and veg growing area, as a way to give new skills and support to people with drug or alcohol addictions or mental health issues.
She believes the produce from the project could be used for the food boxes given by the foodbank to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to those who are the poorest in the community with the surplus being sold from a stall on the main road to generate a self-sustaining income.
“What a great opportunity to encourage people to volunteer, meet new people, feel better about themselves and develop new skills this could be if Camelford could have its own version of Newquay Orchard,” she said. “I think Camelford is like a phoenix waiting to rise.”
Her ambitious project may not be too far off what the town council’s vision for the future may be. Having declared a climate emergency five years, Camelford Town Council runs the 100-year-old Enfield Park and looks after it as a wildlife-rich woodland and green lung just off the main road – including a bee corridor running along the river Camel. The park pays for its own upkeep through music events in the summer months. The town council also has a policy to plant two or three tree for any tree that needs to come down while there are other projects to plant a community orchard.
Steve Heard has been the town’s butcher for a generation, having lived in Camelford for most of his life. “It is a lovely town. I wouldn’t do this if it weren’t a nice community. It would be nice though to encourage more businesses and more trade into the town. One of the worst times for the town was when the bank closed. But since Covid many in the community have rediscovered their local shops which can only be a good thing.”
Cllr Rotchell said it’s time people stop viewing Camelford as town where one of the worst cases of water pollution happened.
The Camelford water pollution incident involved the accidental contamination of the drinking water supply in July 1988 when 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate was inadvertently added to the water supply, which in turn led to the poisoning of many people in the town.
“This was 34 years ago. We’ve moved on since then. Camelford is a decent place to live. I’ve been here 23 years and I would not go anywhere else.”
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Traffic is a nightmare at times in the town but it has a heck of a lot going for it