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Kentish charms

Whitstable

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Beach hut, Whitstable

The first time we went to Whitstable for a short break, a few years ago, we stayed in nearby Seasalter and made a couple of day trips into the town. We liked what we saw, and it was frustrating not to be able to easily spend our evenings here. So when we were considering ideas for a coastal staycation during the pandemic, renting a house in the centre of this appealing seaside town was a no-brainer!

The photos on this page were taken on both visits, March 2015 and October 2020.

Oysters

Whitstable is known for its oysters and a short distance west of the harbour you will find the Whitstable Oyster Company. The company claims to be able to trace its origins back to the 1400s. and to be one of the oldest companies in Europe. But the fame of the oysters of Whitstable goes even further back, almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered them and shipped them back live to Rome to be enjoyed as a delicacy at the best tables there. At the company’s peak in the 1850s it was sending as many as eighty million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market. By that time oysters had become so plentiful and cheap that they were regarded as the food of the poor, not the gourmet indulgence of today.

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Oyster shells

However in the twentieth century the industry began to decline due to a number of factors: cold winters, a parasite infection, two World Wars, the great flood of 1953 and changing tastes – notably the rise of the prawn cocktail!

In recent decades there has been a resurgence in the oyster industry. The company is now a family-run business, not only farming oysters but also running a highly-regarded restaurant in the old oyster stores. Walking around outside, the discarded oyster shells crunch under your feet – a sure sign you are in Whitstable.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company

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Sign at the Whitstable Oyster Company

The harbour

The harbour at Whitstable is very much a working one. Fish are landed and processed here, and there is a tarmac production site, with what it must be said is rather an ugly main structure. But I like the fact that it is functional as well as tourist-focused. Fishermen land their catch right next to the informal fish restaurants selling mussels, oysters and fish and chips; old fisherman’s huts are home to small craft shops and art galleries; locals walk their dogs, and tourists stroll, in the shadow of the tarmac factory.

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Whitstable Harbour

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Harbour scenes

In the summer boat trips run from here, out to see the wind farms and the offshore World War II sea forts which are visible on the horizon. These Maunsell Forts (named for their designer, Guy Maunsell) were built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries during the Second World War. They were used for anti-aircraft defence – during World War II, the three forts in the Thames estuary shot down 22 aircraft and about 30 flying bombs. They were decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1950s; some were used in the 60s as bases for pirate radio stations.

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Wind turbines and Maunsell Forts

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Birds in flight and Maunsell Forts

The Favourite

One boat not to be found in the harbour is the Favourite. This is a traditional Whitstable oyster yawl and was built by the Whitstable Shipbuilding Company based at Island Wall (west of the harbour and oyster company) in 1890. She was used by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company to dredge oysters from the beds off shore until 1939. She was machine-gunned by an enemy aircraft and began to sink, but was beached and dragged up the shore. When the sea wall was built she was moved and spent some time in a cottage garden before being acquired by a charitable trust who raised money for her restoration. Today she sits on display just behind the wall, very near where she was built. As she would have been built directly on the shingle beach the site around her was restored to look like a beach and now has a good display of shingle flora.

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The Favourite

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Flowers by the Favourite

Beach walks and beach-huts

Although Whitstable doesn’t have a traditional seaside promenade (and for me that is one of its charms), it is possible to walk the length of its beaches stretching some distance both east and west of the centre – a walk of about three miles in total. To the east you are walking along the foot of Tankerton Slopes. At first these are green lawns, sloping down to the sea. At their foot are colourful beach huts, one of my favourite subjects for photography in Whitstable.

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Beach huts, Tankerton Slopes

The footpath passes the Street, a naturally formed spit of land that extends into the sea and can be walked on at low tide.

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The Street

A key feature of Whitstable’s beaches are the breakwaters, a favourite perch for visiting gulls.

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The beach near Tankerton Slopes

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Breakwaters on the beach

Further along, the tamed lawns give way to a nature reserve, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the largest population in Britain of hog’s fennel can be found. Not being an expert in botany, and with no winter images on the information board, I am only about 80% certain that I photographed the right plant, but in any case I loved the sculptural shapes of its seed-heads.

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Hog's fennel - I think!

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Above Tankerton Slopes

Eventually in this direction you reach Swalecliffe Brook, a small stream running into the sea between Whitstable and the next town, Herne Bay.

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Beyond Tankerton - Swalecliffe Brook

This is the furthest we have walked in this direction, so let’s turn back now and head west.

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Enjoying the sea views

Walking west from the centre you pass the Favourite, mentioned above, and soon after arrive at one of Whitstable’s best-loved pubs, the Old Neptune or ‘Neppy’ as it is affectionately known. It makes the proud claim to be ‘one of only a handful of pubs to be found on the beaches of Britain’. It sits directly on the shingle and while it has a cosy interior, the main attraction for us and for many others is found outside where, even in these times of COVID, there are plenty of wooden tables and benches where you can enjoy a beer and maybe some fish and chips with a sea view. It was just about warm enough during our recent October stay to be able to stop off for drinks here on a couple of occasions.

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The Old Neptune

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View from our table at the Old Neptune

Beyond the Neppy are more beach huts and some attractive and interesting old houses. One of the latter was once home to the actor Peter Cushing, best known for his roles in the Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The house is marked with a blue plaque.

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Beach huts and boats

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Beach hut detail

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Colourful houses

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Peter Cushing's former home

There are also more breakwaters, whose rhythmically-spaced lines stretch away into the distance on either side, creating interesting photo opportunities.

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Looking back towards the town centre

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Breakwaters

When it’s time to turn back you can return the way you came or take the quiet road running parallel to the beach, Island Wall, to see more of Whitstable’s quaint houses.

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House detail

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Halloween in Whitstable

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Starling outside a Whitstable house

The town centre

I’ll finish in the centre of town which is in its way as appealing as the shore. There are plenty of independent shops selling upmarket clothing, books, jewellery, antiques and of course souvenirs. The latter include craft items and home decorations, perfect if you want to replicate the beach house look at home, although in our London terrace that is best restricted to the bathroom! The restaurants too are mainly independents, although there are a couple of Italian chains, and likewise the cafés, although again there is one chain coffeeshop. Of the pubs we liked best the atmosphere in the Royal Naval Reserve on the High Street, as the Duke of Cumberland (which we’d had a good lunch in on a previous visit) was rather cold and empty, perhaps because COVID restrictions prevented it from staging its popular live music evenings.

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Pub and antiques shop

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Cheese and gift shop

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Look for the details

Finally, take a look at these fun murals, most of them by an artist called Cat Man, which I spotted around the town.

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Whitstable murals

Posted by ToonSarah 04:57 Archived in England Tagged beaches buildings boats harbour england coast history pubs seaside details street_art Comments (23)

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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