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‘King John was not a good man …’

Runnymede

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The Magna Carta Memorial

‘King John was not a good man
He had his little ways.’

Or so A. A. Milne put it in his poem King John's Christmas. The barons of early 13th century England would have agreed. In 1215 England was in political turmoil. King John had become vastly unpopular; his disagreements with the Pope over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury led to a papal interdict against the country and the king’s excommunication, while the imposition of high taxes to fund the war with France led to mounting anger. In early 1215 the barons seized control of London and the king was left with no choice but to negotiate with them. The outcome of those negotiations was the sealing of the Magna Carta Libertatum, the Great Charter of Liberty – usually known simply as Magna Carta. The document held the king accountable to the rule of law, enshrined the rights of ‘free men’ to justice and a fair trial (free men in those days meaning a relatively small number of noblemen), and established a council of 25 barons to oversee it.

The simplified account of our history usually stops here, suggesting that once the charter was sealed the matter was settled, but of course it wasn’t that simple. The charter lasted less than a year before being annulled, but subsequent kings revised and revived it in various forms, and it is still regarded symbolically as the basis for much of British law and the workings of our Parliament.

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The Thames at Runnymede

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, a water-meadow on the south bank of the River Thames, in June 1215. Runnymede offered neutral ground located between the royal fortress of Windsor Castle and the barons’ rebel base at Staines. Today the meadows and the hill above them are owned and managed by the National Trust.

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Runnymede landscape

There are several interesting memorials, lots of space for picnics and family fun, and pleasant riverside and woodland walks. I used to come here regularly as a child – it was a favourite family outing, an easy drive from our home in a north west London suburb. But I hadn’t been for decades, until the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent slight easing, coupled with an exceptionally warm and sunny spring / early summer, led to an increased interest in discovering the sights close to home. We have recently made two visits to Runnymede, and the photos on this page were taken during both of them, just a few weeks apart.

Magna Carta Memorial

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The Magna Carta Memorial

The monument to the sealing of Magna Carta sits on the slope of Coopers Hill, overlooking the meadow where that sealing is thought to have taken place. It was erected by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1957, reflecting the influence the document had on the US Constitution – it is said that the founding fathers turned to Magna Carta for inspiration and guidance when they drew it up.

The monument is in the style of a small Greek temple, with at its centre a granite pillar on which is inscribed ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law’. Some of the paving stones around it are engraved as records of visits by the ABA to rededicate the memorial on various occasions over the years.

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The Magna Carta Memorial

John F Kennedy Memorial

The US links to this site continue with another memorial on Coopers Hill, this one a little higher. The British memorial to President John F. Kennedy was jointly dedicated on 14 May 1965, by the Queen and Jacqueline Kennedy. It consists of a Portland stone tablet inscribed with a famous quote from his inaugural address:

‘Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.’

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The John F Kennedy Memorial

The granite sett steps that lead steeply up to the stone form part of the memorial. There are 50 of them, representing the 50 US states, and their attractive irregularity is a deliberate feature by the landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe, intended to symbolise a pilgrimage.

Commemorative trees

There are several oak trees planted near the Magna Carta memorial. One was planted by Narismha Rao, Prime Minister of India, in 1994, one by the Queen in 1987 to mark National Tree Week that year, and one also planted that year by John O. Marsh, Secretary of the US Army, marked by a plaque reading:

‘This oak tree, planted with soil from Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, commemorates the bicentenary of the Constitution of the United States of America. It stands in acknowledgement that the ideals of liberty and justice embodied in the Constitution trace their lineage through institutions of English law to the Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215.’

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The Jamestown commemorative oak

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The Jurors

Runnymede has changed little since my childhood visits, but there have been a few additions to the sights dotted around the landscape here, in the form of art installations. On the grassy meadow below the Magna Carta and Kennedy memorials is this group of twelve bronze chairs, created by artist Hew Locke to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 2015.

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Chris studying The Jurors

The designs on the chairs incorporate imagery representing key moments in the struggle for freedom, rule of law and equal rights. These include:
~ a representation of Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island
~ an image of the Exxon Valdez tanker which ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in 1989 (to serve as a reminder of corporate environmental responsibilities)
~ Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’
~ Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practice law in India who became a legal advocate for women in purdah who were unable to speak out for themselves
~ a march of blind trade unionists in 1920 to support the Blind Persons Act which established disability rights as a fundamental principle in British society
~ an Amerindian headdress above a forest and river clustered with nuggets of gold, drawing attention to indigenous land claims
~ an image of documents being shredded, as a reference to the redaction or destruction of documentation by regimes wishing to hide incriminating evidence of their activities (the National Trust website description of this chair references the invasion by citizens of the Stasi office in Leipzig, interrupting this destruction which we had learned about on our visit there a couple of years ago – see my blog https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/259/)
~ a hollow boab tree such as those used by police in Australia in the 1890s as temporary prisons for aboriginal prisoners
~ a boat carrying refugees

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Nelson Mandela's prison cell, and the Exxon Valdez

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The blind trade unionists' march, and Cornelia Sorabji

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Amerindian headdress, and hollow boab tree

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A boat carrying refugees, and another view of The Jurors

Writ in Water

While I found The Jurors to be both artistically effective and powerful, I was less taken by the other large installation, Writ in Water, which stands on the slope of Coopers Hill not far from the Magna Carta memorial. It should be impressive but somehow the combination of harsh sunlight and dirty water in its central pool made the inscription within the stone tower almost illegible. This inscription is engraved in a metal strip that frames the pool, but in ‘mirror writing’ so as to be read indirectly from its reflection – hence ‘writ in water’. It is taken from Clause 39 of Magna Carta:

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’

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Writ in Water

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Others have evidently been more impressed than we were, as the installation the RIBA National Award 2019, which recognises ‘buildings which have made a significant contribution to architecture in the UK’.

