Harbour

What gives St Ives its sparkle

"This old fishing port is traduced lately because it has gone in more for pictures than pilchards, and for tourists instead of tin. Yet, he who breasts the hill on the road from Hayle after the sprawling villadom of Carbis Bay, passing the landward leaning woods at Tregenna Castle – he who passes these things and gazes down on the huddled town on its promontory below him, can hardly restrain a gasp of admiration." John Betjeman, in Cornwall: A Shell Guide, 1964.

So what is it about St Ives?

Key Points

St Ives has the studio of
'Father of British Studio Pottery'
Bernard Leach

  • Tate St Ives has hundreds of paintings form countless artists.
  • I breathe in the salt air and am greeted by the delicious smell of freshly cooked fish.
  • 2,000 hours of sunshine a year

Yet, he who breasts the hill on the road from Hayle after the sprawling villadom of Carbis Bay, passing the landward leaning woods at Tregenna Castle – he who passes these things and gazes down on the huddled town on its promontory below him, can hardly restrain a gasp of admiration." John Betjeman, in Cornwall: A Shell Guide, 1964.

John Betjeman, poet and long-time lover of Cornwall, had a good point. St Ives, once known for its fishing and tin, went on to become a hotbed of artistic talent and a magnet for tourists. While some of the locals may have preferred to keep out of the limelight, St Ives' irresistible pull meant it was always destined to take its place on the word stage. "For a few dazzling years this place was as famous as Paris, as exciting as New York and infinitely more progressive than London," says art buff James Fox, who has credited St Ives' artists with producing some of "the most exhilarating art of the twentieth century".

Now if Cornwall were to elect a cultural capital of art, it'd be a hard fought battle between St Ives and Falmouth to lay claim to the crown. Falmouth has a world-class arts university to its name, while St Ives has the studio of 'Father of British Studio Pottery' Bernard Leach, gardens dedicated to pioneering sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the St Ives Artists' Colony, not to mention the Tate Gallery St Ives, up its sleeve.

Heading up onto the island, the spit of land that juts out into the sea at St Ives' northern tip, I look inland to where The Tinners Way still runs along the spine of high ground between St Just and St Ives. The 18-mile path would have been trudged by miners' boots and carts laden with tin destined for St Ives – then one of Cornwall's most important ports – where it was loaded onto ships, a glittering cargo sailing for foreign lands. Any tinner would have told you it was tin that gave St Ives its glitter.

The good news is that the two are under an hour's drive apart, so you can visit both and make up your own mind who the Cornish crown of art belongs to.

I walk back inland, to the gleaming white contours of the Tate St Ives where hundreds of paintings are testament to the countless artists who have attempted to capture St Ives' spark on canvas. Many would agree that it is the captivating dance of light and sea that gives St Ives its special aura. Outside, in the waves at Porthmeor beach, the surfers will tell you it’s the sea, which surrounds St Ives on three sides, that is the key to the town’s magical allure. Hollywood producers and film-makers would agree – the St Ives coast has a knack for mimicking the clear, sparkling waters of the Caribbean that keeps them coming back year after year.

St Ives deckchairs

As I wend my way along the uneven cobbled streets, the sparkle of bijou jewels in backstreet boutiques catches the eye of the shoppers. I emerge on to Porthminster beach and pick my way through the sun-worshippers, their tanned brown bodies stretched out on half a mile of sand – perhaps it’s the 2,000 hours of sunshine a year that makes St Ives the place to be? Joining the gastronomes on the wooden deck of The Porthminster Beach Cafe, I breathe in the salt air and am greeted by the delicious smell of freshly cooked fish. Crisp silver skins gleam on the plates – maybe it's the pilchards that are St Ives' secret after all?

St Ives harbour boats

As I complete my walk, coming full circle back to the harbour, I sit on the wall and gaze at the dancing light on the water, and I think that maybe some mysteries are better left unsolved. Whatever gives St Ives its sparkle – pilchards, pictures, or something else – it feels good just to bask in its glow.

As Betjeman said back in the 60's, he who gazes the town "can hardly restrain a gasp of admiration".

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