Janet Street-Porter: The Charm of St Ives

Artists have long been drawn to St Ives, and Janet Street-Porter was introduced to the Cornish town by the painter Patrick Heron. Forty years on, she returns to her old haunts to repay some favours
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The Independent Travel

Sunday morning and the sound of gulls far below; the view from my bedroom window is of the glorious sands of Porthmeor beach. It's 8am and the tide's out. The surfers haven't arrived yet and the campers in the green field below are just beginning to emerge from their tents. The horizon and the sea blend into one. That's the beauty of the very western part of Cornwall - you constantly feel airborne, as if you are looking at the landscape through the eyes of a bird. Then, of course, there's the light. Winter or summer, it's unlike anywhere else I can think of. With the sea on three sides it seems as if the light is constantly refracted and bounced off stones and hard surfaces and is of a shimmering intensity so that even on dull days colours seem more intense.

Artists have been attracted to St Ives since the end of the 19th century, and my own introduction to this part of Cornwall came through a distinguished painter, Patrick Heron. Born in Leeds, he had lived and worked here since the 1950s, with a studio on Back Road West, just off Porthmeor beach. In 1965 I met his daughter Katherine on my first day at architectural school, and we immediately became good friends. Shortly afterwards I came down to stay at her family house, Eagles Nest, perched high above the cliff-tops of Zennor. It was surrounded by an extraordinary secret garden full of rare plants and shrubs, camellias and vines, created among the giant boulders that dwarfed the late Victorian house. I slept in a room where the Emperor Haile Selassie was rumoured to have stayed during the 1940s, a vast airy space with views west to Gurnard's Head.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Katherine and I partied hard, went walking, swam at midnight and played croquet for hours. We would go to the fish market at Newlyn, up a side street off the main road by the harbour, and buy crayfish (you can still do that). At Christmas Katherine's mother Delia would make Star Gazey Pie, a fish pie made with gurnard and pilchard, with the tails and heads tied together with fine cotton so that it looked like the fish were leaping out of the potato crust.

When Patrick died in 1999, I walked with his family and friends behind the hearse, down the road from Eagles Nest to the churchyard in Zennor for the funeral. Last week I went back to stand in front of the grave he shares with Delia to say hello. The place hasn't changed very much at all. The patchwork of small fields, edged with stones, with hedges a profusion of flowers, has been protected. Buildings are of local stone, and no horrible signage intrudes. This part of Cornwall, thanks to militant local activists who have fought off developers and big business, has largely remained as it was 50 years ago. The Tinner's Arms, the village pub, where I would drink cider, eat pasties and then stagger back through the fields and up to my bed at Eagles Nest, has been smartened up and has umbrellas outside. There are many more walkers now that the coastal path has been opened up, which must be good for the local economy. It's only about seven miles to St Ives by road, but nine if you follow the spectacular route over the top of the cliffs, swooping up and down on a roller-coaster of a trail.

My trip to St Ives this time was once again connected with local artists. I had agreed to launch the fundraising appeal to restore the Porthmeor Studios, where Patrick Heron had worked. Owned by a charitable trust, the studios are falling into serious disrepair. Over the years they have provided workspaces for such distinguished artists as Tony O'Malley, Sandra Blow, Ben Nicholson and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Fishermen still use the lower spaces to store equipment and mend nets, and you can see the large tanks where they used to salt pilchards, once a thriving part of the St Ives economy. Even when I'd visit Tony O'Malley and Patrick in the late Sixties, the roof leaked and buckets caught the drips. But the artists adore the wonderful views of Porthmeor beach and the north light that pours in through huge windows. The studios still house around 10 artists and the St Ives School of Painting. The event seemed to be a huge success, with several hundred people crammed into a studio and music from a local jazz band.

Another historic artistic site in St Ives is also seeking funding. The Leach Pottery is where Britain's most eminent ceramicist, Sir Bernard Leach, worked for many years. Sir Bernard was designated a Living Treasure in Japan, yet many people feel that he has not had the recognition and respect he deserves in his own country.

Everywhere you walk in St Ives there are shops and galleries selling arts and crafts, some good, some frankly appalling. But it is important that the historic places such as the Leach Pottery and Porthmeor Studios are restored and revitalised so that St Ives does not simply become a tourist theme park, but remains a place where artists, potters, and fishermen can work all year round.

I started my trip to Cornwall by plane and drove down the back roads from Newquay airport through wonderful little villages with names like Praze-an-Beeble, avoiding the caravans and lorries on the ghastly A30. First stop, high on a hill outside Redruth was the Gwennap Pit. This grassy amphitheatre was one of John Wesley's favourite places to preach. The huge circular hollow has been formed by old mine workings collapsing in the 1760s, and it made a perfect open-air chapel. Wesley visited it on 18 Sundays between 1762 and 1789, and the last time he spoke there, to hundreds of worshippers, he was 86 years old. The amphitheatre has remarkable acoustics, and is used for concerts, religious and theatrical events.

After a home-made fish pie in the pub at Godolphin Cross, a visit to Godolphin Manor, with its beautiful gardens which date from the Middle Ages and the astonishing Palladian façade of the North Front, built around 1630. Its elegant (although a little stumpy to be truly elegant) row of columns seems like a slice of classical Italy transposed to deepest Cornwall. The tea-room, serving excellent home-made cakes, is in a large marquee on the lawn, and there's a tepee for kids to play in. Richard, the current Lord of the Manor, came to say hello - and turned out to be a long-lost friend.

