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St Ives, Cornwall

Updated on April 28, 2013
St Ives harbour
St Ives harbour | Source
St Ives:
St Ives, Cornwall, UK

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St Ives has long held the title of West Cornwall's most popular tourist destination. It's not hard to see why; long, sandy beaches, clear blue sea, a jumble of fisherman's cottages and a picture postcard harbour. But that's only half the story of St Ives. The town has a rich heritage both historic and artistic.

A fishing port since the middle ages, Saint Ives was an important centre for the pilchard industry. The local museum is testament to this with its collection of pressing stones which were used to extract oil from the fish. At one time there was great rivalry between the fishing fleets of St Ives and Newlyn on the south coast with St Ives locals earning themselves the name 'scaly-backs'!

Historic St Ives

The two oldest buildings in St Ives are both churches one of which was almost demolished at the turn of the century. The parish church is dedicated to St Ia, from whom the town's name is derived (originally Porth Ia). Legend has it that she sailed across the Irish Sea on a leaf landing in what became St Ives. The church itself dates back to the 15th century and contains a carving of the Madonna and child by the renowned sculpture Barbara Hepworth.

The other church is the diminutive Chapel of St Nicholas which sits atop the 'Island' overlooking Porthmeor and Porthgwidden beach. I put the name in quotes because it is not actually an island by any stretch of the imagination! The chapel measuring about 20 feet by 10 is medieval in origin and was for centuries used as a lookout post of one type or another. In 1904 it was listed fro demolition but following a public outcry the chapel was eventually restored and reconsecrated.

St Nicholas' Chapel on the 'Island' in St Ives
St Nicholas' Chapel on the 'Island' in St Ives | Source

Barbara Hepworth sculpture

Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Dual Form, outside the Guildhall in St Ives
Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Dual Form, outside the Guildhall in St Ives | Source

Art in St Ives

These days St Ives is as well known for its artistic credentials as its beaches. The town's artistic tradition dates back to the 1800s and coincides with the development of the railways. Artists such as JMW Turner visited the town, drawn by the exceptional quality of light. However, it was in the early 20th century when the art scene really took of with a group known as the St Ives School of Painters. The first wave included artists such as Julius Olsson, John Park and Borlase Smart. Soon after came potter Bernard Leach with his Japanese influenced work. Eminent writers and poets also began to frequent the resort with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf notable amongst them. Woolf's To the Lighthouse is based on Godrevey Lighthouse across the bay.

It was in the late 1920s that the St Ives School entered its definitive stage. Artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood frequented the town and were taken by the childlike, simplistic paintings of local man Alfred Wallis. It was Ben Nicholson who married sculpture Barbara Hepworth and in 1939 the couple settled in the town. Hepworth's works were heavily influenced by the local landscape and her sculptures are now synonymous with St Ives. When she died in 1975 her studio was left exactly as it was and is now a museum of her work.

The Tate St Ives

The Tate St Ives art gallery
The Tate St Ives art gallery | Source

The St Ives Tate Gallery is situated in a commanding position overlooking Porthmeor beach. Opened in 1993 the gallery draws on the towns artistic heritage displaying contemporary paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There are 5 gallery spaces set over 3 floors with many examples of the St Ives School.

Even if you aren't a huge fan of contemporary art it was worth a look around what is quite an intriguing building. In addition the view from the rooftop cafe over Porthmeor and St Ives Bay beyond are worth the price of a coffee.

St Ives Beaches

Porthminster beach in St Ives
Porthminster beach in St Ives | Source

Surfing in St Ives

Surfer paddles into a wave at Porthmeor beach
Surfer paddles into a wave at Porthmeor beach | Source

Porthmeor beach

St Ives has no less than 5 sandy beaches within walking distance of the town centre. The largest and most popular of these is Porthmeor, in front of the Tate Gallery. This wide stretch of sand is flanked by the dramatic headland of the Island to one side and Man's head to the other. In the summer the sea is generally fairly calm here and the rocks either side of the beach offer some good rock pooling. There are plenty of facilities, including the top notch Porthmeor Cafe, indeed the beach has consistently been awarded Blue Flag status. In the winter Porthmeor is a popular surf spot having the advantage of facing northwards it is not so affected by the predominant south-westerly winds. The best waves on the beach occur at 'The Boiler', so named as this is all that remains of the wreck of a ship.

