‘As I was going to St Ives’
St Ives harbour in stormy weather
My birthday falls at the end of October and we often go away, usually abroad. But with work being done at home (installation of new wardrobes) our holiday time was limited this year, so we decided on a break closer to home. I’ve been wanting to go to St Ives for some time, having not been to Cornwall since family holidays as a child, so that was our choice. We hoped for good weather (it quite often is fine and sunny at that time of year in England) but knew there was plenty to do there if it rained, in the form of the newish Tate St Ives and numerous smaller galleries and artists’ studios. Just as well, as it turned out!
St Ives harbour
We decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel, which also proved to be a good decision, and to travel by train rather than drive the long distance from London. The train journey took us along one of the most scenic stretches of rail track in the country, so close to the sea in parts of Devon that some years ago it was totally destroyed in winter storms. Thankfully today’s weather, although wet, wasn’t bad enough to pose a threat to the line and our journey went smoothly – a long run from London via Exeter, Plymouth and Truro before changing at St Erth for the little branch line to St Ives. Waiting in the wind and rain at that small station I think we both wondered why we hadn’t made the time to go to Sicily, our original plan!
Arriving in St Ives we walked to the apartment following directions sent by its owner. These led us along what would be in fine weather a pleasant path right by the sea, but which today was at one point being regularly swamped by large waves. I manged to dash between them but Chris was not so lucky and got caught, resulting in a pair of decidedly wet trousers! Luckily our accommodation was only a short distance further, above a shoe shop near the market hall and parish church. We let ourselves in with the key that had been sent to us a week previously and climbed two flights of stairs to the very cosy flat. We liked it immediately, with its seaside themed décor and view of the sea beyond the roof-tops.
Apartment sitting room
We settled in and, given the weather, decided not to go far on this first evening. Our hostess had kindly given us lots of local restaurant recommendations and one which appealed, Beer and Bird, was only a few minutes’ walk up the main street, Fore Street. This consists of a ground floor bar and first floor restaurant, and although it was busy we got a good table in the latter. We enjoyed our meal on the whole, but had to wait a long while for our main courses because the wood-fired pizza oven was playing up, and Chris had ordered pizza! They really should have just told us that pizzas were off for the evening as despite that being his favourite, I’m sure he’d have found something else on the extensive menu as an alternative. As it was, when the pizza did finally arrive, alongside my very good halibut, its crust was disappointingly brittle although the topping was good. Still, it had been a pleasant evening on the whole – and some dry weather was promised for tomorrow!
A wet birthday in St Ives
My heading above tells a different tale from that weather forecast. We awoke to rain that lasted most of the day, off and on (mostly on!) Clearly it was a day for indoor pursuits so after breakfast at a nearby café (Scoff Troff, which failed to live up to the rave review provided by our hostess but was OK) we walked along Fore Street to its northern end and then followed signs that led us to Tate St Ives by Porthmeor Beach.
Tate St Ives
As the name suggests, Tate St Ives is a regional hub of the original Tate Gallery in London (now Tate Britain) and the Tate Modern. It was preceded by the gallery’s first venture out of the capital, Tate Liverpool, and opened in 1993. A fairly remote small Cornish seaside town may seem an odd choice of location for a major gallery, but once you know something of St Ives’ history and its long association with artists it becomes much less surprising.
Tate St Ives entrance
There is something special about the quality of light in this part of the country which has always tended to attract artists, and once the railway came to the town in 1877 many visited from London for short or longer stays. A local fisherman, Alfred Wallis, had taken up painting following the death of his wife, and his naïve style appealed to visiting artist Ben Nicholson, influencing his move towards more abstract art. When the Second World War started, Nicholson moved to St Ives with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and other artists followed – Naum Gabo, Patrick Heron, Bernard Leach and many more.
The heyday of what became known as the St Ives School was in the 1950s and 60s, but the town continues to attract artists and is home to many small galleries and studios. Barbara Hepworth’s former home and studio has been open to the public for some years, displaying many of her works in the setting where she created them, and was taken over by the Tate in 1980, so it was a natural next step for them to build a new gallery in the town dedicated to the art movement that bears its name.
