Meanwhile, ST IVES sits on the Atlantic coast of far-west Cornwall. It's no Penzance, it's quite the tourist trap.
St Ives has a population of eleven and a half thousand (which for those of us with a SW Herts mindset makes it approximately a Croxley Green). It's very much not Croxley Green, though, it's a) absurdly gorgeous b) intrinsically arty c) a bit of a surfer's paradise. There is a catch, however, which only struck me after I'd been wandering around for a while. And it's not just the seagulls.
The town's setting is dramatic, behind a headland at one end of the sandy sweep of St Ives Bay. It's not somewhere to drive to though, if that can be avoided, so the local railway doubles up as a Park and Ride. Trains shuttle every half hour up the edge of the Hayle estuary, far busier than any peripheralbranch line has a right to be. Car-based passengers board at Lelant Saltings, where the river may be little more than snaking channels in the mud, beyond which the single track climbs slowly into the dunes and onto the clifftops. It all gets wonderfully picturesque, and I even got to enjoy a rainbow for good measure beaming down onto distant sands.
St Ives is blessed with four main beaches, each with a conveniently different orientation, one of which (Porthminster) spreads out immediately below the station. It's where I imagine families build sandcastles and break off intermittently for kiosk ice cream, but at this time of year imagining is all I could do. The main town is to the north, either up onto the clifftop for those who live locally, or hanging in at bay level for those only visiting. The lower route is lined with what are now holiday cottages, many of whose names are web addresses, in case passers-by fancy typing them in online for next time they come to stay.
The harbour sweeps round to a long stone pier, stacked with lobster pots, with a dinky lighthouse at the far end. Around its rim are a string of souvenir shops, fish restaurants and pasty outlets, plus a (busy) 13th century pub called The Sloop Inn which is one of the county's oldest surviving buildings. I thought the combination complemented the setting in a charming rather than a tacky way. There are also numerous 'Beware The Gulls' signs warning visitors to shield their food, which I smiled at, then five seconds later recoiled somewhat when I felt two webbed feet landing in my hair. It's OK, I (and my bagged-up Cornish Hevva cake) survived unscathed.
For a town of this size, the shops are really good. Fore Street runs one back from the harbourside, barely wide enough for deliveries, boasting bijou bistros, boutiques and bakehouses. Well this is nice, I thought, as a well-to-do London emmet, although I'm not sure Cath Kidston is what the locals actually need. The other ubiquitous presence is the smattering of tiny art galleries and studios, many tucked into impossibly cute backstreets. St Ives has a long-standing renown for painting and pottery, allegedly because of its fine light, and continues to attract the creative to this day. Again there's many an objet d'art for middle class visitors to take home, and livings to scratch for the artists who remain.
I visited when the tide was in, so there was only just enough space on Harbour Sands for a decent game of beachcricket. Porthgwidden beach wasn't much larger, but with no cafe to sustain it only four people had turned up. I'd expect that state of affairs to change considerably once the Easter break begins. That's also when the town's museum opens, so I didn't see inside that either, and probably never will. But I did hike up to the coastguard station at the tip of the headland, and got blown around by the wind at Saint Nicholas Chapel, which perches above the old town on an undeveloped rocky mount.
And this was when I caught sight of the waves on Porthmeorbeach. Wow. The swell was rolling in from the north, every so often firing a massive ridge of water parallel to the shore, which eventually curled and smashed towards the sand. It's hard to know if this is normal behaviour or whether I just got 'lucky' with the weather, but I understand proper hollow waves are fairly rare. A shoal of bobbing wetsuits hung out in the breakers at the western end of the bay, occasionally deeming one of the humps appropriate enough to tackle, then attempting not to fall off on the way in. I could have watched for hours, which I believe is the raison d'etre of the alfresco cafe on the foreshore, although its patrons are probably eyeing up the surfers whereas I was obsessed by the rhythm of the waves.
But Porthmeor is also where the Tate Gallery stands, so I tore myself away from the view, paid up and went inside. This bright white building was opened in 1993 on the site of a former gasworks, whose former tanks were incorporated to create a striking circularfrontage. Inside are ten main galleries, the majority strung out in a long thin chain upstairs, and the others curved around a central void. They tell the story of mid 20th century art in St Ives, a period when the town was a haven for behemoths like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, plus lesser known talent like Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. I found it a much more satisfying collection than Bankside in London - relevant and coherent and without too much abstract splash.
Last autumn an additional set of galleries were opened at the far end, hewn out from the hillside, and capacious enough to merit a price hike on the admission fee. The latest exhibition is inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, who spent much of her childhood in the town, and has assembled nigh on 100 works with a feminist perspective. Only after I'd walked round did I twig I hadn't seen a single male face in any of the paintings (unless you count the small boy picnicking on a clifftop with his mother and sister), which made a thoroughly refreshing change. But where windows permitted I was still captivated by the view across the bay, both from the inner gallery and from the top floor cafe. Even one of the guides was staring out wistfully at the undulations of the surfers, rather than keeping an eye on the rest of us maybe touching a sculpture.
All in all St Ives was a delight, from its twisty lanes to its sandy bays with crashing waves. Even on a weekday in mid-March visitors had flocked to savour its food, ride its seas and admire its art. And yet therein also lies its downside - a town overtaken by outsiders, its economy externally-oriented and its empty cottages awaiting the Easter rush. Those with the wherewithal to visit no doubt adore the gentrification, but those who overwinter hereabouts may not be quite so enamoured.