Festival season may seem a distant memory as Autumn beckons, but it’s only just finished in the Cornish coastal village of St Ives. The town’s two week September Festival was no Coachella, with balmy evenings and desert sunsets, but it offered such a rich mixture of art, music, literature and poetry, you can’t help but be inspired.
St.Ives has long been a destination for families enjoying bucket and spade action on its five stunning beaches with deckchairs aplenty, but scratch beneath the surface and the town offers so much more, which the festival vibe brings to the forefront. The location itself is pretty spectacular – on approaching the town by car, we were welcomed by sweeping views of the peninsula and crystal blue seas. The setting itself is charming with rows of fishermans cottages nestled together in narrow cobbled streets against the backdrop of blue skies. It didn’t take long to realise why it has inspired generations of artists.
First stop was our pied-à-terre for the weekend – the beautifully furnished Chywidden in the heart of “downalong” St Ives, previously occupied, no doubt, by fishermen from times gone by. The tardis-like qualities of this quintessential cottage offered all home comforts (and more), after several blustery walks on the beach, with mod cons and charming features including a wood-burning stove and cosy sofas to sink into. After dumping our bags we were keen to explore more of the town, but were soon distracted by diving into our welcome hamper of Cornish goodies of local produce – a nice touch from the team at Cottage Boutique!
We kicked off our first evening getting our bearings in the heart of the town, between the wharf with its seafront views and the cobbled shopping street behind. First stop was the A Bar in the old converted lifeboat house, which was the ideal spot to enjoy a cocktail whilst watching the world go by. Served in old school champagne coupes, the Raspberry Bakewell aperitif made a decadent start.
One glass down and feeling peckish, we head on upstairs to Alba for some excellent cuisine sat amongst some superb pieces of artwork which set the tone for the weekend. It would be rude not to enjoy the fish whilst on the coast so we enjoyed a starter of trio of mackerel done three ways (grilled, tartare and croquette no less!) followed by hake with braised squid and aubergine caviar. So beautifully cooked, we devoured every morsel but alas left no room for dessert so it was time to get the walking shoes on and venture a little further into the town to discover more.
We arrived in St Ives on the opening weekend of the festival and there was definitely a buzz on the streets, with people milling around. It turns out that many of the pubs offer live music nightly during the two weeks with no need to pre-book. We stumbled across an old-time blues band with banjos aplenty and were toe-tapping until last orders when we were beckoned back to our cosy bolthole.
As a novice art lover, I’m a fan of modern art, but hadn’t realised quite how rich a heritage the town has in the modernist movement. Tate St Ives is the most well-known gallery in the town, but you’d be hard pushed not to enjoy meandering in and out of the other lesser known galleries offering reasonably priced art. The most enlightening experience however was a visit to Porthmeor Studios and Cellars – a beautifully restored set of Grade II* listed artists’ studios with breathtaking views over Porthmeor Beach. They’re probably the oldest working artists’ studios in the country, and have been at the heart of the local community for decades.
The building, which houses 15 artists studios, was originally built for the pilchard industry but has been lovingly restored from the old net lofts above fishermens’ cellars that are still in use. What is most surprising, is that Porthmeor Studios is renowned for the internationally significant artists who have been based there. I had the opportunity to meet with the Studio Manager to understand more about how they are encouraging the ongoing development of the artistic movement with their new Residency Programme.
The inspiration for the programme came from events dating back to 1959, when emerging artist, Francis Bacon, rented out Studio Three while working towards what became his breakthrough show. In the same year, internationally renowned American artist, Mark Rothko, felt compelled to come to St. Ives to see some of the most exciting contemporary artists in situ. The residency therefore wants Porthmeor Studios to be recognised as a vital part of the present art scene, and also as a place where emerging artists get the space to create work which will move them to the next stage in their career. And it’s no surprise to see why this space inspires when you see the backdrop of the waves rolling below on the beach.
And to the beach we went for one last stop in St Ives to enjoy the cream tea we’d been hankering after, before stepping aboard the Four Sisters to take our final view of the town from the sea. We were even lucky enough to spot a few dolphins swimming around the bow before heading back to shore.
So our Cornish coastal weekend was drawing to a close, and whilst you can still enjoy the things you’d expect from a UK seaside town, we left feeling more inspired than we expected, having understood this art legacy against the backdrop of this beautiful town. And whilst it might not reach the heady heights of better known festivals on the circuit, it’s definitely worth checking out this jewel in the Cornish riviera.
Words: Karen Jones
Photos: St Ives Information Centre / As Credited