We bought our tickets, opting for combined ones that also included the Hepworth Studio, on our to-do list for tomorrow when it should be drier (most of the sculptures are exhibited in the garden). Although not large the gallery has a series of rooms telling the story of the St Ives School with works by all of the more famous artists considered members and others I hadn’t heard of.
Artwork by by Otobong Nkanga
There are also rooms devoted to temporary exhibitions which were showing works by Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian artist now living in Antwerp. She uses tapestry alongside photography, painting and video, and I found some of the works very intriguing. The exhibition From Where I Stand explored ‘the politics of land and its relationship to the body, and histories of land acquisition and ownership’, according to the Tate website, but I liked it most for the colours employed in her tapestries and the interesting video showing how she works to bring her huge designs to life.
After looking around the gallery we made our way to the top floor café where we were lucky to secure a table for our coffee break, as the café is quite small and the weather was far too inclement for anyone to be sitting out on the terrace! On finer days there would be wonderful views of Porthmeor Beach from here; as it was, the windows were streaked with rain and, inspired perhaps by all the art we had seen, I had fun creating my own abstract images using the colours of sea and sand blurred by raindrops. Even in this weather I could see that there was indeed something rather special about the light here.
Rainy day photography, Tate St Ives
After our coffee we took advantage of a brief let-up in the rain to get a few photos of Porthmeor Beach. Quite a few people were braving the elements to walk dogs and a few even to surf!
We then headed back to Fore Street where we had a light lunch in one of the pubs, the Union Inn – good toasted sandwiches and local beer. After our meal we visited some of the studios and independent shops. As it was my birthday Chris had suggested I pick out a gift here, and I found a pretty silver necklace in a Celtic design at Silver Origins at the southern end of Fore Street.
We spent the rest of the afternoon back in our cosy apartment before wrapping up again to walk to the restaurant where we had booked a table for my birthday dinner. The Porthminster Kitchen was another of our hostess’s recommendations and had also been suggested by a foodie friend who holidays here regularly, and what a good choice it proved to be. OK, we couldn’t really make the most of the lovely setting overlooking the harbour, but that didn’t matter when the food was so good and the service so friendly. Of course I had to have some local fish and chose mackerel pate followed by a hake special, both of which were delicious, while Chris had scallops and a pasta dish. An excellent evening – and surely tomorrow at last it would stop raining?!
A brighter day
Yes! We awoke to skies which, if not exactly bright, were lighter and no longer throwing water at us. So after breakfast at another local café (a much more successful choice, the Cornish Bakery on Fore Street) we walked down to the harbour, hoping to get better photos than we had managed yesterday.
There were a lot of birds on the lifeboat slipway which subsequent research indicated could be Turnstones in their winter plumage, or possibly some sort of Sandpiper – bird-watching friends might correct me, of course!
Bird at the harbour
We followed the water’s edge, taking a few more photos as we went. At the far side of the bay that forms the harbour is St Ives’ most distinctive natural feature, the Island. Despite its name this is not an island but a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and separating the harbour from Porthmeor Beach. On a map it looks to me a little like a face in profile, with a hook nose, a shock of hair and a very thin beard!
Map showing the Island
There are great views from the Island of the coast in either direction.
Panoramic view east from the Island
Rocky outcrops offshore were dotted with cormorants, and further away we could see Godrevy Lighthouse on its small islet. The lighthouse was built in the 1850s as a result of numerous shipwrecks on the Stones Reef – most famously one in 1649 when a ship carrying many personal effects of King Charles I, including his entire wardrobe, was lost. This is the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf to write ‘To the Lighthouse’, a novel I studied for my A Level English Literature course, although she locates the lighthouse on the Scottish island of Skye.
