There are some places that you are drawn back to again and again, and the Cornish town of St Ives is one of those places for me. I first visited on a day trip with my family when I was about 11 and have memories of walking along the harbour front and watching a seagull pinch someone’s chips. The next time I went back, it was as a giddy 16 year-old on a post-GCSE holiday with seven school-friends. Lots of other people in our year went to Newquay or places where there was a bit more nightlife (this was back in the mid-90s when you could use your fake ID to get into pretty much any club/pub!) but we were happy just chilling out on the beaches. I’ve been back to St Ives a number of times in the 19 years since then, usually staying in the house of a family friend, which is in a fantastic location right by Porthgwidden beach.
Above, view of Porthgwidden beach from the house we stay in, and below, my favourite spot for reading/day-dreaming.
There’s something quite special about returning to a place you love over a long period of time, and building on all the memories and experiences you’ve had there. Something about the place seeps into your psyche and connects you to it in a way that is really comforting: you can call up your memories or visualize the scenery at times when you need to bring back a sense of calm, or inspiration, or whatever feelings are associated with that particular location. When I think of St Ives I picture blue skies, a Mediterranean-turquoise sea, the sound of seagulls, a salty breeze and sandy toes. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to return to St Ives most years with Annabelle and Rafe, so that they get to know it and build on their memories of lovely family holidays there. Annabelle’s first visit was when she was only four months old, and then we went again when she was 15 months and able to walk around and explore the beaches.
Annabelle and I on Porthgwidden beach in 2015.
We’ve just returned from a wonderful week there with my parents (all our holidays to St Ives have been with my parents!). When you have young children it’s great to have the extra help on holiday (so you get to relax a bit too) and to all spend time together. Unfortunately Ryan had a job come up for the week we’d booked away (the downside to being freelance) so my parents drove down with all our stuff and I managed to survived the nearly 5 hour train journey from Reading and back on my own with the children.
The Train Journey
We went into the train station to book our tickets as I think it’s easier to find out more information face to face with someone. I’m so glad we did in the end as they recommended that we buy a Family and Friends Railcard (for £30, which lasts a year). This worked out cheaper for one standard class adult and two child tickets (coming in at just over £135). We had one window and two gangway seats, which worked out fine. It was the first time I’d done a long journey on my own with both children (I did the same journey on the train with Annabelle when she was four months old and she slept most of the way). I was pretty apprehensive about it as I wasn’t sure whether Rafe would have his nap and just envisaged him wanting to run up and down the train for four hours! Luckily he did sleep for over two hours (each way) and it all went pretty smoothly (apart from the last hour or so when they got a bit excitable and I became slightly frazzled!). I packed a picnic lunch, lots of snacks, story books, sticker and colouring books, and a Kindle with CBeebies games. My parents met us off the train at St Erth (with the buggy) and we all got on the little branch line train to St Ives (with wonderful views when you round the bend and first see the town) and then walked to the holiday house from the station.
Tide out at St Ives Harbour, with Smeaton’s Pier and it’s two lighthouses on the right, made famous by Virginia Woolf.
One of the best things about St Ives is that you don’t need to use the car while you’re here. Of course, there are lots of lovely places you could visit nearby if you wished, but we like just pottering around the winding cobbled streets of the picturesque town (which is very compact), relaxing on the sandy beaches and popping into all the quirky little galleries and independent shops. There are a number of walks you can do from the town along the South West Coast Path, including the walk to Clodgy Point through Porthmeor, and the stroll to Carbis Bay, following the railway line (this is just about doable with a buggy, and you can always hop on the little train back, after stopping for a coffee and fabulous views at the Carbis Bay Hotel).
So, here is some more information about St Ives and tips on things to do/see there:
St Ives is an old seaside fishing town on the West coast of Cornwall. It enjoys a mild (almost tropical) climate and has four gorgeous beaches: Porthmeor, a Blue Flag Awarded surfing beach located in front of Tate St Ives, Porthminster, a long sandy stretch near the little railway station, Porthgwidden, a small cove by ‘The Island’, and the Harbour beach, a working port and best for strolling along. As with any holiday in the UK, you can’t bank on the weather being nice, but we were very lucky and mostly woke up to warm, sunny days.
Porthmeor Beach in May 2018, with Porthmeor Artists Studios facing onto the beach.
Porthminster beach and cafe.
The secluded cove of Porthgwidden beach, with clear, turquoise water.
The beach at the Harbour, where you can hire deckchairs on the promenade.
St Ives has something of a reputation for being a foodie hub. You really are spoilt for choice with the range of restaurants on offer, many providing excellent seafood options, but also tasty vegetarian and vegan options. There are three critically acclaimed gastro cafés/restaurants overlooking the main beaches, which we always visit as the views are fantastic:
Porthmeor Beach Café, located just below the Tate, offers indoor and outdoor seating and has a cool, relaxed vibe. It’s best to book in advance for dinner (do it as soon as you arrive in St Ives, or before, if visiting during peak season!) as it’s a very popular spot, and I highly recommend booking one of the outdoor ‘pods’, which come with comfy cushions, blankets and heaters to keep you toasty if the temperature drops. The views over Porthmeor beach and the Atlantic are superb- the perfect spot for a morning coffee (watching intrepid surfers) or an evening cocktail watching the sun set.
