When I was a little girl, my mother asked me where I envisaged living when I was grown-up. Straight away I said ‘a fishing village by the sea’, as if there were a great demand for the same inland. I don’t remember where it came from; what image had so influenced my young mind. Perhaps I had just finished reading Enid Blyton’s The Island of Adventure and was dreaming of rocky coves. And true, my early years had been spent by the sea in Northern Ireland, but this was an altogether different place in my mind’s eye. So clear was the image that I promptly scurried off to sketch the cobbled streets, picturesque harbour and cottages raised above fish cellars. I saw myself sitting on granite steps leading up to a stable door, perhaps with a few pots of geraniums for company.
So no wonder when I first came to St Ives, it felt like coming home. I’ve been here so many times since now, that I can hardly see it to write with fresh eyes…yet there is much to say.
So what can I say about St Ives that has not been said elsewhere before? What’s left to say about the art, the surf culture and the gourmet restaurants? I could talk about the beaches…five, yes five in the town alone, never mind the nearby beauty of Carbis Bay, Porth Kidney Sands and beyond the Hayle estuary the long stretch of towans to Gwithian and Godrevy. Arriving by train to St Ives your first impression will be the sweeping panorama of Porthminster Beach. To me, Porthminster embodies the spirit of the 1930s and the dash to the Cornish Riviera; the freedom of the railways; beach huts for changing and traditional B & B’s. But move a little closer into town and the Harbour beach, thronging with tourists in the summer months, is nevertheless a working harbour, with small fishing boats still operating alongside the tourist boat trips to ‘Seal island’(actually part of group of tiny islands off the coast called ‘The Carracks’ or literally, ‘The rocks’). Don’t be fooled by this innocent-sounding excursion; I don’t mind admitting my mettle was challenged by my first trip. A salty-old seadog, skipper of the tiny fishing boat we had recklessly boarded to ‘go and see the seals’ gave no warning other than a gruff and muffled ‘might be a bit rocky out in the bay’ as we turned, too late, out of the safe harbour waters and into the heaving swell of the North Atlantic Ocean…
The trip takes you out of your seagull-cushioned comfort zone into wild nature itself; nothing but the sea and the impenetrable granite landscape. But first, leaving St Ives, it passes Porthgwidden, a small sandy cove which offers shallow bathing and so is popular with families with young children, and my personal favourite, the beautiful surfing beach, the mighty Porthmeor, overlooked by the Tate St Ives. And the fifth beach? It might be easy to miss the granite steps that lead down to small rocky Bamaluz, a place to escape the crowds and walk the dog. You can find it near the St Ives Museum. An old galleon compared to the Tate’s commanding great white ocean liner; the St Ives Museum is a treasure trove in respect of the town’s history. It is here that you get a real sense of the hardship endured, of a small town trying to eek a living from the land and sea, from farming, fishing and mining. And, especially on a day when the wind and rain lash outside and the sea is wild and raging, a real sense of the danger, and the lives lost in countless shipwrecks around the coast; and the bravery of the earliest lifeboat-men, and indeed all the townspeople, who would rally to help those in peril of shipwreck. It is these thoughts that dominate when bouncing around, in insignificance, on that tiny fishing boat. There was a time when, back-packing around the Greek islands I would have sat on the bow of such a small boat, shrieking with carefree laughter as my bare legs were plunged into the water. Here, on the Atlantic, many years later, I am afraid. Perhaps it is the passing of time: I no longer have my whole life stretching before me, with the confidence and surety that brings. But it is also a respectful awareness of the ghosts of the lives lost in these waters.
Alfred Wallis: The Wreck of the Alba. The ship’s boiler, easily mistaken for black rock, can still be seen at low tide on Porthmeor beach.
It is easy to dismiss St Ives as a ‘tourist town’, and it is, of course: apart from the many who rent holiday homes, it attracts masses of day-trippers. A friend of mine told me that apart from his own family and an elderly lady, every other house in his Downalong (the old fishing quarters) street is a holiday rental. My friend was born in St Ives and has a family history, a heritage, here. But for many young people of the town it is increasingly difficult to be able to afford to stay, with house prices being so escalated by the demand for quaint, refurbished lettings. I could argue that it is equally hard in London (it is), but many young people in St Ives work two, sometimes three jobs in the summer months just to get by. And I cannot help but feel dismay to notice certain outlets, once intrinsic to the town’s flavour, being driven out by high rents. Where once it might have been enough to stay in a characterful but basic fisherman’s cottage, I now see the word ‘boutique’ everywhere, and with rumours (I saw the plans on twitter) of some ‘executive beach huts’ being built on Porthmeor, there is some danger of St Ives smothering it’s heritage and becoming a theme park; an elitist caricature of the hardened fishing and mining village it once was; to lose the memory of a time when sea views did not come at a premium, but rather cottages were built huddled in clusters with their backs to the ocean as if for protection. The sea was a livelihood, but to be respected and feared.
Except… it isn’t. Not yet. Despite the economical inevitability of tourism, St Ives still has a vibrant local community, which thrives not only in the arts, theatre, surfing and much more. There is a sense of freedom and an innate connection with nature and the sea; I love to see the town’s children effortlessly back-flip off the pier at high tide, or a teenager skateboard rebelliously the wrong way down the one-way system, dodging holiday traffic, with an umbrella in the rain. There is a forward thinking buzz that extends to the towns forty or so independent restaurants which on the whole (and notwithstanding the arrival of a renowned pizza chain and a Tescos in recent years) source local produce, thus supporting ethical aims and putting money back into the local economy.
But more than that, there is still something special about St Ives. Like an unexpected kiss on the cheek, or a happy, stoked smile from a stranger. Just the sight of sand blowing across the cobbles on a sunny evening when you return, exhausted and ravenous from a day in the ocean or walking the coast path, or of wetsuits hanging in the street where once would have been laundry or sails. Or maybe sitting by the Arts Club in the dead of night with the black sea crashing up over the harbour wall, there is still something residual; a character that resonates through the years and the gentrification.
I love Porthmeor beach. The first time I saw it I knew I would be back. It is especially beautiful in the early morning or in the evening, when the summer crowds have gone home for tea and to tuck the children up for the night in their Cath Kidston-covered duvets. Given that it is just a short distance away from the evening revelers at the 13th Century Sloop Inn and the harbor restaurants, it can be a surprisingly quiet place for an evening stroll; to watch the sunset surfers, or when the sun sets spectacularly over Man’s Head, to star watch.
The St Ives School of Painting backs onto Porthmeor Beach, and is currently undergoing a sensitive restoration. It is a remarkable and unique building that brings together two elements most associated with St Ives’ Culture: fishing and art. This type of building, fisherman’s cellars and sail lofts, once ran the length of the beach, so it is lucky to have survived not being turned into holiday apartments. The evolution into a shared existence with artist studios assuredly helped. As darkness falls I look jealously at the glowing embers of light from within… to have a studio here would be a dream come true. Ah, but I might only ever be able to paint the view…