St. Ives is a mecca for modern art lovers and surfers. Not surprisingly, some of the best things to do in St. Ives include browsing its galleries and artists' studios, or riding the waves of one of its many beaches. But even if you're not an art aficionado or water sports fan, it's a charming place to appreciate some Cornish history and sample different views on life.
St. Ives is located in Cornwall in England, which is a region at the westernmost part of Great Britain's South West Peninsula. Perched on the western shores of St. Ives Bay, the town is named for the Irish saint Ia who arrived in the fifth century--on a leaf, no less, according to legend.
I visited St. Ives in September, which is a wonderfully relaxing time to explore this picturesque and historic locale. It gets quite crowded in the summer months by the 'bucket and spade brigade" as the beach-going families are known.
The Lay of the Land
St. Ives is a compact community of about 12,000, built on slopes rising from the picturesque harbor. I stayed at the wonderful 3 Porthminster B&B which is located on the steep hillside on the outskirts of town near the Porthminster Beach. Known as the "Terraces", this area had historically been used for mining. In the mid-19th century, rows of residential townhouses were erected. Standing sentinel over the town, the uniform buildings feature Victorian architectural touches like bay windows, ornate barge-boards, paneled doors, front gardens, boundary walls, and gate posts.
The Warren and Waterfront
It's a six minute walk from 3 Porthminster B & B to the harbor--although it was a little slower going back up for me! Descending through a maze of narrow streets, I reached the waterfront and a street appropriately named "The Warren". Looking up, I admired the magnificent granite facade of St.Ia's church, built from 1410 -1434. To the right is the St Ives War Memorial, which commemorates those from the village lost in battle. This spot marks the beginning of St. Ives' medieval core and its commercial center, the main thoroughfare of which is Fore St., lined with shops, galleries and restaurants.
Running parallel to Fore St and along the waterfront is Wharf Rd., lined with restaurants that offer stunning views of the picturesque harbor. Among those is the Sloop Inn, which dates to circa 1312 and is one of Cornwall's oldest establishments. A favorite of local artists and fishermen, the white-washed granite building has outdoor seating to enjoy a beverage break and soak up the sun.
St. Ives' small port has been the heart of the town since it was first settled in the sixth century. Once an important and hugely productive commercial fishing center; today, tourism is the primary economy of St. Ives. The harbor is located on a sandy beach, one of five in the immediate vicinity. Encircling most of the harbor is Smeaton's Pier built in the 18th century, at the end of which is a small lighthouse. A stroll to its end offers yet another vantage point of this charming historic town.
Sights Along the Harbor
I am at my happiest when I am poking around the side streets of a destination and have no agenda or timetable. One of the best things to do in St. Ives is a meander through the town, seeing all kinds of artistry and historic lore on walls, in windows and everywhere in between!
On a wall off of Smeaton's Pier is a rectangular mosaic of tiles depicting a timeline of milestones in the history of St. Ives. The chronology runs from Princess Ia in the 5th century, to the opening of the Hepworth Museum & Garden in 1976. The tiles were designed by members of the community and made by The Leach Pottery, itself an important element of St. Ives cultural heritage.
Considered one of the great figures of 20th century art, Bernard Leach was born in Hong Kong and spent a significant portion of his life in Japan and China. In 1920, a St. Ives area philanthropist set him up in a studio there with a loan of 2500 pounds and a guaranteed income of 250 pounds for three years. Throughout his long career of making, teaching and lecturing, Leach was acknowledged as a master craftsman. Today, Leach Pottery is run by a Trust and has an active team of potters onsite and a growing programme of courses and activities.
On Smeaton Pier is St Leonard's Chapel, dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen. The date it was built is unknown but there are records of it being repaired in 1577. The small building now houses a collection of model fishing boats and a memorial to local fishermen lost at sea. A plaque on the chapel wall commemorates the 1902 record-breaking voyage of Lloyd SS 5, which traveled six hundred miles home from a herring fishery at Scarborough in 50 hours, an average speed of 12 knots. Luggers were the fishing vessels built-in and operated out of Cornish ports.
The Downalong is an area between the harbor and Porthmeor Beach that is great fun to wander through, with lots of artists studios. Although not much more than a lane, the Digey is the main thoroughfare of the Downalong, and off it radiates other tiny streets. The origin of the name is uncertain but it's believed to come from dye-chy meaning dye house in Cornish, where the boat sails were dyed.
