If the Trundler had to choose her favourite British seaside town of the many she loves, then St Ives would be the one. When she steps off that little train that skirts the coast from St Erth her heart does a dance and sometimes her feet follow. When the track curves to reveal the dinky harbour, the ice-cream yellow beaches and the tiers of fishermens’ houses, climbing so perfectly from the water’s edge, her soul sings a happy tune.
St Ives is much more than just a seaside town as its artistic heritage gives this popular place a special edge. Not just because of the marvellous Tate St Ives with its world class exhibitions or because of all the artists who have been inspired here over the decades. Or because of all the interesting galleries you’ll find dotted amidst the gift shops both twee and classy. But also because even if you have never lifted a paint brush in your life, you can enrol at the St Ives School of Painting and follow the great traditions of this special Cornish fishing village turned artists’ heaven.
Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, and Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Winifred Nicholson and Bernard Leach. They and many other painters, sculptors and potters have all lived here and seen the light, artistically and literally as St Ives is famous for its amazing luminous skies. After a few days of gazing at the green blue waves and watching the clouds skittering over Porthmeor Beach, you will probably see it too and will feel the urge to pin your paper to the easel and prepare your palette.
Beach Huts at Porthgwidden
First though, you may like to go to the beach. There are four fantastic main beaches here, so no matter what your expectations of a day by the sea, they will be met and probably surpassed. Families often head for the long creamy sweep of Porthminster where the waves are gentler and the crunchy sand is a dream for sandcastle builders.
It’s also home to the legendary Porthminster Beach Café. As well as a top notch lunch, you can get good takeaway fish and chips to fuel you as you dig.
The Harbour Beach is handy for the town and is backed by restaurants, cafes and an amusement arcade. It’s the closest St Ives gets to tacky and helps keep it real and not just a haven for the chattering classes. You’ll also find The Sloop here, the 14th century inn to which everyone heads sooner or later, to sip cider or munch a pasty. The seagulls are at their most menacing around here, so don’t be surprised if you never get to finish one, as they swoop and steal them just as you’re about to take a bite.
Porthgwidden Beach is The Trundler’s favourite, a perfect bay with pretty beach huts and bouncing but fairly gentle waves. It’s a great spot for a swim before breakfast at the charming Porthgwidden Beach café.
If you want to surf or just like watching those sleek black figures riding the waves in their extraordinary way, then head for Porthmeor.
The Tate is right here, a former gas works that presides over the beach and makes it so special. Where else can you see a brilliant Patrick Heron stained glass window, a touching Alfred Wallis painting and then admire such an uplifting view as you eat a delicious cream tea in the cafe?
It’s hard to imagine tiring of these fab four, but to discover yet more wonderful beaches walk along the coastal path from just behind Porthminster Beach to Carbis Bay. A 20 minute stroll will take you to another fine stretch of sand, and is a glorious amble with tantalising glimpses of yet more creamy yellow coast and emerald sea.
The revamped Carbis Bay Hotel has an informal seaview restaurant with a good lunch menu. Once refuelled, you can keep on walking all the way to Hayle, looking back every so often for a bewitching view of St Ives. If you’re too tired to walk the six miles back, just hop on the bus and you’ll be home in ten minutes.
Dishy Fish Dinners
When The Trundler first went to St Ives, 17 years ago, she spotted the Porthminster Beach Café, a gleaming white painted restaurant right by the beach. She was drawn to it with the same force as parched travellers spying a watering hole in the desert. It looked Mediterranean, but with the soothing charm of a Cornish seaside café. That night she and her friends dined in simple splendour there, watching their ten year old daughters playing on the stretch of sand below.
Presumably at some point the girls were allowed to come up and join us at the table, although it’s also possible that they had to make do with yet another pasty, as this delightful restaurant wasn’t and still isn’t cheap. With its eclectic menu of freshly caught fish and seafood dishes, The PBC has blazed a trail on the St Ives foodie scene and now there’s a wealth of places to enjoy everything from mackerel to hake to sardine and scallops freshly cooked and delicately flavoured.
The PBC’s smaller second cousin is the Porthgwidden Beach Café, also right on the bay, which does simpler, slightly less expensive dishes in more of a brasserie style. Join the middle-aged hipsters drooling over their breakfast of Greek Yoghurt and fresh berries and wondering whether they should take a dip in the tempting green waters of the Atlantic. Or whether they should just sit tight and have another Caffe Latte?
The Trundler and her good friend Jane don’t ponder for long and splash through the waves well into October. Laughing and invigorated after their bracing dip, they then return for the next course of scrambled egg with crab. Or they just head on to The Tate Cafe for a slice of walnut cake and a pot of tea, as they gaze contentedly at the waves of Porthmeor.
