Ian McMillan visits St Ives and finds it lives up to its reputation as both a seaside gem and an inspiration for artists.
My brother will talk about St Ives in Cornwall at any opportunity; I’ll comment about how good the weather is in South Yorkshire and he’ll glance out of the window and say “Yep, but I bet it’s lovely in St. Ives.” I’ll try and change the subject by talking about a pie I ate the night before, but he’ll wipe imaginary crumbs from his chin and wax lyrical about the pasty he had last time he went to St Ives, about how he munched it in the early evening sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour as the seagulls cried and the sun went down like a blood orange as drawn by a child.
He doesn’t often wax that lyrical, to be honest, so I decided to give St Ives a try and find out what all the pasty-based and sunset-coloured fuss was all about. And I’m pleased to report that it is a quite amazing place and I wish I’d found about it before. The first thing to note about it, though, is that it’s a long way away from here. Us Northerners get to Bristol and think we’re nearly there but in fact we’re only halfway, in the same way that people from Essex think they’re almost in Doncaster when they pass Peterborough. It’s right at the end of England, in a place where they display their black-and-white Kernow flags with pride and, in a pub I went to in nearby Perranporth, they’ve got dual-language signs. Barnsley it isn’t.
I stayed in the Treganna Castle hotel, an imposing pile that became a Great Western Railways hotel in 1877 and is now a multi-purpose resort. It’s a reminder that St Ives, like lots of places, owes at least part of its continued prosperity to tourism, stretching back years. The station is still there, still busy as the little shuttle train scuttles back and forth from St Erth on the main line, disgorging familes and art lovers in equal measure. Because in the end that’s what St Ives is, in the popular imagination: a place to take the kids (that’s why my brother goes, with his children and now his grandchildren) and a place to look at art and be an artist.
I wandered through the grounds of the Treganna Castle, which really does seem to cater for all tastes, as a group of golfers disembarked from a couple of cars and a minibus full of wedding guests made sure their frocks and suits weren’t getting creased as they passed them to each other in a human chain. There’s a little snicket down a steep path that more or less takes you to the Central Business District of St. Ives, which is a boon. In town, I had my hair cut, something I always try to do in a new place: it gives me a sense of what the area is like, of the prices people pay, of the relative prosperity or lack of it. I paid nine quid for a trim, which is more than Darfield but less than York, and the barber was playing BBC6 Music, which is always a bonus.
I reckon nothing, not even a good haircut, can prepare you for the beauty of St Ives’s gorgeous harbour; it reminds me a little of Whitby or of some of those Northumbrian coastal villages like Seahouses, but on a tinier scale. It feels, even as you’re walking towards the sands, that you’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The sand, on the morning that I was there, was the kind of yellow that paint manufacturers might call St Ives Yellow, and the bobbing boats just cried out for me to whip out an easel and paint them. And the light really is astonishing.
People talk about the light in St Ives all the time and the cynic in me was prepared for it not be as good as they said but it is, it really is. It’s got something to do with the meeting of the sea and the sky, and the way the sun strikes the buildings, and the tightness of the landscape, holding the harbour as though it’s holding something precious in its hand. I’ve also got a theory about the juxtaposition of the glow from seagull wings and the sheen of pasty crumbs but I don’t really think that thesis would hold water.
The light, of course, is what makes St Ives so attractive to artists, from the so-called Primitive painter and St. Ives fisherman Alfred Wallis who died 70 years ago this year, to well-known figures like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, as well as the hundreds of aspiring artists whose work crowds the galleries that pop up in every narrow street, every waterside location.
They’re all well worth visiting but it’s good to go to the St Ives Society of Artists overlooking the harbour to see what the locals are up to, and on Westcott Quay you’ll hear comforting Yorkshire tones: the proprietors, David Durham and Dee Bray, used to run a gallery in York and their Porthminster Gallery is friendly and welcoming and housed in a building that used to receive pilchards direct from the sea. While you’re there, of course, you must go round the other side of the harbour to the fantastic Tate St. Ives.
Back at the Treganna Castle, the wedding party are on the slow, smoochy numbers and I’m tempted to join them, pretend I’m somebody’s long-lost uncle, the one who ran away to be an artist. That’s how St Ives makes you feel, that anyone can paint, that anyone can be part of the lifestyle round here. I know just what my brother’s been on about now, and I know I’ll be back. With a canvas and some paints, probably.
Treganna Castle 01736 795254 www.treganna-castle.co.uk
Tate St. Ives 01736 796226 www.tate.org/stives
St Ives Society of Artists 01736 795582 www.stisa.co.uk
Porthminster Gallery 01736 793978 www.porthminstergallery.co.uk