Penzance station is the end of the line for rail travellers. The southernmost railway station in the UK, it has a fittingly remote air.
Trains make their final approach to the terminus directly along the sea wall. Out at sea, the iconic craggy castle of St Michael's Mount rises from the water like an image from Avalon. The dramatic cliffs and awesome rock formations of the Penwith peninsula have drawn visitors to West Cornwall for centuries. The region's timelessness is part of its enchantment. But, happily, there's nothing sleepy or cut-off about present-day Penzance. To the delight of residents and visitors alike, the last few years have brought an extraordinary new buzz to the town.
Long overshadowed by St Ives, its busier, prettier neighbour, Penzance has suddenly re-emerged as a leading force behind Cornwall's ever-thriving arts scene. Fresh new galleries have been popping up all over the place. The tone is set from the moment you alight from the train, where a marvellously atmospheric installation of 12 landscape paintings by the internationally renowned local artist Kurt Jackson runs the full length of Platform 3. Cornwall has always been attractive to painters. Currently, it's said to have the highest concentration of working artists outside of London's East End – well over 1,000 at the last count. That Penzance is now reclaiming its position at the centre of all this is especially appropriate.
For the end of the line is actually where it all began. Penzance was the first town west of Bristol to have its own art school, founded in 1853. The fishing village of Newlyn, on the southern edge of town, was established as an artists' colony (later categorised as the "Newlyn School" of painting) more than half a century before Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth first settled in St Ives in 1939. Some of the Newlyn artists' finest work, typically focusing on the Cornish landscape or on the lives of the local fishing community, is on permanent exhibition at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum, on Morrab Road.
But Penzance is mostly looking forward, not backwards. On another inner wall of the railway station, there's a brightly coloured tile mosaic, assembled earlier this century by Genevieve Val Baker as part of a project with local school children. Her brother Martin has run the ground-breaking Rainyday Gallery on nearby Market Jew Street since 1992, hosting nearly 200 exhibitions over that period and promoting an eclectic range of new works by local artists.
An engaging enthusiast, Martin is delighted with recent expansions to Penzance's arts scene. The most obvious civic example is the multi-million pound "Exchange" development on Princes Street, a conversion into gallery space of the town's former telephone exchange. It was completed in July 2007. But the real energy, he insists, is to be found in the new crop of smaller, privately run galleries, many of them set up by practising artists.
The Rainyday Gallery calls itself "Probably the second-best gallery in Penzance" – a cheerful recognition that there's now quite a jostle for first place. A neighbouring contender on Market Jew Street is the Glass House Gallery, which moved from Truro last year and showcases some glorious jewellery and ceramics. But the town's busiest, buzziest art trail now leads seawards, I discovered.
Following Martin's directions, I set off down Chapel Street to suss out the competition. Chapel Street is a colourful thoroughfare, winding down towards the seafront from the marketplace and brim-full of quirky old buildings housing an array of trendy specialist shops. With galleries galore, it's a treasure trove for art lovers. At the top of the street is Cornwall Contemporary, a dazzling white space opened in 2006 by Sarah Brittain, a former children's book illustrator. Its current solo exhibition is a lovely collection of mixed media pieces by the artist Maggie Matthews.
Midway down the road, two further new kids on the block are situated opposite one another. Both of them are running summer shows of new work throughout August. At number 56, there's Goldfish Gallery, started in 2003 by the artist Joseph Clarke. Across the road, the HiltonYoung Gallery opened four years later at number 10. Like Clarke, 45-year-old Bo Hilton, the gallery's co-owner, is a painter himself.
"There's a real positive energy around the town," he told me. "It's great to be challenging St Ives' dominance as an art destination."
At the bottom of Chapel Street, the Penzance Arts Club continues the trail of artistic "landmarks" in the town. Established 15 years ago in what used to be the Portuguese Embassy, it's currently for sale but still open for business – a bohemian haven of velvet sofas and old newspapers, packed to the gunwales with wall-to-wall paintings and assorted arty bric-a-brac. When I looked in, the artist Rod Walker was halfway up a stepladder, hanging pictures for his forthcoming solo show. Exhibitions at the Arts Club are open to the public, and non-members can also stay in one of the club's seven guest rooms.
A short stroll downhill, following the cries of the seagulls, brought my arty amble to an upbeat end. The PZ Gallery, set up in July 2006 by photographer Charlie Roff, must surely take top prize for location out of all of Penzance's new art venues. Specialising in black and white photography (including rare platinum prints), it's housed in a vast white building – formerly a car showroom – just behind the promenade and the town's open-air "Jubilee" pool. Right now, the whole of this dockland area is pretty rundown. But if and when its proposed redevelopment as a new marina finally gets the go-ahead, PZ is poised to be right at the heart of the action. Roff's dream is for it to become a national photographic archive of Cornwall's heritage. Here's hoping he succeeds.
Rainyday Gallery (01736 366 077; www.rainyday gallery.co.uk)
Glass House Gallery (01736 367 619; www.glasshousegallery.co.uk)
The Exchange (01736 363 715; www.theexchange
Cornwall Contemporary (01736 874 749; www.corn wall contemporary.com)
Goldfish (01736 360 573 www.goldfishfineart.co.uk)
HiltonYoung Gallery (01736 332 115; www.hiltonyoung.com)
Penzance Arts Club (01736 363 761; www.penzance artsclub.co.uk)
PZ Gallery (01736 332 229; email@example.com)