You can’t come to St Ives and not have a pasty. Even if you’re vegetarian there’s no excuse as pasties nowadays come with all manner of fillings. There’s nothing quite like the original however, eaten hot and fresh from the oven.
The Trundler loves S.H. Ferrell and Son, the cute little bakery opposite the Post Office where they sell bright yellow saffron cakes and huge meat and potato pasties as well as old-fashioned jam roly polys. Further up Fore Street, Pasty Presto, offers new-fangled vegetable and fish-filled options while the St Ives Bakery Company also on Fore Street sells high class scones and cakes as well as excellent traditional pasties.
After a while the whole overpriced seafood ambience of St Ives can get a bit much and The Trundler finds herself wishing she was in Spain, where you can eat amazing fresh fish without all the mildly pretentious pomp and ceremony, not to mention the expense. This is the moment when she heads for the Balancing Eel just behind The Sloop and buys great fish and chips to eat on the harbour front. It’s been there for years and is a saviour for all and sundry.
If you’re self-catering you should definitely pop into Norway Stores on Back Road West. Not just because it’s a nice name but because they’re open all hours and have a decent deli selection. Or to the Allotment Deli on Fore Street for good fruit and vegetables as well as fancy groceries. There are also two Co-ops for more prosaic fare and heaps of bakeries for Tiger bread and of course yet more pasties. St Ives also offers the usual seaside treats of fudge, ice-cream and fresh shellfish, bought on the harbourfront.
It’s vital to visit The Tate, if only to admire the spectacular view from its many windows. If you’re already a member of the London and Liverpool Tates, you can get in for free. And if you just want to visit the excellent shop and much loved café, you can do so without paying to enter the gallery. Tate St Ives has recently been revamped so is even better and exhibitions change frequently.
You can also buy a joint ticket to visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden too. This is a bewitching spot where as well as finding out more about the brilliant sculptor and viewing her work, you can just sit on a bench and daydream or read. www.tate.org.uk/visit/barbara-hepworth-museum
There are lots of smaller galleries and shops selling work by a wide range of artists in St Ives. If you just fancy a nice watercolour or if you’re looking for something more sophisticated and striking, you will probably find an artwork to suit.
The New Millenium Gallery on Street an Pol is the largest independent gallery in Cornwall with three floors of high quality work. The Salthouse Gallery in Norway Square is a popular venue for pop-ups. The Sloop Craft Market has a blends of local artists arts and crafts in its enticing studios while The Porthminster Gallery, a converted pilchard warehouse on Westcotts Quay has a good selection of the works of post-war St Ives artists including Terry Frost. It’s a pick and mix selection a bit like the sweets you used to buy in Woolworths on the harbour, which is now a rather nice Pizza Express.
The St Ives School of Painting runs classes and event throughout the year. It’s a wonderful place, unpretentious and welcoming. The Trundler tried a life drawing class there recently(£15 ) and went in feeling a bit gloomy, but left feeling joyous, her brain refreshed by the effort of doing something different. Just turn up ten minutes before the class starts and you’re away. www.schoolofpainting.co.uk
Where to Stay
St Ives has become rather hip over the last ten years and with that prices have risen. There are trillions of self-catering options, many very good. It’s far cheaper to visit in the winter months and just as heavenly but in a different way. Avoid August if possible, when it’s exhorbitant to spend a week there. Instead, book an off-season break and enjoy the quiet streets and mild winter sunshine.
The Pedn-olva offers some great deals out of season and has stupendous panoramic views from the bedrooms and its laid back bar, restaurant and roof terrace. Two night winter breaks including breakfast and one dinner start from £219 for two. www.pednolva.co.uk
The Tide House is the ultimate in tasteful small hotels, all cream and grey and blue with six simple, sumptuous rooms done out in a Cornwall meets New England style. The breakfast is superb and the owners are devoted to making you feel happy and at home. Double rooms from £140. www.thetidehouse.co.uk
Porthia Cottage is The Trundler’s favourite though, a wonderfully spacious and atmospheric flat close to the harbour with a large, bright sitting room and a sunny master bedroom with a vast bed as well as a cosy second bedroom and a slick bathroom. She likes it because it’s so homely and welcoming with special paintings on the walls and lots of interesting books to read as you sit in the window seat at peace with the world.
Winter rates from £425 for a week. Short breaks available during off peak season. See www.stivesholidaycottage.com or email Porthiacottage@yahoo.co.uk
As I was Going to St Ives
The Trundler may well end up in St Ives, in a cosy flat overlooking the sea, popping out for a pasty or perhaps to the Porthminster Beach Café, to remember when she first fell in love with this special seaside town.
Photographs by Jane Johnson
In fond memory of my dear friend Joan Swift who lived in Hayle and who loved the Porthminster Beach Café. I miss her a lot and I will always remember her when I visit St Ives as she was an important part of going there – fun, kind and inspiring.