“Why on earth would you holiday here? Port Isaac. Small and messy,” reads the dismissive legend, overlaid on an image of boats bobbing in a sunshine-bathed bay.
In cheerful type over a beachscape of Porthemmet – a sandy bay in north Cornwall – rattles the petulant complaint: “We could not find it. Porthemmet. Keep heading north on the A30.” Meanwhile, in the words of another harrumphing visitor, Pedn Vounder, a white-sand beach nesting in the cliffs of Teryn Dinas on the Penwith Peninsula that sees the occasional naturist, becomes: “We were surrounded by naked people: Pedn Vounder: Completely indecent”.
Overrated Cornwall is a tongue-in-cheek project by Cornish artist and photographer Sally Mitchell, 42, who lives in the fishing village of Mevagissey, a few miles from St Austell on Cornwall’s south coast. Mitchell first designed the graphic images on which the comic pieces are based in 2013, inspired by the seminal 1930s-1950s travel posters designed by artist Brian Cook for clients including Travel Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and LMS/LNER railways, which feature simple lines and bright, blocky colours.
The spark for Overrated Cornwall, which has garnered tens of thousands of fans on social media (where Mitchell describes herself as a “creator of rubbish Tripadvisor-inspired artwork”) came in 2022, when Mitchell was recovering from a bout of Covid.
“In my fevered state, I ended up down a Tripadvisor rabbit hole, poring over the one-star reviews of my home town,” the artist recalls, “and I became more and more shocked by what people were writing about Mevagissey, which is a simple little Cornish fishing village and is really quite beautiful.”
Mitchell recalled the earlier graphic series of images of Cornish tourist hotspots and decided to experiment, pairing the reviewers’ snarky posts with her travel illustrations. She began, naturally, with her hometown, marrying a charming scene of Mevagissey harbour with one keyboard warrior’s miserable take – “It used to be a charming fishing village, but now it is a mess” – and, in Mitchell’s own personal favourite from the series, an image of blue seas and a pert palm tree with: “Smells awful and there is nothing to see and do. Mevagissey. Just another overrated place”.
The response to the initial pieces was “amazing – locals loved them,” Mitchell explains. She has since produced 17 in the ongoing series, most recently in response to requests from locals in touristy spots such as Port Isaac, Truro and Looe. The reproductions sell for £4.50 for unframed A5 prints on her website Jetty Street Press. She is now planning a series of printed T-shirts.
A year into her project, how does Mitchell’s exploration of the cantankerous fringes of tourism make her feel about the psychology of the thousands of visitors a year who descend on her tiny Cornish community?
“It makes me think that humans are a bit daft really,” she says, after a pause. “Don’t get me wrong, the majority of reviews are really nice. But then you get the folk that just don’t get it. They come to Megavissy and think it’s smelly because there are crab pots in the sand and there are pickup trucks with fishnets trailing out of them. What they forget is that Cornwall is a place where people live and work and not some theme park or museum piece.”
Lucy Lethbridge is the author of Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves. She says that there is plenty of humour to be found in the gap between travel poster puff and dashed tourist expectations. In this way, she adds, Mitchell is in the long tradition of bathetic British seaside postcards. “Because the modern holiday emerges from early 19th-century romanticism, it is full of yearnings for earth-moving, mind-expanding experiences,” Lethbridge explains. “Hopes which are often dashed.”
Fortunately, Lethbridge adds, Britons are masters at accommodating our expectations to an underwhelming reality. “Holidays always carry within them the seeds of disappointment,” she says, “we are used to rain stopping play and picnics, to sand in our sandwiches and crowds (and clouds) spoiling the view”.
Mitchell lives above a gift shop in Mevagissey and, from her studio window, often overhears tourists moaning about needing a wee or that the local hills are too steep. “The tendency [of British tourists] to whinge does make me laugh,” she says. At heart though, Mitchell’s take on tourists is a good-natured one. As the resident of a touristy region, she personally tries to be a better tourist when she travels abroad: “I always remember that the place where I am enjoying my holiday is a place where people live too.”
In Mitchell’s view, the Tripadvisor one-star brigade would get along rather better if they managed their expectations. “You can’t change the width of the road to suit the size of your car and you won’t get rid of the smell of the fishing gear in a fishing harbour, just for your convenience,” she says.
After all, you can always console yourself with a nice sit down with a cup of tea and a pasty. “A seagull might mug you for your pasty, of course, but that’s Cornwall,” she laughs.