diamond geezer

 Friday, March 23, 2018

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 peripheral branch 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 beach cricket. 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 Porthmeor beach. 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 circular frontage. 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.

My St Ives gallery
There are 25 photos [slideshow]

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream