St Ives provides a great escape from London
SPRING colours glowed: robin’s-egg blues, daffodil yellows and succulent greens balanced by far-off reflections from the sand and surf.
Whenever I stopped for directions on the road leading out of St Ives, about 5 1/2 hours from London, another broad Cornish accent encouraged me to continue farther up the hill, until I finally reached the gates of the Leach Pottery, the historic ceramics studio founded there in 1920.
Even in the old workshop, similar colours seemed to repeat through the dim light. In the same shade of green as the town’s billowy palms, a hand-lettered plaque, partly hidden among the potter’s wheels and tools, stated just one word, “Tranquility,” as the studio’s lead potter, Jack Doherty, talked about his work.
“The colours are, I hope, about here – the skies and the sea and the granite and the rocks around here,” Doherty said.
Situated in Britain’s remote southwest where the extended finger of Cornwall points out into the Atlantic, St Ives makes a great escape from London, partly for its spectacular seaside setting, partly for its top-shelf artistic attractions, which include a branch of London’s Tate; numerous commercial galleries; the Barbara Hepworth Museum, housed in the former studio of the great British sculptor; and the Leach Pottery, which reopened in 2008 after a 1.7 million pound renovation project.
The train ride from Paddington Station in London offers high-speed panoramas of the open sea, forests and verdant pastures divided by old hedgerows. For my schedule, daylight travel fit best. After an exhilarating but exhausting urban weekend, I was grateful for a seat in the morning train’s quiet car, which seemed to rock away the bigcity bustle and stress with each silently passing kilometre. On one side, coastal scenes flew by; the other window revealed peaceful pastorals and the occasional country estate. By the time our tiny, two-car commuter train – a short connection from the nearby town of St Erth – pulled around the corner of the deep blue bay toward the old stone fishermen’s cottages of St Ives, I was in a Zen-like state unlike anything I could imagine feeling in the capital.
Happily, however, I hadn’t left all the attractions of a big city behind. In London, I hadn’t had time for Tate Britain or Tate Modern, but I managed to take in Simon Fujiwara’s mythopoeic and playfully intertextual solo show, “Since 1982,” at Tate St Ives while just getting my bearings. Although fun, the show could hardly match the museum’s glorious beachside setting, and my eye quickly wandered from the installations to the surfers paddling out into the waves. As one of the most popular surfing destinations in Britain, the town’s Across town – meaning about 10 minutes away by foot – I pondered the arrangement of Barbara Hepworth’s hammers, chisels and files, stacked in her workshop just as she’d left them, along with large blocks of rocks that waited patiently for the sculptures inside them to be set free. Although most visitors might come to St Ives for its art and setting, the mix of l o c a l s , surfers and gallery types has also inspired a surprisingly vibrant culinary scene.
“When I moved to St. Ives 20 years ago, we had one good restaurant,” said Ylenia Haase, an owner of the New Craftsman gallery, who offered a few tips when I stopped in to admire a remarkable “moon jar” vase by Adam Buick. “Now we’ve got loads of good places to eat.” Echoing London’s fervour for highe n d hamburgers, my first culinary crush took place at Blas Burgerworks, a moody harborside shack with communal tables, a limited menu and a name that comes from the Cornish word for “taste” or “relish.” I initially balked at the daily special, if only for the price: a mushroom cheeseburger for £10.50 pounds, not including fries. The burger itself, a masterpiece of ground round, combining the smoky and earthy flavours of meat and cheese with a full palette of contrasting textures: fluffy bun, juicy mushrooms, tender beef and crunchy lettuce. The cheese was Cornish Blue, cheese voted the best cheese in the world a couple of years ago.” Switching to more sophisticated cuisine at a restaurant called the Black Rock the next night, I fell in love with a starter of small, almost fruity mussels from the nearby River Fal, served in a sour, sweet and salty broth of chorizo, lemon and cilantro, which brought out the semisweet and mineral flavours.
The combination was so rich and fulfilling that I had trouble finishing my outstanding main course. A strong sense of place arrived at almost every meal.
Still, the greatest thrill was the chance to meet local characters and overindulge in art and architecture, whether wandering the town’s narrow, maze-like lanes around the wharf, cruising through galleries and museums or ducking into the many wormhole- like passages between cottages.
On the waterfront, I stepped into an old stone building, Porthminster Gallery at Westcott’s Quay, with remarkably low ceilings, a palpable dampness and an almost disconcerting amount of recognisable images.
The charmingly deconstructed ceramic pots by Carina Ciscato I had seen on a magazine cover, while an etching on the next wall bore the name of Ben Nicholson, who’d been married to Barbara Hepworth. An abstract piece came from Patrick Heron, whose painting of T S Eliot hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Such heavyweight names, in such a musty, chilly space? “This is actually an old pilchard warehouse,” explained one of the gallery owners, David Durham, referring to the tiny, sardine-like fish that, along with mining, had sustained the town’s economy for centuries. “Which is why it’s so cold in here.” St Ives can still feel remarkably approachable. Stopping in shortly before catching my train back, I was surprised by the variety on display at the Wills Lane Gallery, as the gallery’s curator, Petronilla Silver, pointed out a few of her favourites, the topic moved from paintings to prints, from milled aluminum bowls by Drummond Masterton (7,840 pounds) to elegant ceramic beakers by Mick Arnold (15 pounds).
Like the town’s blend of ancient pubs and haute cuisine, beach bums and gallerists, the contrast was stark but welcoming.
“I might get someone who has never been in a gallery before and I might get the director of Tate London,” said Silver. “That’s the thing about St Ives – you have this mix of people.”