Transformed in the 1920s from a sleepy fishing village to the vibrant hub of South West England’s artistic community, St. Ives pulses with energy. People from all walks of life mingle: Artists, surfers, fishermen, retirees and families all co-habit the small town with equanimity. With some of Britain’s best beaches and fantastic food options, the amount of choice for such a small town can be overwhelming.
Part of the joy of St. Ives is ambling around the maze of little streets that lead to and from the harbour or out to the little peninsula known as ‘The Island’. To help guide your explorations, here is our guide to experiencing St. Ives like a local.
Galleries & Museums
Bernard Leach studied pottery with master ceramicists in Japan and returned to set up The Leach Pottery (Higher Stennack) in 1920. It was one of the first pottery studios in Britain and the museum attached showcases work by Leach and his students.
With the Tate St. Ives closed until May 2016, plenty of other great galleries are getting some attention. One which certainly deserves this is St. Ives Society of Artists (Norway Square), which was founded in 1927 and has played a central role in establishing a thriving art community here. Situated in the lovely old Mariner’s Church, the main gallery exhibits work of various forms from the main members, and hosts seasonal shows three times a year.
Managed by the Tate, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden (Barnoon Hill) is a loving preservation of the space in which she lived and worked. Most of her favourite sculptures are located outside in the garden, while the house where she lived – and tragically died in a fire in 1975 – contains mostly original furnishings.
Cafés & Cream Tea
No trip to the south-western tip of England would be complete without a cream tea. The Tearoom St. Ives (1 Wharf House, The Wharf) is a lovely historic café with diamond-shaped leaded glass windows and a commanding view of the harbour. Teas here are served loose-leaf. Cheese scones with Cornish butter are a good alternative to fruit scones. The food and service are both exceptional.
The Beachcomber Café (The Wharf) is bright and pleasant with fun caricatures of local people on the walls. Also located right by the harbour, their cream teas are delicious, served with big home-made scones and dollops of jam and thick clotted cream. There are also plenty of other lunch options on their menu for folks who want to eat something more substantial.
Locally-sourced products make up the majority of each meal on the mouth-watering menu at The Cornish Deli (3 Chapel Street). In the summer they even serve main meals and local tapas. The only problem is that every single thing on the menu sounds fantastic, and you might not have time to try it all.
Top a cream tea off with a pasty, Cornwall’s most beloved snack. Pasties can be moreish, none more so than those from Cornish Bakehouse (51 Fore Street), where queues almost always stretch beyond the front door. Try their pork & apple, or beef & stilton pasties for something a little different.
S H Ferrell & Son (64 Fore Street) represents exactly why places like St. Ives are still so popular. A local family bakery that has run for four generations and withstood the onslaught of commercialisation in that time; their traditional, no-nonsense pasties are quite possibly the best in town. What’s more, they sell their own cream tea boxes so you can buy freshly baked scones, jam and cream and head down to the beach. Try their saffron buns too if they have not all sold out.
If you think that by making pasties since 1860 pasty specialists Warren’s Bakery (Tregenna Place) know what they are doing, then you would be right. Simple and packed with filling, the winter stew pasties are especially tasty if you are lucky enough to be dropping by at the right time.
While one could not be blamed for subsisting purely on cream tea and pasties, there are also a slew of quality restaurants in St. Ives. One of those is The Black Rock (Market Place). The sophisticated cuisine here is well-presented and set against a relaxing atmosphere.
For outstanding seafood, Mermaid (21 Fish Street – aptly enough) is the place to go. Plush, wooden interiors, with a characterful old bar are endearing features in Mermaid (which locals call Tucker’s after the Tucker Family who once made and bottled their own lemonade here). The seafood has not been long out of the sea and there are great alternatives for those who prefer their meat sourced from the land.
The classic English seaside dish is fish and chips. For a plaice (sorry!) with a name as good as its food, try The Balancing Eel (Back Lane). Fish is responsibly and often locally sourced, as are the potatoes to make the chips. This sit-in restaurant has a ‘bring your own’ booze policy if you like your fish pickled in a little alcohol.
Purportedly dating back to 1312 Sloop Inn (The Wharf) must surely be one of Cornwall’s, if not Britain’s, oldest watering holes. The pub offers great value food and drink as well as having rooms on-site, all in as central a location as one could hope for in St. Ives.
The Lifeboat Inn (Wharf Road) is run by Cornish Brewery St. Austell. The beer is good and the beer is local. With views out over the harbor you can tuck into some traditional pub grub after a good walk or a day out surfing the waves. The Lifeboat is a family-friendly pub during the day and at night often has live music.
Surfing & Beaches
Porthmeor Beach is conspicuous year-round for the hundreds of people running towards the surf with their boards. For those who want to learn some board skills, Porthmeor is also home to St. Ives Surf School. Courses are between one and five days long and offered at reasonable prices. Kayak and paddleboard classes are also available.
At low tide, The Harbour is accessible on foot. You can wander around the beached fishing boats or watch the fishermen bringing in their fresh catch. The sand is pleasant. Although owners are allowed to walk their dogs on this beach outside of summer months, most of them are conscientious.
Half a mile of golden sand makes up Porthminster Beach. The beach is perfect for families, offering car parking and toilets. When you are done with sand and surf the lovely Porthminster Beach Café, which might just be worth the trip on its own, offers an eclectic and extensive menu. Fantastic, fresh local seafood features as well as the classic café items one comes to expect in Cornwall.