Cormorants on rock, from the Island
On the highest point of the Island is the Chapel of St Nicholas, which dates back to the 15th century. It was used in the past by 'Preventive Men', as the excise officers were known, to keep watch for smugglers, for whom the island provided an ideal landing place for their contraband. Later the chapel was used for storage by the War Office, who partially demolished it in 1904, unaware of its historic significance. Fortunately a public outcry stopped the destruction and resulted in its restoration in 1911. Inside it features floor tiles depicting fishing scenes, the work of the famous St Ives potter, Bernard Leach, but we found the door locked and very little could be seen through the somewhat grubby windows.
St Nicholas Chapel
At the furthest point of the Island are the remains of an old gun battery, constructed in 1859 to help to protect Porthmeor Beach and the harbour against the threat of invasion by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). There were three gun emplacements and a barracks, which housed the gunners and their families. Later the largest of these emplacements was adapted to serve as a Coastguard Station. This was closed down in 1994, when the government decided that the use of satellite and wireless technology to monitor distress calls made keeping a visual watch unnecessary.
In 1999, the coastguard station was reopened by the St Ives branch of the National Coastwatch Institution, a voluntary organisation established to ‘provide the eyes and ears along the coast’. The station is now manned by volunteer watchkeepers, who keep a log of all the activity within sight of the lookout all year round during daylight hours. Several were on duty when we passed, and outside a poster appealed for further volunteers.
On the Island
~ you can see the gun battery at the furthest point
Porthmeor Beach from the Island
Looking down on Porthmeor Beach we could see lots of surfers in the water so we decided to head in that direction to try to get some better photos than we could manage at this distance. We got our shots, then found a good table in the Porthmeor Beach Café, perched above the sands opposite Tate St Ives, for a cup of coffee with a view.
Surfers, Porthmeor Beach
Arty St Ives
Many of the town’s small artists’ studios and galleries are located along the winding streets of the area between Porthmeor and the harbour, and we spent a pleasant hour visiting some of these before descending again to the harbour-front.
Our harbour view at lunch-time
Here we bought Cornish pasties (well, it had to be done!) from one of several shops claiming to sell the ‘best in town’ and perched on a breakwater to enjoy our lunch.
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
After our break we made our way through some more of the back streets to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. As I mentioned above, Hepworth and her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, came to live in St Ives when World War Two broke out in 1939, as a haven from London. She stayed here for the rest of her life, living and working in Trewyn studios (which are now the Barbara Hepworth Museum) from 1949 until her death in 1975 (she died in a fire here at the studio she loved). It was her wish that her home and studio were set up as a museum of her work.
In the studio
(this one is real, not a sculpture!)
Small sculpture indoors
Our visit here was a real highlight of our short stay in St Ives. Inside the house it was possible to get a sense of the artist and her work, through a series of photos taken over the full period of her time here. There were a few pieces displayed here too, but it was in the garden that the exhibits really come to life, placed just as she wanted them among the plants and flowers. To me their organic forms fit perfectly into this garden landscape.
At the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
Final evening in St Ives
We had dinner this evening in an Italian restaurant we had spotted and liked the look of earlier in the day, Caffe Pasta at the far end of the harbour-front. It was just as well that we had thought to make a reservation when passing, as on this Halloween evening lots of families were out and about and this seemed to be a favourite local choice for post Trick or Treating get-togethers. And our hunch that this looked a promising spot for our final dinner in St Ives paid off, as we had a delicious meal. I loved the sea bass special, served with candied beetroot & squid ink risotto, and Chris had some excellent wild boar meatballs.
Outside we had a go at a bit of impromptu night photography, using a breakwater as a slightly uneven temporary tripod!
St Ives harbour at night
Farewell to St Ives
The next morning there was time for another good pastry and coffee breakfast at the Cornish Bakery before we had to make our way back to the station (no waves crashing over the path today!) and home to London.
Last views of St Ives
The train journey, although long, passed as uneventfully as the journey down and we were home in time for dinner after our very pleasant, if not always dry, few days in Cornwall.