Porthminster beach in St Ives
Porthminster beach in St Ives | Source

Porthminster beach

Porthminster is St Ives' second beach. Located directly in front of the train station it's easy to imagine some visitors never get any further! Another wide sandy beach, Porthminster is backed by lawns and steeply wooded hillside to which cling some of the town's Victorian guest houses and hotels. The beach's crowning glory is the Porthminster cafe which over the years has achieved a reputation for serving fine food right on the beach.

St Ives from the air showing the harbour, Island, Porthgwidden and Porthmeor beaches
St Ives from the air showing the harbour, Island, Porthgwidden and Porthmeor beaches

Other beaches

There are 3 smaller beaches between Porthmeor and Porthminster. On the other side of the island is the small sheltered stretch of sand that is Porthgwidden. Yet again there is a decent cafe here. A car park and toilets behind make this a handy choice.

The oddly named Bamaluz beach is next around and oft overlooked. Only accessible at lower tides the beach is backed by cottages and houses which are lapped by the sea on high tides.

St Ives' other beach is the harbour beach. There is always some sand here and at low tide one can walk out beyond the piers towards Porthminster. The great thing about the harbour beach is it backs onto Wharf Road which is awash with shops and cafes, the best of which is probably the Hub. It's a good beach for kids as it is completely sheltered and there are plenty of interesting features.

St Ives Harbour
St Ives Harbour | Source

Whilst the fortunes of many towns in Cornwall have ebbed and waned over the years St Ives seems to have fared somewhat better. The town is always bustling, possibly a little too much in the summer. This prosperity can be seen in the plethora of galleries, up market gift shops and quality restaurants. For this reason it is a great place to spend a holiday. Over recent years as the town has reinvented itself as a more upmarket destination it has benefited from visitors all year round. As a result it doesn't shut down in quite the same way as some resorts like Newquay do in the winter.

Summer sunset over Porthmeor beach
Summer sunset over Porthmeor beach | Source

In terms of things to do and events there are 3 big ticks in St Ives' calendar. Firstly there is New Years - this has become a major celebration in the town with revelers in fancy dress packing the streets. Over the years I have attended as Noel Coward and a lighthouse keeper! The other major draw is the September Festival with quality music and acts of international standing performing. The festival goes on in at various locations in the town for around 2 weeks every, you guessed it, September.

The other event is St Ives Feast and the Hurling of the Silver Ball. This custom is ancient and also occurs in the town of St Columb Major. It occurs on the first Monday after February 3rd and basically involves a huge game of rugby with a silver ball and goals several miles apart. One to watch but maybe not join in?!

St Ives Photos

Barnoon cemetery St Ives. A tomb with a view!
Barnoon cemetery St Ives. A tomb with a view! | Source
St Ives by night. View out over the harbour, church and town
St Ives by night. View out over the harbour, church and town | Source
Panoramic view of St Ives including the Island, Porthmeor beach and St Ives Bay to the other side
Panoramic view of St Ives including the Island, Porthmeor beach and St Ives Bay to the other side | Source
Cottages on the beach in St Ives Harbour
Cottages on the beach in St Ives Harbour | Source
Sunset over Man's Head at the western end of Porthmeor beach
Sunset over Man's Head at the western end of Porthmeor beach | Source

So there you have it. St Ives, possibly Cornwall's most idyllic town. The town is also a great base for exploring other places in Penwith such as the nearby town and beaches of Hayle or the historic harbour town of Penzance on the south coast. If you do visit anywhere else then it is well worth travelling along the train line to St Erth. This is regarded as one of the most scenic routes in the UK as it winds along the coast.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Why are people from st ives called scalybacks?

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Nice pics. Check out St Ives in video on

    • surfgatinho profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Leather 

      7 years ago from Cornwall UK

      Thanks Judi. You must live on the Hub - I only just posted this!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      7 years ago from UK

      It's a beautiful little town - as you say, almost idyllic. Love the photos


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