This historic neighborhood is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes packed with closely-built fishermen's homes and buildings that housed commercial fishing enterprises. The architecture is a reflection of the lifestyle: most buildings have "cellars" at ground level that were used to smoke or dry fish to be sold. Other rooms were used to house nets, sails and other fishing-related gear.
The oldest known dwelling is called "the Breton's House" and was built in the early 1500s for the Breton fishermen who fished the waters of St. Ives Bay in the summer. Today, almost all of these are holiday homes with names like Little Breeze, Duck Down, The Flying Pilchard, The Locker, Lobster Pot and Drop Anchor.
St. Ives Museum
One of the best things to do in St. Ives is to learn about its history and heritage. Adjacent to the Downalong is the St. Ives Museum, which is housed in a building where fish were once cured, and offers documentation of the heritage of St. Ives ranging from the maritime and mining industries to a re-created traditional Cornish kitchen. Not far is the Tate St. Ives, a gallery dedicated to the artists affiliated with St. Ives. The gallery, which opened in 1993 and is located on the site of a former gasworks, averages 240,000 visitors per year.
- Opening hours: 10:30am to 4:30pm, Monday through Friday. 10:30am to 3:30pm on Saturday, closed on Sundays
- Admission fees: £3 for adults, and 50p for children
Where to Stay In St. Ives
Here are some highly-rated hotels that cater to all budgets.
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
Fishing villages in Cornwall frequently attract artists, who have an appreciation for the coastal life for different reasons. My initial inspiration for visiting Cornwall was a documentary on the St. Ives School. This 20th-century artist colony blossomed here after WWI, led by abstract painter Ben Nicholson and his then-wife, Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Well before St. Ives became an enclave for international avante garde artists, in the 19th century the village was home to a community of painters that included James Abbott McNeill Whistler and a host of Vistorian era British and American impressionists.
The aesthetic driving the St. Ives School was nature, and the goal was to create sculptures that looked like they had been formed by the elements. It's said that Barbara Hepworth wanted her work to invoke a sense of calm. Perhaps not surprising, given that she was the mother of triplets, fathered by her lover and later husband, artist Ben Nicholson. Two years before they divorced, in 1949, Hepworth bought a property she named Trewyn Studio, where she continued to work until she died there in 1975 at age 72 in a fire. After her death, her family opened Hepworth's workshop and garden to the public. The Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden has been owned by Tate since 1980.
Not an ardent modern art fan myself, I was surprised at how the pieces in the garden resonated with me so much more than those in the gallery. Amidst the greenery and in the St. Ives light, the sculptures seem to have more to say to me.
Opening hours: 10:00am to 5:20pm, everyday
Admission fees: £14.50, or £13.50 for people 60 years of age or older, students over 18, and visitors with disabilities
Watch Surfers at Porthmeor Beach
Porthmeor Beach in St. Ives is home to winds that create a type of wave known as "the boiler". These conditions have made St. Ives an epicenter for surfers around the world and produced many European and British champions. St. Ives Surf School has been teaching surfing since 1997; the staff includes three professional surfers. I was content to live vicariously through those riding the waves with my feet firmly planted in the sand on the shore.
On the east side of Porthmeor Beach is "the Island," which it's not, but it's easy to see why it's called so. Also known as St. Ives Head, the town initially developed around this promontory, which divides the open-water Atlantic-facing Porthmeor Beach from the more protected Porthminster Beach.
Atop the Island is the St Nicholas Chapel, dedicated to the patron saint of sailors--as distinct from the fishermen protected by St. Leonard, but believed to have been built in the same era. The chapel is tiny and homely but the views from the top of the Island are divine!
Catch a Choir Performance
One night in St. Ives I caught a performance by a Cornish men's choir. Traditional male and female voice choirs in Cornwall are a distinct part of Cornish cultural life. In Cornwall, organised choirs originated in the late nineteenth century in male-dominated industries such as metal mining and fishing and as the result of the influence of Cornish Methodism. Most Cornish choirs began in West Cornwall. Today, there are more than thirty male and seventeen women’s choirs in Cornwall in addition to over thirty-seven mixed choirs.
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