Much of England is ‘pretty’ in a quaint kind of way. It has also been known to be foggy, rainy, even ugly, especially during the days of coal fires, which shrouded most of London in a mantle of smog. The odour has never fully dissipated, or perhaps it has simply been absorbed into the generalized aroma of age and train engines, so characteristic of the place. In a word, the seat of the Empire looks, feels, and smells… well, old.
The Cornish people, descendants of an ancient clan of Celts, would deny their place in that Empire, being hoarier than the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. Through some incongruity in the clockwork of history, they’ve managed to preserve much of their Brythonic language and customs. More to the point, however, they’ve retained their edge: Cornwall is equally lovely and rugged, charming and fearsome.
Beyond the rambling fields, rough moors, and ragged cliffs, the land tapers off into sand and sunlight. The seaside town of St. Ives is its crown sapphire, sensibly set between a protective headland and a sweep of golden beaches. For much of the past, the village was isolated, accessed mainly by sea. Legends dating to the 5th century tell of the young Saint Ia (from whom St. Ives gets its name), who came across the ocean from Ireland in a leaf to become the patroness of the small community. She is commemorated by a statue created by figurative sculptor Faust Lang (1887-1973) carved from driftwood.
My life is like a stroll upon the beach,
as near the ocean’s edge as I can go.
– Henry David Thoreau
Like the palm trees that thrive in the temperate climate, St. Ives’ traditions and festivals are remarkable. During the Midsummer Eve Bonfire, a Lady of the Flowers casts herbs into a blaze on a hilltop. The Hurling of the Silver Ball on Feast Monday is something like an undisciplined rugby match. Guising (dressing up in costumes) has young people running in the streets on more than one occasion, during the summer and around the New Year. Fair Mo, held just before Christmas, celebrates the keeping of pigs. And model boat sailing on Consols Pool maintains the ancient custom of launching miniature ships to placate the gods of the storm.
With the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1877 and the advent of broad gauge trains, St. Ives opened up to the outside world and rapidly became a popular holiday resort. It is not uncommon to see hordes of schoolchildren travelling south to St. Erth and transferring to the St. Ives Bay Line. The last stretch of the journey is especially magnificent as the train rounds the curvature of the coast with spectacular views of the cliffs and ocean in all directions.
On land, a footpath follows the same route, so if you feel like you’ve not had time to take it all in, this is your second chance. It begins at the train station, becoming a narrow lane from the Warren to Westcott’s Quay. Drenched in the scent of tropical gardens and sea air, the trail is sheltered by a canopy of green – just enough to cool your brow and guard your eyes from the glare of the sun on the waves.
As for the beaches down below, they live up to their reputation, although if you are seeking the wild vistas associated with much of the British and Scottish coastline, this may not be your first choice. St. Ives assembles ocean lovers in droves, along with all their paraphernalia: bikinis, buckets, and beach chairs. It also retains the Victorian provision of changing cabins, lined up in neat, well-maintained rows.
A day at the beach isn’t complete without a taste of Cornish ice cream made from clotted cream. The distinctive dark yellow colour and flavour is unforgettable, especially if accompanied by the traditional 99 Flake chocolate stick. If you’re too peckish for sweets, you might prefer a pasty from S.H. Ferrell & Son, or some fish and chips, washed down with a glass of ale from a local pub.
Much of St. Ives reputation is derived from its status as a haven for artists. The coast is imbued with a special golden light much of the time, readily captured in paintings or photographs. The town is poetry incarnate, with its steep streets, colourful personalities, and stranded boats in the harbour at low tide.
On a striking site overlooking Porthmeor Beach, the Tate St. Ives museum opened in 1993 with the mandate to promote the legacy of the St. Ives Modernists who worked here during the mid 20th century. The international exhibition program sponsors three shows a year of Modern and Contemporary Art. In 2014, a major project began to refurbish and extend the gallery.
On days when the fog rolls in and the beach is more suited to walking than sunbathing, there is much to discover among the narrow streets of St. Ives. It is known for its curiosity, craft, and gift shops. Children will adore this aspect of a town that seems to have been intentionally scaled to them and their imaginations, a fairy tale come to life.
For all its prettiness, however, it cannot be separated from the shadow of Pendennis, an austere headland that marks the watery graves of many a wayward ship. St. Ives served as a fishing and shipping centre for much of its history. During World War II, it attracted intellectuals (St. Ives School of Painting) and hosted military troops, such as the Commando Mountain Training Centre, originally based in the Cairngorms, Scotland.
Loose my bonds –
set me free –
Let me rise from my bed –
Let me go to the sea!
O! The sound of the sea.
– Daphne Du Maurier Enchanted Cornwall