How many were in St Ives?

Harriet O'Brien, Travel Writer of the Year, enjoys the quiet of Cornwall out of season

It was the pig that did it. And a pot. Yet when I go back to St Ives next December it won't be only because of them. Big seas, big winds, a luminous quality of light, and art - living, as well as hung on walls - are all part of the equation. Forget sunshine, sandcastles and ice-cream on the beach; Cornwall out of season is inspiring, exhilarating - and half empty.

It was doubtless due to the lack of visitors that the pig was so pleased to see us. We came across her as we were walking over the clifftops beyond St Ives last week. Emitting small squeals of delight, she squelched hastily across her muddy enclosure to greet us, and to be admired. Her pink snout whiffled against the wire fence as she presented her ears to be scratched. Great waves pounded the rocks below us, and she seemed to capture the spirit of the place: an open friendliness in total contrast to the wildness of the landscape and the elements.

At this time of year there is scope for the people (as well as the animals) of St Ives to stop and chat. An explanation from a shopkeeper about the finer points of Cornish honey might meander gently on to some considered advice as to where to see the most dramatic cliff scenery, then take a sharp right angle and develop into a discussion about local opinion of the Tate Gallery. This opened in St Ives in June 1993 and, rather than getting a predicted 70,000 visitors a year, has been averaging 200,000. The Tate, understandably, is a popular topic. "Oh, it's been fairly good for business," the honey man remarked in quiet understatement. "It attracts a steady stream of visitors even at times like this when St Ives would otherwise be pretty much closed down. And yes, most of us do like it. Very much. But then there are so many artists here anyway."

It was a local potter who made my pot: a tall earthenware vase, its glaze subtly shot through with the mellow colours of the cliffs in changing light. Reminiscent, I couldn't help grandly thinking, of the works of Bernard Leach. It sat in a shop window alongside pictures by resident painters, and little bits of knick-knackery: glass ornaments of cute cats, and quaint pottery figures. Like St Ives itself, which manages to cater for both a summer beach brigade and an influx of gallery-goers, there was something for everyone.

To see many of the paintings, ceramics and sculptures that transformed the little harbour town from a sleepy fishing village into a significant art centre, you go to the Tate. This is not simply an ersatz arm of the modern art gallery in London. The exhibits here, many of them important works, have strong associations with the area: ceramics by Bernard Leach and his Japanese colleague Shoji Hamada; wonderfully lit sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; and, of course, works by Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis. The now-legendary meeting between Nicholson, Wood and Wallis is considered to have been the turning-point in the artistic fortunes of St Ives. (What, one wonders, did old sailor Wallis make of Nicholson and Wood when, on that famous visit to St Ives in August 1928, the young artists walked straight into his home, exclaiming about Wallis's naive paintings, having seen them by chance through the open door?) A special exhibition of Wood's works from 1923 to 1930 - when the artist was, bizarrely, killed by a train in Salisbury - is currently on display. Yet there's more to the Tate than the art on show. For a start, it's got one of the best cafes in town. Sipping a cappuccino from the vantage point here, you look down over the steep, cobbled alleyways of St Ives, and gaze over the higgledy-piggledy mix of roofs. The building, in fact, holds as many surprises as the exhibits. Set opposite Porthmeor Beach, one of the windiest parts of the little town, it absorbs much of the mesmerising play of light from the sea scenery. Such reflections have the strange, and slightly unnerving, effect of making everything seem like an exhibit, down to the cakes in the cafe and the other visitors. And, despite the quality of the art on the walls and in glass cases, you can't help feeling that one of the finest shows in the Tate is the view from the enormous picture window in the Long Gallery, which frames the beach scene beyond.

The sea and wind were in fine form on the day we were there. From the warmth of the gallery we watched a group of surfers scooting over the waves and enjoying some of the best (albeit chilly) conditions of the sport. A kite flier, though, provided the most spectacular performance. He caught the wind superbly. Gripping his strings tightly, he was sent skidding across the sand as his canopy leapt and ducked excitedly. Occasionally the force of it all took him right off the ground. It was as if he was lifted up by his own exhilaration.

Such displays of energy are a far cry from the small museum of Barbara Hepworth's sculpture, set in the artist's former home, where she died in a fire in her studio in 1975. There's an appropriately static quality here, as if time stopped then. In the little garden, also created by Hepworth, you walk among large bronzes of differing shapes at every angle, sitting stoically alongside exotic plants and foliage. A small path leads to her workshop; here smocks hang by the door and large blocks of stone still wait to be transformed.

You start to understand why Hepworth created her strange images when you walk along the cliffs west of St Ives. The area just around from Land's End is particularly rich in extraordinary formations of granite boulders that seem impossibly perched above sheer drops. To get there you have to walk through the Land's End complex. From the promotional literature and several critical reports, I had expected this would be something of a theme park gnomery. And certainly the idea of paying an entrance fee to stand on a small slice of land that is neither the most southerly, nor the most westerly point in the British mainland seemed absurd (the real extremities being, respectively, Lizard Point and either Ardnamurchan Point or Meist in Skye - depending on whether you think the new Skye bridge constitutes a sufficient link to the mainland). However, once you arrive at Land's End you can see what all the fuss is about. The scenery is spectacular and as you look out over the Atlantic Ocean from the tip of this odd arm of England, you can't help feeling overawed by the thought that only a few specks of islands - the Scillies and the Azores - lie between you and America.

The complex itself, offering video shows about the area, shopping opportunities and a range of other activities, may become unpleasantly crowded in the summer, but in December it is half closed and more or less deserted. Very pleasant it was, too. And then there was the matter of the pig. She belonged to Greeb Farm, one of the Land's End complex "attractions". The workshops here were shut for the winter, but a few animals remained on show, and all of them - goats, pig, teenage kittens and ducks - behaved as if they had been to charm school.

Back in St Ives it might have been tempting to buy a little pottery image of a pig as a memento to take home, along with my pot. But at this time of year in Cornwall, while the great gusts of fresh air and the natural artistry are unavoidable, the kitsch is optional.

Cornish essentials

What to see: The Tate (01736 796226) is open 11am-5pm Tuesday- Sunday. Adults pounds 3, concessions pounds 1.50, under 16s free when accompanied by an adult. The Christopher Wood exhibition runs until 20 April 1997. Barbara Hepworth's house (01736 796226) is open at the same time as the Tate. Adults pounds 2, concessions pounds 1.50, under-16s free when accompanied by an adult. Joint ticket with the Tate pounds 4.50.

Land's End is open daily from 10am until sunset (01736 871501). Several shops and a few attractions - the Last Labyrinth, the Spirit of Cornwall, and Greeb Farm - are open during the winter. Entrance to the complex and the shows : adults pounds 3 (including car parking), children pounds 1, car parking only, pounds 2.

Where to shop: The Wills Lane Gallery on Wills Lane (01736 796297) has an impressive collection for serious buyers. The New Craftsman, 24 Fore Street (01736 795652), has a more eclectic mix of good paintings and pottery.

Who to ask: The St Ives tourist office (01736 796297). The staff can supply details of buses to Land's End and other places beyond town.

Where to stay: St Ives is saturated with B&Bs. For details of those remaining open during the winter, contact the local tourist office (see above). Harriet O'Brien paid pounds 18 per night at the Grey Mullet Guest House, 2 Bunkers Hill, in the centre of the town (01735 796635).

Where to eat: Many restaurants are closed during the winter, but the Sloop Inn - dating from 1312 - on the harbour serves locally caught fish and other dishes provided you order before 8.30pm. Excellent fresh fish is also on offer at Peppers Pizzeria, 22 Fore Street.

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