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Summer in St. Ives, Cornwall

Summer in St. Ives, Cornwall

Seagulls are everywhere, and fearless, in St. Ives

St. Ives' balmy climate makes it the 'Cornish Riviera'
by Jessica Cassirer

[From Fall 2011] The coastal walk (just follow the acorn signs), led past tropical gardens with palm trees, giant fuchsia and Agapanthus, past houses with boats in the driveway, and down a narrow, rocky path to the beach. I slipped off my sandals and sank my toes into squeaky-clean, fine golden sand as I walked to the Atlantic shoreline -nothing but ocean to the horizon and the gulls for company. The turquoise-blue-fading-to-clear-lapis colored water licked around my ankles, teasing me to go further. Walking along the beach at Carbis Bay, under an impossibly blue sky last summer, I could only smile in disbelief that I was still on mainland Britain. Welcome to the Cornish Riviera.

I had escaped from the cold and rain of Scotland, my homeland -so dear to my heart, but its weather, alas, drives a wedge between us. My brother’s farmhouse in Lancashire was no better - non-stop rain for a week, and London was steamy hot and over-crowded. I kept going south. The map said Cornwall was an “area of outstanding natural beauty” and my sights were set on St. Ives, a small fishing town on the north coast, nestled into the Bay of St. Ives and long known as the jewel in Cornwall’s crown.

The Duchy of Cornwall is a unique peninsula of land stretching out like a leg from the southwest corner of Britain, until the foot at the end of the leg terminates at Lands’ End, where it meets the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the rest of Britain, it has a milder climate because of its proximity to the Gulf Stream, and while Scotland shivers and London swelters, most of Cornwall is mild and balmy.
The train journey from London took about eight hours, and everyone had to disembark at the tiny station of St. Erth, where the main line changed to a branch line, (so-called because trees and branches swipe the train as it goes by). It only takes 13 minutes to get from St. Erth to St. Ives, but the view that unfolds is breathtaking. The line sits high above the sweep of Carbis Bay, often called one of the most beautiful bays in the world. St. Ives is unique in having seven bays/beaches within a three-mile radius where the sea is calm, the bathing is safe and all are family friendly. The surf here is gentle enough for kids to boogie board, but thrill seekers head to Lands’ End, some 25 miles west, for wilder Atlantic surf.

The west Cornish coastline can rightly claim to have some of the most beautiful, cleanest beaches in western Europe, earning Blue Flag Awards for their excellence and safety. There is even a tiny bay called Bamaluz where dogs are allowed to play all year round. (For obvious reasons, dogs are not allowed on the other beaches from April to October). I watched some deliriously happy dogs of all stripes, running in and out of the water, playing fetch and rolling in the sand. Actually, their owners were doing pretty much the same thing.

Cornwall has strong Celtic origins and links to Basque, Breton and Welsh culture. It is rich in folklore and legend, with plenty of tales about pirates, smugglers, mermaids and shipwrecks. Who hasn’t heard of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Smuggler’s Inn?” The Cornish have their own flag, (white cross on a black background), and the dialect is unique and utterly incomprehensible to outsiders. It is not unusual to be addressed as “my lovely,” which I found very endearing.

I was lucky to find a small apartment in the old part of St. Ives, near the harbor and next to the old parish church. I didn’t need an alarm clock because the church bell chimed every 15 minutes. Did I say chimed? It was more like Big Ben! Just as well, as I happen to like the sound of church bells and seagulls, because I heard a lot of them during my stay.

It took minutes to walk down to the harbor beach where the fishermen were landing their catch of the day. Men with weathered faces and faded blue overalls were repairing nets, and talking cranky fishermen talk with each other. In days gone by, St. Ives was famous for its pilchards (large sardines), and as the boats came in laden with fish, the women rushed out to help them unload huge catches from the nets, and spread them out on the sand to dry. Apparently, the smell of pilchards drifted far and wide and St. Ives became known for its aroma.

Those days are long gone now, tourism having taken over from a once lucrative fishing industry. Fishermen have turned to other ways of using their boats, by chartering trips to nearby islands to see grey seals, dolphins, porpoises and sometimes, basking sharks. This was funny to me, because at the same time as the fishermen were selling trips to tourists, seals were bobbing up and down in the harbor, as if saying, “I’m here! I’m here! Save your $10!” I watched children catching crabs in rock pools, storing them in buckets, and then taking them out to waggle at curious tourists. The harbor beach marks the center of town and is a favorite spot for sunbathers and those who want to watch the comings and goings of a tidal, working harbor. St. Ives' seagulls have perfected the art of swooping down and snatching food between hand and mouth of some unsuspecting tourist. They started out small with French fries but have now moved on to whole sandwiches! This is hilarious until it’s your sandwich.

Behind the harbor, picturesque stonewashed cottages line the narrow, cobbled streets, many of them now art galleries, studios and craft shops. The quality of the light has attracted artists here for over 200 years and an artists' community was founded in the 1920's. With the arrival of world famous sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her artist husband Ben Nicholson in 1930, the community continued to grow and in 1993, the Tate St. Ives was opened, a branch of the original Tate Gallery in London. Dame Barbara’s former home and studio form the Hepworth Museum, which displays her work in the sculpture garden.
One cannot talk of Cornwall without mentioning Cornish pasties (or tiddy oggies in the vernacular), and Cornish clotted cream and cream teas. In the 19th century, Cornwall was famous for copper and tin mining and to this day, relics of the old mines can still be seen and visited. Wives came up with an ingenious way to keep their men well fed and safe from ingesting poisonous dust on their hands as they ate lunch. They encased meat and vegetables in pastry so that the men could break it open, hold on to the pastry and eat only the uncontaminated filling. Now there is no end to the wonderful fillings, which creative bakers can put in the pasties. The less said about all the cream teas I consumed, the better.

One of the highlights for me was a trip to the Minack Theatre, close to Lands’ End. This is an outdoor theater built into the rocks, overlooking the Atlantic, the idea and dream of a lifetime of one very dedicated woman. The setting was so spectacular that I added it to my list of unforgettable places. I made side trips to Looe, Polperro, Penzance and Lands’ End, and was amazed at the rich agricultural terrain in the interior - lots of fat pigs rooting and truffling in the moist black soil. Beautiful gardens everywhere made it easy to see why St. Ives is a regular winner of the “Britain in Bloom” award. There are museums to see on rainy days, and side trips to be made to the pretty neighboring villages of Lelant, Hayle and Zennor. A window seat at the Porthgwidden Beach Café at sunset is a great place to watch the sun go down over the Godrevy lighthouse.

St. Ives hosts a New Year's Eve street party, the September Arts Festival, and the Food and Drink Festival in May. Could there possibly be a better combination? Just don’t go near the place in August when schools are out!

If You Go
Be sure to visit the Tate St. Ives. For sunset views and drinks, make a stop at the Porthgwidden Beach Cafe. The Minack Theater's summer season runs from May - September.
In 2012, the Food and Drink Festival is scheduled for May 16-22. The September Arts Festival will run from September 8-22.

Photo credit: preview and photo at top, ©Diana Leadbetter,

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