The food here, whether you come for breakfast, lunch or dinner, never disappoints, and the service is friendly and efficient. We went twice for brunch and once for dinner on our recent holiday. The buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup and fresh fruit are delicious, as is the broccolini, mushroom and feta omellette with spinach and walnuts, and they do an ingenious ‘build your own breakfast’ option.
The dinner menu includes a fantastic range of tapas, which I cannot rave about enough! Each dish is packed with such interesting flavour combinations and I was so caught up with eating and making ‘mmm’ noises that I forgot to take any photos (apart from the churros with chocolate dipping sauce!).
The views from Porthmeor Café.
Porthgwidden Beach Café is nestled in a little whitewashed building right on Porthgwidden beach. The small, cosy restaurant inside and the terrace outside afford lovely views of the beach. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and families with young children are made to feel very welcome. I highly recommend ordering the ‘Porthgwidden Fish and Chips’ – probably the best I’ve eaten! During the daytime there is a take-away hatch serving ice-cream, fish and chips and other food which can be eaten at the picnic benches in front of the colourful beach huts.
Porthgwidden Café with views over the beach – on one of the overcast days we had.
Porthminster Beach Café sits right on the beach and offers wonderful views across to St Ives Bay and Godrevy Lighthouse. The restaurant inside is bright and contemporary, with cool artwork adorning the walls, and the outdoor seating area and terrace is relaxed and comfortable. The food is tasty and most of the fresh vegetables, salads and herbs come from the kitchen garden which has been cultivated on waste land opposite the café. There is also a takeaway beach bar and beach shop near the café.
Breakfast at Porthminster Café.
One of the main things I love about the town is its artistic and literary history. Artists have been drawn to St Ives since the late 1800s, captured by the quality of light, mild climate and picturesque views. An artists’ colony was founded in the late 1920s and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell holidayed here as children. The town remains an artistic hub, with the working Porthmeor Studios attracting many artists in residence.
Tate St Ives is built on the site of former gasworks overlooking Porthmeor beach and opened in 1993. It has a permanent collection of modern art as well as constantly changing exhibitions (most recently the Patrick Heron retrospective) and the café (with outdoor terrace) on the top floor is well worth a visit for the spectacular views of the sea and town’s rooftops.
In my opinion, no trip to St Ives is complete without a visit to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. It offers a calm little oasis away from the bustling streets and is a lovely place to spend some time. Barbara Hepworth was one of the greatest sculptor’s of the twentieth century and the small museum offers a brief history of her life and work. She lived in St Ives from 1949 (when she and her husband, fellow artist Ben Nicholson, bought Trewyn Studio, now the museum) until her death in 1975. The garden, which was laid out by Hepworth, contains wonderful sub-tropical plants over different levels and includes over 30 sculptures in bronze, stone and wood. The studio has been preserved and maintained, with paint, tools and aprons displayed, offering further insight into the artist’s working method.
Shops and Galleries
I could spend all day wandering around the many little galleries and shops in St Ives. As well as some big high-street brands (such as Cath Kidston, Joules, Fat Face and Seasalt) there are a plethora of little independent shops, jewellers and galleries. I recommend browsing in the independent St Ives Bookseller, which has a particularly wonderful range of children’s books. A couple of galleries that are really worth visiting include the Penwith Gallery (in a former Pilchard Packing factory) on Back Road West and Porthminster Gallery at Westcott’s Quay. My favourite gallery and shop for browsing and buying artwork is The Blue Bramble Gallery in Island Square, which sells prints and original paintings of one of my favourite contemporary artists, Kate Lockhart (we have two of her St Ives prints).
The Blue Bramble Gallery in Island Square.
The window display in St Ives Bakery on Fore Street is always so enticing!
Roly’s Fudge shop on Fore Street, one of the many fudge shops you’ll find in the town.
The Allotment Deli is a wonderful place, specialising in a range of local Cornish produce, including fresh, seasonal veg and award- winning local cheeses.
Hudson Art St Ives offers a great range of homeware, gifts and art, with lots of wonderful things for children.
The homeware/lifestyle shop Port of Call, in Market Place, is beautifully laid-out.
Sweetlime Studio on Wills Lane have a gorgeous selection of accessories, jewellery and homewares.
General Things to Note
1) Be very careful if eating food ‘on the hoof’ – the seagulls are brazen and will swoop down to steal whole ice-creams/scones/bags of chips.
2) Parking can be an issue depending on where you’re staying (a lot of rental cottages don’t have parking spaces). There is a largish long stay car park on the Island where you can park your car for a week for £47, or £8 per day.
3) The summer months in St Ives are pretty busy so if you can go off peak, you will enjoy a little less hustle and bustle.
4) The streets are fairly narrow and mostly cobbled, with a fair number of hills/steep inclines. It’s perfectly doable with a buggy (although a bit bumpy!) but a baby carrier/sling/backpack carrier may be easier.
So if you’re looking for a great UK holiday which offers something for everyone, and is great for kids, St Ives is well worth visiting. And who knows, maybe you’ll love it as much as we do and want to return there year after year to make more happy memories. If there are any particular UK holiday spots that hold a strong pull for you then I’d love to hear about them.