We all know gulls are fond of north London – but nowhere are they as fearless as in St Ives.
On a busy late September Monday lunchtime, as tourists slow-marched along the waterfront, we watched one swoop down to grab a pasty from a woman’s hands. She screamed as the bird dropped the hot snack from the air. And then a dozen more descended, flapping and shrieking, a Hitchcockian scene that swiftly dispersed ice cream-clutching holidaymakers. And this happens so frequently that signs warn visitors to be vigilant of feathered attacks at all times.You can’t blame the gulls for scrounging in this fecund town on Cornwall’s Penwith peninsula. Long both fishing port and artists’ colony, it now screams “foodie” from every artfully distressed restaurant; and windows are crammed with Michelin stickers and Good Food Guide recommendations.
Until last week, I hadn’t stayed in St Ives for fifteen years and so have been itching to go back for a while. It’s something to do with the simple, scenic five hour train ride from Paddington; and stepping out onto golden sands.Our hotel, Headland House, was in Carbis Bay, a half an hour walk (or three minute chug on the local line) along clifftop paths and woods above the turquoise sea. Carbis Bay Hotel itself, which incidentally does a fine crab sandwich, looms visibly over the sands – and, literary fans, was where Virginia Woolf stayed to recover from a breakdown in the 1920s.
But back in the town itself, the nest of pedestrianized streets is easy to navigate, with Fore St the bustling main drag. Plenty of shops to potter about in, too: we liked the Vintage store & coffee room on the waterfront (1 Rose Lodge Studios) and, particularly, Beatengreen (St Andrews St), which is selling some brilliant works inspired by naive St Ives painter Alfred Wallis.
As a peninsula, there are three good beaches: Porthmeor is the surfers’ choice, all crashing waves and energy, with tapas bar, on-trend West Beach Bakery and the Tate Gallery; on the other side is Porthminster, a sleepy cove with lush foliage and golden sand; while Porthgwidden, the smallest, lies at the foot of what locals call the Island, a mound capped by the ancient chapel of St Nicholas. In the 1940s and 50s, when local parents rented out rooms in holiday season, teenagers would have to camp on its lower meadows. Which, of course, underlines just what a hot ticket this resort has always been.
An understandable mistake would be to assume that St Ives trades on its legacy as 20th century artistic haunt; but there really are galleries and studios dotted everywhere. Aside from the Tate (on our visit showing Marlow Moss, a Mondrian pupil) with its eye-catching Patrick Heron stained glass window, we loved Barbara Hepworth’s garden, all palm trees and bougainvillea, the wind roaring through the sculptures, the chime of church bells beyond (see main pic).
On the waterfront? The Porthminster gallery is worth swinging by, its Matthew Lanyon show (until 12 Oct) a handy introduction, for the uninitiated, to the abstract St Ives scene.But the heart of the artists’ quarter? Back Road. Our visit coincided with the September arts festival and there were open studios in every nook. A must is the Penwith Society Of Artists, an atmospheric gallery started by Hepworth and Nicolson, who in 1949 broke away from the St Ives Society of Artists, itself worth a snoop, in the Mariners’ Church.
Finally, the Millennium gallery on Street and New Craftsman on Fore Street are both interesting, but our favourites? Near the Hepworth garden is the very stylish Plumbline and Orchard, showing some haunting oils by Danny Fox; and just a minute’s walk away is Wills Lane Gallery, with impressive (and pricey) etchings by Stephen Chambers.
Too much choice: from posh fish and chips (Seafood Cafe, 45-47 Fore St) to hipster burger bars (Burger Works, The Warren), plus smart restaurants with standard £16.95 two course lunch and early evening deals (the Alba and Loft were both recommended locally). Then there are the many caffs, ice cream parlours and old-school fish shops. But here are a few we rate:
Alfresco, Wharf Rd. It’s right on the harbourside, yet easy to march straight past, with its underwhelming name and rather dated 80s interior. Our advice? Don’t. A starter of sticky pork belly – slow-cooked for 24 hours – with carrot and ginger remoulade, coconut and coriander, was beautiful to look at, and melting in sweet-spicy flavours. Mains of fish and chips (see right) were even better, the cod cooked to opaque perfection, pea purée smooth, with blobs of tasty tartare and cubed parmentier potatoes. Desserts – salted caramel ice cream, arctic roll with strawberry sorbet – were flawless. Service is chatty. £16.95 for two courses.
Porthminster Beach Cafe. Long regarded as the town’s premier dining option, it’s certainly one many visitors will book in advance. As we did; except on arrival the front-of-house insisted quite forcefully that there was no reservation. Mix-up unacknowledged, we were finally seated on the charming terrace, open to the elements and with romantic views over to the harbour.The food? Good, if not cheap: scallops arrived pillowy with apple, sorrels and cauliflower puree, bacon dust adding a needed bite. Crispy spicy squid was outstanding, dunked in a citrusy miso. And pollock – a tough fish to make interesting – came pimped up with lobster, fennel, white tomato velouté and a delicate lobster mash. Starters around £9, mains from £15.
Porthmeor Beach Cafe.Sunset-facing, this laidback cafe, bar and tapas joint is the place to be seen by a younger crowd in the evening. We sat on the terrace and shared an attractive selection of plates as the sky turned blood-red over the rocks. Some highlights? Meltingly-soft Octopus and chorizo, pale pink seared tuna with shallots and tomato salsa, chicken breast with ponzu, halloumi with fennel and roasted peppers. Tapas £3-£10.The Black Rock, Marketplace.
An easel’s hurl from some of the best commercial galleries in town, this brasserie is like a cross between an upscale museum cafe and Manhattan neighbourhood eatery, art adorning its dark walls. The ubiquitous two-course £16.95 menu can be found here too, although we opted for a la carte and some delicate smoked salmon, an earthy beetroot and local feta salad, and pink rump steak with green beans and meaty peppercorn sauce. Mains from £15.
The Sloop Inn has been around since the 14th century and is right on the water; its “upper deck” bar is good for a sunny evening aperitif, too. We also loved the Hub (Wharf Road), with its serious cocktails, Cornish craft beer and industrial interior. Perfect if you’re missing London – which you won’t be.
AccommodationWe stayed in Carbis Bay at Headland House, a small hotel and member of the prestigious Mr & Mrs Smith group. An Edwardian pile with views over the golden sands, inside it’s cosy and candle-lit: stripped floorboards, honesty bar, shelves of books and style magazines cram the “snug”.
Bedrooms are quite luxe and comfortable; nice little details too, like a small bottle of prosecco on arrival and, when we had to get an early return train, smoked salmon bagels and juices in paper bags hanging on the door handle outside.
Speaking of which, breakfast is a hearty mix of continental and cooked-to-order served in a conservatory with bay views. An Ibizan-style terrace with rattan furniture might accompany a sunnier evening drink – if you’re lucky. Doubles from £89. More info here or book at Mr & Mrs Smith.
First Great Western trains cost around £100 return booked upfront. The journey takes six hours from Paddington with one change at St Erth.