With its sandy beaches, mild climate, sea views and captivating light, the West Cornwall fishing town of St Ives has drawn in travellers in search of peace and renewal since the railway first came to town in 1877. For 100 years it has also been a magnet for artists: Bernard Leach, ‘the father of British studio pottery’, and Shoji Hamada established the Leach Pottery here in 1920, and Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson settled here at the outbreak of the Second World War. Through the 1950s and 1960s, St Ives was a centre for abstract British art. Today, it continues to support a thriving artistic community and is home to the recently revamped and expanded Tate St Ives. Avoid the pitfalls of bringing a car and arrive instead as those first holiday-makers did – by train. All the main lines come into St Erth where you change for the 20-minute branch line journey along cliffs and through dunes, with spectacular views of the sea. It is one of the prettiest train rides in the country and will deposit you at the station at the top of town, rested and raring to go.
What to do:
Day 1: the museums and old town
10:00: Start at the harbour
Begin your day with a leisurely morning stroll around the harbour and shore to get your bearings. There are four lovely beaches encircling the town: Porthminster, the closest to the train station; Harbour Beach, with its fishing boats and lifeboat launch; the small, family-friendly Porthgwidden and west-facing Porthmeor, favoured by surfers. From Smeaton’s Pier, you can watch the fishing boats come in with their morning catch, often followed by a nosy seal or two. Seals and dolphins can be seen in the bay all year round and there are boat trips from the harbour to Seal Island, just a few miles out, where you can watch the residents basking on the rocks.
11:00: Soak up the culture
A hop and a skip behind the lifeboat station you’ll find Trewyn Studio, on Barnoon Hill, home to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden where the artist lived and worked from 1949 until her death in 1975. Preserved much as it was when she lived here, it is a fascinating and atmospheric place to visit and holds the largest collection of her work on permanent display.
12:00: An artistic lunch
A five-minute walk away is Tate St Ives. Winner of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2018, the newly expanded gallery showcases the work of 20th century artists connected with St Ives, including Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Patrick Heron, along with temporary exhibitions. The exhibits are enhanced by breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean seen through the gallery windows. Make the most of the views by stopping for a spot of lunch at the rooftop cafe.
14:00: Down to Downlong
After your morning’s dose of culture, spend an hour or two moseying around the pretty cobbled streets and fishermen’s cottages of the ‘Downlong’ area, just behind Harbour Beach. Starting on Fore Street and spreading away from the sea, the area is packed with shops, boutiques, craft galleries and rest stops, offering all manner of tempting treats. For traditional Italian hot chocolate, try The Pier Coffee Bar on Quay Street, while the Cornish Deli has a good choice of sandwiches, local cheeses and home-cured meats. If you want to escape the crowds, head over to Olive’s in Island Square, for a delicious Cornish cream tea. Revived by your scone and ready to work off that clotted cream, take a brisk stroll up the hill to the Leach Pottery, at Higher Stennack. It’s a half-hour walk from the harbour (you can also get a bus or cab there) and the views are fabulous. A place of pilgrimage for ceramics lovers, Leach’s studio was established almost 100 years ago and is still a working pottery. As well as the original kiln and studio, there are exhibitions, pottery demos and workshops, and a well-stocked shop.
20:00: Head for the beach
Daylight stretches well into the evening at this time of year, so make the most of the long days and head to Porthmeor Beach for a sundowner. Here, you’ll find the Porthmeor Beach Cafe, where you can dine on tapas and seafood or sip a cocktail while watching the sun set over the sea.
Day 2: West Cornwall tour and the coastal path
10:00: Catch the bus
Spend your second day exploring the fantastic coastal scenery of this part of western Cornwall. The South West Coast Path covers 630 miles of walkable coastline and the stretches around St Ives are some of the most stunning. As you don’t have time to walk all the way to Land’s End, combine a shorter walk with a ride on the open-top bus, run by Kernow. From St Ives, the service heads south along the coast through Zennor, Gurnard’s Head, St Just and Sennen before reaching Land’s End. You can then return by the same route, or hop on another bus down to Porthcurno, home to the famous open-air Minack Theatre, and back round to St Ives. As this is a jump-on, jump-off service, you can spend as much time as you like at the various stop-offs. For a spot of antiques shopping, head to Chapel Street in Penzance, home to the likes of Daphne’s Antiques, Steckfensters and Chapel Street Arcade, among others.
13:00: Overlooking the sea
Whatever your route, be sure to factor in lunch overlooking the sea. Cheese on Coast in St Ives, will rustle up a cheeseboard or picnic to take away, or for something a bit more substantial, The Gurnard’s Head does great pub lunches and is on the coastal path. From nearby Zennor, (one stop up from Gurnard’s Head on the return leg of the bus route) you can take a bracing four-hour walk along a spectacular rugged stretch of the coastal path back to St Ives. Once there, call into the SILCo. Searoom Gastrobar for a well-earned St Ives Gin and tonic before heading home.
Where to stay:
Two nights for two people in a double room at this luxury spa hotel overlooking Porthminster Beach costs from £499.50.
Flat 3 ££
The Custom House, Skidden Hill, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 2DU
Two bed self-catering apartment with sea views in the centre of St Ives, £650 per week in summer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Camping and caravan park by Porthmeor Beach. Tent pitches are priced from £44 per night (two adults), but get booked up to a year in advance.