I’m staying in an artist’s cottage in St Ives, well I’m not actually staying with an artist, you understand, but renting Guillemot cottage (a place that used to belong to a famous artist (Sir) Terry Frost 1915–2003. I very much doubt he lived in such comfort back in his day, though.
Like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Frost came for the ever-changing light, and his abstract use of colour and shape helped start a new art movement in England, the St Ives’ School.
Today I like to think our top-floor attic bedroom might have been his studio; not many bedrooms have four large windows on three sides, plus two skylights and a vaulted ceiling. Up here, just a crab’s throw from the quay, you can feel the area’s energy and how it fired up the artists that assembled here in the 1940s to 1960s. In fact so many came that the railway had to often add an extra carriage for the London to St Ives run.
St Ives Bay
Today St Ives still attracts artists as the light is still remarkable. Cloud and rain constantly alternate with bright blue skies and warm sunshine, especially now as the season gently fades into autumn.
This is the perfect time to take a short break here. The golden sands of the beaches are now empty of sunbathers, the tiny lanes of the Downlong where the ancient cottages like ours huddle together for comfort must look just as they did centuries ago (apart from the occasional wheelie bin), and you can get a seat in most of the restaurants.
Come the evening, and St Ives becomes even more intimate, the pubs cosier and especially welcoming after a short stroll from your cottage with a thirst brought on by the taste of salt spray on your tongue.
Afterwards, a bit late and having met new friends who you’ll probably never see again, it’s good to walk a little unsteadily back to your snug home, the waves crashing invisibly close in the darkness, and the occasional shadow of a late night seagull flitting across the sky.
Around the town
The next morning, waking to clear skies brings on a fierce desire for a big breakfast. You could make your own with some delicious bread from the local shops and ingredients from your welcome hamper, but it’s best to walk around the corner in the other direction from the harbour to a ‘secret’ small beach.
Here you’ll find the Porthgwidden Beach Cafe. Safe inside its glass walls, with a big kipper, landed on your plate, you can marvel at the brave bathers taking their daily dip in the waves just a few metres away. They also do a great lunch here.
St Ives is well worth a wander after. The cobbled streets are home to all kinds of shops, nearly all dog-friendly, some cheerfully twee and classic, others outposts of stylish seaside brands such as Seasalt, Superdry and Crew.
In Johns you’ll find a massive choice of Cornish ales, beers, spirits, mead and wine, while small artists’ studios selling paintings and ceramics are down every alley. Pasties, too, are temptingly everywhere.
A history of fishing and art
Before art and tourism, St Ives became wealthy on pilchard fishing. From around 1750 to around 1880, huge numbers of men, boys and women were employed to catch the fish, process them and send them off in barrels to London, right up until the fish stocks ran out.
You can see marvellous old photo records of the pilchard industry in St Ives, as well as the frightening history of shipwrecks, in the quaintly ramshackle St Ives’ Museum. Or naughtily, you can save a few quid by looking at all the photos in the Union Bar, a great pub that we returned to again and again
There is, of course, the Tate St Ives gallery, which looks majestically out over the bay and features exhibitions of the modern St Ives School of painters, as well as a mix of British and international modern and contemporary art.
Almost next door, The Barbara Hepworth Museum is set in her old home and garden, while the Penwith Gallery and Porthminster Gallery, housed in old pilchard presses, are all well worth a visit. Just outside St Ives is the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens and gallery, but check before visiting though, as the gardens close on high wind days.
Eating out in St Ives
You can take your pick of so many restaurants and bars when arted-out. Porthminster Beach, under the steep slopes of Porthminster Point with its views of St Ives Bay to Godrevy Lighthouse (made famous by Virginia Wolff), is tops for seafood with an Asian twist.
Tucked away down a side lane, The Mermaid Seafood Restaurant is one of the oldest and most romantic St Ives restaurants. Here the Lemon Sole, Seabass and Gurnard platter makes great use of ultra fresh fish, keeping it simple to let the fish shine. Also try Restaurant One Fish Street, located where it says, for finer dining with a price to match.
Out of town London’s Adam Handling’s Ugly Butterfly can be found in the luxury Carbis Bay Estate near to St Ives.
In nearby Una Kitchen, which won Silver in the 2022 Cornwall Tourism Awards and is in the new Una Resort complex, we found less ‘feen deening’ and much better-priced food. Chef Glenn Gatland’s pork belly on celeriac rav and potato and apple puree is a star dish, plus you get a great view out.
If you’re visiting Prussia Cove, Praa Sands, Porthleven or St Michael’s Mount, en route you’ll find the Packet Inn, an old coaching inn now modernised to be a wonderfully atmospheric space serving a range of fantastic ‘small plates’ based on ultra-fresh local produce.
Our smoked lamb shoulder rigatoni, chilli, pangrattato, grana padano was stunning, as was a plate of local charcuterie and a dish of butterflied local sardines with pit-smoked beets and a horseradish creme fraiche.
Days soon become pleasingly repetitious, you feel almost local. St Ives out of season? Picture perfect.
MORE INFO: www.stives-cornwall.co.uk/
GET AROUND: Cars are a tight fit in St Ives, but a Park & Ride system operating during peak months takes advantage of the St Ives branch line railway. Park the car at Lelant Saltings station. In town, there are also five long-stay and three short-stay public car parks which all use a phone and pay code system. Download JustPay.
STAY: Cottage Boutique has a choice of over 60 unique properties in their portfolio, ranging from modern apartments, bijou funky one bed cottages to luxury town houses
- Tate St Ives,
- St Ives Museum
- St Ives School of Painting
- Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden
- The Leach Pottery
- Gwithian Beach popular for surfing.