St Ives: the art of the possible

by Paul.Wade

Summer may be over, but St Ives, the resort-cum-art colony on the southwest tip of England, is open for business year-round nowadays. Even in winter, there is a healthy charm about the place.

“That man over there paints some very strange pictures,” my grandfather whispered to me, as we walked down Fore Street. Having a grandpa who lived at the seaside was quite something, especially when the resort was St Ives. As well as having beaches and twisty, cobblestone lanes, French fishermen and pasty shops, the fishing village way out in Cornwall was also exotic. It was an artists’ colony.
Britain’s modernist movement thrived here. Angular paintings and sculptures that pull in crowds to art galleries across the country today were created down in St Ives, at the end of the Great Western Railway line. To my grandfather’s astonishment, artists came to live in the tiny fishermen’s cottages with their low ceilings and narrow stairs: Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth.
Tate effect
Although those artists have died, St Ives’ artistic traditions live on, thanks to Tate St Ives. Open since 1993, this branch of the Tate in London is housed in a stylish curved modern building. In the area called ‘Downalong’ by the locals, it crouches in the hillside, overlooking the surfers, who dot the waves year-round on Porthmeor Beach.
In my grandfather’s day, the gasworks were on this site. Now, the dazzling white galleries show the works of artists who lived, worked and were influenced by St Ives and the rugged Cornish coast. But, as well as the famous names of the so-called St Ives School, we are intrigued by the simple pictures by Alfred Wallis. This former fisherman and scrap dealer was ‘discovered’ in 1928 by Ben Nicholson, who appreciated his work and hailed him as a naïve talent. Wallis’ scenes of old St Ives and its fishing boats may not be technically correct, but certainly give the atmosphere of the 1920s and 30s.
Another must-see is the nearby hideaway that was for 25 years the home, studio and garden of one of Britain’s greatest sculptors. Now the Barbara Hepworth Museum, it provides a ‘behind the scenes’ look at Hepworth; we feel as if she has just popped out and will return at any moment. There are paintings, drawings and tools in the studio, while out in the tiny palm-tree-studded garden, the stone and bronze sculptures almost seem to have grown out of the ground.
Locals talk about the ‘Tate effect’. Once the museum opened, it turned St Ives into a cool place to go for the weekend, to walk the beaches, to look at art and to eat at lively, small restaurants. Nowhere typifies this hip, new St Ives better than the white-painted Porthminster Café that sits right on Porthminster Beach
Out on the terrace, tables sprout sandbuckets, each with a little plastic windmill whirring away in the breeze off the sea. As for the menu, think home-baked breads, Cornish crab, Helford River oysters and grilled local scallops served with chorizo, kombu and wasabi mayonnaise. Sitting back with a coffee and looking across the blue-green water, we decide that this is the perfect marriage: great food and a great view.   
Out and about
As for getting out and about, we head to The Island (actually joined to the mainland), with its tiny coastguard station and chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, patron saint of fishermen. We also take the train. Not back to London, but just two stops along the branch line to Lelant, where we hop off and look at the ancient Cornish crosses at St Uny church. Then we follow the South West Coast Path back to St Ives, keeping Carbis Bay on our right, saying ‘hello’ to locals walking their dogs and breathing in the invigorating sea breeze.  
Once back in town, I decide that much remains of the old days. My grandfather would still recognise the crooked lanes with their eye-catching names: Barnoon Hill, Salubrious Place and The Digey. And families still traipse off to the beach, laden with buckets, spades and shrimping nets. What has changed is the eating. The new generation of restaurants and cafés put an emphasis on local produce, from seafood to new potatoes. My grandfather would have enjoyed that. He never was a fan of pasties.


Where to stay

Blue Hayes: spectacular views over the bay from this stylish five-suite hotel that reflects the new St Ives.
Primrose Valley Hotel: a 10-room hotel just above Porthminster Beach and a few steps from the centre of town.

Where to eat

Alba Restaurant: modern cooking in the Old Lifeboat House: Fillet of Sea Trout with Cornish new potatoes, cucumber and dill salad,or Confit Duck leg, with tomatoey cassoulet of haricot beans and chorizo.
Porthminster Café: stop for morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner; Mediterranean and Asian dishes. What could be finer than local mussels followed by a Porthminster Monkfish Curry: Prawns, mussels, coconut, tamarind, turmeric and jasmine rice. Right on Porthminster Beach.
Seafood Café: the idea is simple – choose your fish, seafood, meat or chicken, then decide how it should be cooked.


Buy the Art Pass for 7 days unlimited access to Tate St Ives, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Leach Pottery and Penlee House Gallery & Museum.


Travel-mad ever since exploring Europe by train as a child. Has lived in the USA and Spain, as well as the UK. Speaks Spanish, French, some German, and good at waving arms enthusiastically. Reckons that local dishes and drinks are the best way to understand a country. Award-winning writer for national newspapers, magazines, as well as author/editor of some 30 books. Favourite places are in specialist areas such as New England, Canada, Austria, France and Italy: a Vermont village, eating lobster in New Brunswick, walking in vineyards in Styria, cycling along the Loire Valley, eating lunch on a terrace in Capri.