St. Ives


The day before, stopping off in Truro and running around the shops in the minutes before they closed, I decided to buy a rain coat.

I hadn’t owned one for years. I’m not sure why. It’s a Northern thing, maybe? I don’t really mind the cold. My winter coat is an old thing that has gone from fine fabric to a felt-like thing over the years that I’ve owned it.

On arriving in Cornwall, I felt an uncharacteristic urge to wrap up. The wind was fierce and the threat of rain serious. Something worthy of mountaineering felt necessary if we were to do all the coastal walks we intended to, despite the weather, and still survive.

I quickly felt like I’d made a very good decision.

On our second full day in Cornwall, it rained nonstop. We first decided to go to Land’s End but were scared off by the sheer force of the wind. Instead, we headed for St. Ives and walked its streets.

With the tourist season over, the entire town had decided to get all of its repairs out of the way. The high street was like a warzone.

We walked up the hill to St Nicholas Chapel, pictured above. This was the only photograph to come out from the day. Everything else was ruined by rain on lens and persistent fogging. Nevertheless, we saw seals from the hill to the west, overlooking the harbour, and we saw a lot of very brave surfers out at sea to the east.

I’d wanted to go and see Talland House — the one-time home of Virginia Woolf and where the bar was set for her happiness. When she would later write of a “room of one’s own”, it seems to be her room at Talland House that she remembers most fondly. However, on reading a Google review that suggested the house was down a private road, inaccessible, and with no signage identifying it and its history, I changed my mind about going to see it. Something I know regret.

I’d never realised her connection to St. Ives before this trip — our third or fourth in two years. Her time there influenced many of her novels, To The Lighthouse and The Waves most famously, but also Jacob’s Room. I started (once again) to read Hermione Lee’s biography which I’d decided to bring along for the trip and enjoyed reading her connecting of the dots between Woolf’s various descriptions of her room at Talland House, weaved into many of her books under different guises, and also the experiences of the town described by her extended family.

St. Ives is renowned for its connection to various artists and artistic movements these days but they seem to bring out a cynicism in a lot of people. For what it’s worth, Barbara Hepworth’s former studio is a nice if overpriced place to visit. However, Tate St. Ives itself is not. Leach Pottery aside, the rest of the town seems to be dedicated to the usual bland seaside tat. (“I’m a local artist… I put shells on things!”)

I was amused to read that, long before the arrival of Hepworth and co., the healthy cynicism directed towards St. Ives’ artists goes back over 100 years, with Woolf’s parents writing theirs down repeatedly.

First she quotes Woolf herself in To The Lighthouse:

But now, she said, artists had come here. There indeed, only a few paces off, stood one of them, in Panama hat and yellow boots, seriously, softly, absorbedly, for all that he was watched by ten little boys, with an air of profound contentment on his round red face, gazing, and then, when he had gazed, dipping; imbued the tip of his brush in some soft mound of green or pink. Since Mr Paunceforte had been there, three years before, all the pictures were like that she said, green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing boats, and pink women on the beach.

It’s a passage which seems only obviously mocking in the context of Woolf’s own circle of avant-garde modernists who would no doubt look on the seriousness with which such tat is painted and scoff.

The most scathing tale comes from Julia Stephen, however — Virginia’s mother — who writes in “The Wandering Pigs”, a short story penned for her children, about three little pigs who wander around the bay and get up to mischeif. One of their encounters is also with a monkey, painting on the pier, whose response to Curly’s somewhat patronising exclamation is telling:

Curly, who was never shy, went up to see what was going on. He was quite surprised to see, on the bit of board before the monkey, the boats and their brown sails and blue sea running into the little harbour. ‘Dear me, you are very clever,’ said Curly.

‘You are very polite,’ said the monkey, looking round for a minute. ‘Are you an art critic?’

There is much more to be said about Woolf and St. Ives but, as luck would have it, it’s all recently been said, in blog form no less, over on Blogging Woolf, who visited St. Ives the weekend after we did.


  1. ^in fact the town once had five clubs within walking distance. I used to live there and the sense that the town is increasingly designed for the tourists is stronger every time I go back. Those streets are empty because no one lives on them any more. All holiday lets

Leave a Reply to white breakzCancel reply