Luckily I remembered the back route into St Ives, and we drove around the town and over the moors to the Garrack Hotel, set high on the cliffs, with sweeping views right over the whole peninsula. Our room had a four-poster bed, and you could lie in the Victorian bath and watch the seagulls - perfect. Supper at the Bay (a modern restaurant on top of an Edwardian hotel) in Penzance was eaten with another spectacular backdrop - the harbour of this bustling port, very different in spirit from St Ives, with its narrow lanes of Victorian villas, thriving seafront and ferry terminal.

Our drive over the top from St Ives had taken us through gorse-lined moorland lanes and then down through luxurious woodland, with secret gardens and stone villas. There's a point where you can see the sea on both sides of the peninsula.

Next morning, the sun blazing, we walked down into town as locals were already putting up their sunshades and watering their front gardens. The Tate in St Ives (overlooking Porthmeor beach) is a building that's attracted a lot of controversy - the design is a little too fussy for my taste - but there's no doubt it has been a huge hit. It has attracted three times the predicted number of visitors, and now an extension is planned, which will give more exhibition space.

I love the work of the late Irish artist Tony O'Malley (and bought a painting he did on a shoebox lid back in the Sixties when I was a student). It was good to walk round the retrospective at the Tate, although it was just a small sample of the bigger show in Dublin. The rooftop café of the art gallery has great views and good coffee - and there was an exhibition of affordable prints by artists currently working in the town.

Afterwards we walked through the bustling lanes of Back Road West and Fish Street, past the cottage where Alfred Wallis used to paint, and headed up to St Nicholas Chapel on the headland overlooking Porthmeor and Porthgwidden * *beaches - surely the best view around. Lunch was delicious - grilled fresh mackerel fillets with red onion relish at the bustling Porthgwidden Beach Café, a tiny white stone room with built-in seats and a busy terrace. After my speech to launch the studio appeal, we slowly trudged up the hill back to the Garrack for a long snooze in their peaceful gardens, and later walked down to yet another fabulous beachfront restaurant, the Porthminster Beach Café (booking essential). Their large terrace has heaters and fleece blankets if you need them - and we watched a red yacht in the pink sunset, eating the best seafood imaginable, swapping gossip with Monica, the widow of the St Ives artist Bryan Wynter.

Our final meal before catching the plane home was in yet another spectacular beach setting. Jamie Oliver has opened a third branch of Fifteen in a purpose-built modern building right on the beautiful beach at Watergate Bay, outside Newquay, chosen because there are plenty of tourists but also high local unemployment, especially among the young. Using the same principles as his original Fifteen in London, Jamie has employed 21 local people as student chefs (chosen from more than 300 applicants) who underwent an intensive training course at Cornwall College, before completing placements in restaurants all over the UK. Of course, it doesn't matter how worthy your intentions are, it's pointless if the end result is rubbish, but our lunch at Fifteen was of a really high quality. Not only were we eating well, but profits from the enterprise go into the foundation which has been set up to train the students. Although the place is already fully booked for lunch and dinner during the coming months, it is also open for breakfast from 8.30am, and every day at 5.30 there's a special kids' dinner for which no reservations are required. Prices aren't cheap, but fair for the quality of the locally sourced ingredients - dinner is £38 for three courses, and we ate the set Sunday lunch for £24.50.

My Megrim sole (a fish you rarely find outside Cornwall) cooked with cockles and broad beans, was scrumptious. Below us families slathered sun tan lotion on their children and surfers paddled about in the shallows, waiting for the perfect wave.

We followed the coastal path for a couple of miles along the cliff-tops, heading west, before finding a soft clump of grass for a nap. Thank God I felt fully refreshed and ready to face the horrible queues at Newquay airport (which is being extended), where only one team of security staff were struggling to cope with the thousands of holidaymakers. My perfect weekend ended with a 30-minute shuffle past the men's toilets - not exactly what I'd imagined!

Traveller's Guide

Getting There

West Cornwall is well served by rail from Birmingham, Bristol, London and elsewhere; 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Staying There

Garrack Hotel, Burthallan Lane, St Ives (01736 796199; www.garrack.com). Double rooms start at £108, including breakfast.

Eating And Drinking

The Tinner's Arms, Zennor (01736 796927).

The Godolphin Arms, Godolphin Cross, Helston (01736 762879).

The Bay Restaurant, Britons Hill, Penzance (01736 363117; www.bay-penzance.co.uk).

Porthgwidden Beach Café, St Ives (01736 796791; w ww.porthgwiddencafe.co.uk)

Porthminster Beach Café, St Ives (01736 795352; www.porthminstercafe.co.uk)

Fifteen Cornwall, Watergate Bay (01637 861000; www.fifteencornwall.co.uk).

Visiting There

Tate St Ives (01736 796226; www.tate.org.uk). Opens daily 10am-5pm; admission £5.75.

More Information

South West Tourism's site, www.visitsouthwest.co.uk, provides plenty of help and ideas; you can also call 0870 442 0880.

St Ives Tourist Information Centre: 01736 796297.

Saving the Porthmeor Studios, St Ives: 01736 332657.