The Thames at Runnymede

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The Thames at Runnymede
~ houses on the opposite bank

But Runnymede isn’t all about history, and many of those who visit, possibly most, are here simply to enjoy its riverside setting – to walk a stretch of the Thames Path, to picnic and play in the sun, maybe enjoy an ice cream. There are also moorings for the pleasure boats and barges.

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Boats on the Thames

It’s hard however to escape the fact that you are very close to London, only just outside the M25 ring road. At the eastern end of the meadows you can hear the motorway traffic, across the river you see the probably rather expensive homes of commuters whose gardens slope down to its banks, and planes fly fairly overhead at regular intervals as you are in the flight path for Heathrow Airport. Or at least, they do so in ‘normal’ times – one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, I guess, was that our recent visits were rather more peaceful with only the occasional jet flying above us. Personally, however I would rather have the planes and no virus, as I am sure most would agree.

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Quiet stretch of the river, and Egyptian Goose

Coopers Hill and Langham Pond

On the other side of the meadows from the river are the wooded slopes of Coopers Hill, with various footpaths leading up to the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial which commemorates the men and women of the Allied Air Forces who died during the Second World War and records the names of the 20,456 airmen who have no known grave. We haven’t yet made the climb to the top but this is definitely on the list for a future visit as the views are said to be excellent – nearby Windsor castle, of course, but also on a clear day the arch of Wembley Stadium and even the skyscrapers in the City of London.

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Meadow at the foot of Coopers Hill

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Meadows at Runnymede, and view of the Thames from Coopers Hill

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Dandelion clock

Where the wood meets the meadows is tranquil Langham Pond. This was created when the meandering River Thames formed an oxbow lake, and today is a wetland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The pond and surrounding meadow form a habitat that is considered unique in Southern England and of international importance. There are nationally scarce plants and insects here, including a species of fly unrecorded anywhere else in the United Kingdom!

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Langham Pond

But being unknowledgeable about flies I find myself drawn instead to the beautiful shades of green in this landscape, the water-fowl and the colourful dragon and damselflies. Here at least you can forget how close you are to London and imagine yourself deep in the country.

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Flags, Langham Pond

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Swan on Langham Pond

Above in the woods you can find wildflowers in the spring and summer, and of course the leaves will turn gorgeous shades of orange and red in the autumn, as they are largely deciduous. Another reason for a return visit later in the year!

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Path through the woods on Coopers Hill

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Ox-eye Daisies, and Red Campion

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More wildflowers

Statue of Queen Elizabeth II

In the Runnymede Pleasure Gardens to the east of the National Trust land, where families picnic and locals walk their dogs, stands a larger-than-life bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth II, placed here in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The work of sculptor James Butler, it was inspired by the famous 1954 and 1969 portraits by Pietro Annigoni. It may seem slightly ironic that the anniversary of an event that helped to restrict the power of the monarchy should be marked by the unveiling of a statue of the current monarch, but so it was – and supporters argued, perhaps fairly, that the Queen represents all that is good about our monarchy as it has evolved since those very different times.

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The statue of Queen Elizabeth II

In front of the statue two parallel timelines are etched into the paving stones – one the successions of kings and queens from King John to Queen Elizabeth II, while the other is described as a ‘democracy timeline’ highlighting significant evolutionary milestones in Britain’s democratic heritage.

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Dog roses at Runnymede

Posted by ToonSarah 10:49 Archived in England Tagged landscapes art birds flowers england monument history statue views river Comments (11)

A Cornish birthday

St Ives

‘As I was going to St Ives’

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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!

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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.

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Apartment sitting room

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Apartment bedroom

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Apartment kitchen

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.

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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.

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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.

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Rainy day photography, Tate St Ives

Porthmeor Beach

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!

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Porthmeor Beach

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

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Harbour

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!

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Bird at the harbour

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The Island

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!

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Map showing the Island

There are great views from the Island of the coast in either direction.

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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.

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Rocky coastline

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Cormorants on rock, from the Island

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Godrevy Lighthouse

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.

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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.

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On the Island
~ you can see the gun battery at the furthest point

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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.

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Surfers, Porthmeor Beach

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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.

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Door details

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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.

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In the studio

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Sleepy cat
(this one is real, not a sculpture!)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:45 Archived in England Tagged beaches art birds night boats rain harbour coast views sculpture weather seaside lighthouse seas chapel cornwall st_ives Comments (20)

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