There are a few wonderful railway journeys still to be had as you travel in the UK.
One of the most glorious surely has to be on home turf - the celebrated North York Moors line that makes its stately long sweep through magnificent, unspoiled countryside. And another, rivalling it for jaw-dropping beauty is the short branch from St Erth, on the Paddington to Penzance route, which runs down to St Ives.
Ignoring the first 100 yards or so which runs straight past a tyre-recycling dump that ought to be ashamed of itself, the view beyond is breathtaking. Here miles and miles of glistening sand and sea are dotted with buildings hanging on to cliff sides, dunes and inlets. I defy anyone not to gasp as the train glides along by Carbis Bay, and again as you get the first glimpse of St Ives. That skirt of coastline may be short, but it was more than enough compensation for the rowdy drunks we’d had to endure on the sleeper service (yes, one still does exist) to Cornwall.
As was our accommodation, Harbour Beach Cottage, perched up a slope called Mount Zion, and not so far from Teetotal Street (I jest not). It had everything that you could possibly want as fixtures and fittings, a view of the harbour from the upper floors, and a Cornish clotted cream tea to enjoy later neatly parked and ready in the fridge. The cottage is one of a number of four and five star properties offered by Cornish Gems and once showered and spruced, the time was over-ripe for a full exploration of this seaside gem. St Ives been a thriving place since the railway arrived in the late 1870s, which brought first the artists, who took full advantage to the crystal-clear light conditions, and then the trippers, who came to look at their work. The artists never went away (every other house or building in St Ives seems to be a gallery of some sort) and the public haven’t stopped coming either. One of the most famous of the former was our own Barbara Hepworth, a Wakefield lass who relocated to the town before the Second World War. Today, the Hepworth Sculpture Gardens, with their many sculptures and intimate views into her studio space have to be a must on any visit - as is a walk around the Tate Gallery, which overlooks Porthmeor Beach.
The Tate, offers a visiting home to many touring exhibitions and this summer there’s one dedicated to textile designer Patrick Heron. You can save a few pounds by asking for a combined ticket to the Hepworth and the Tate.
That’s one tip. Another is - watch out for the seagulls. Wise people do not promenade along with a warm Cornish pasty in one hand - the gulls here are voracious predators.
There are signs by the waterfront to remind you that St Ives is a “working harbour”, and, indeed, fishing and seafaring has been a part of life here for millennia. There’s an RNLI lifeboat station and their present craft, The Princess Royal, is coming toward the end of her operational life after 20 years. A new Shannon class boat will come into service in 2015, and there’s a big fund-raising effort going on. If you need any incentive at all to cough up a few quid, then go and have a look inside the medieval St Leonard’s Chapel, on Smeaton’s Pier (incongruously nestled betwixt the Harbour Master’s office and a gents public loo), which has been a place of worship for mariners for many hundreds of years. Inside, there’s plaque to the memory of just some of the brave St Ives sailors who never came back. To raise the spirits a little, take a peek inside the adjacent Church Hall, where there is a daily crafts fair, and many hand-made bargains to be had. And to raise them even further, get your hands on a brochure for this year’s St Ives Festival (which runs from September 14 to 28) and have a look at an impressive list of events covering just about every aspect of the artistic spectrum. And who is the man at the head of this operation? None other than Rotherham-born Alan Shepherd, a man of many parts since he is also (and among other things) an accountant, businessman and performance poet.
He and his team have built on the festival to deliver, in 2013, nearly 400 diverse events - workshops, concerts, films, theatre, story-telling, poetry, exhibitions ... you name it, and it is almost certain to be included.
“All I do, “ says Alan modestly, “is to try to pull all the strands together, to help, advise and to plan. We’ll use just about any space where people can gather together - whether it be a church hall, a gallery, a bar in a pub, somewhere on a beach, hotels, cafes….it doesn’t matter. We have everything from comedian Arthur Smith and Fairport Convention to lunchtime concerts in the Parish Church….”
Not to mention dozens of walks throughout the two festival weeks featuring (among many other topics) The Archaeology of West Penwith, The Story of St Ives, St Ives Fishing Industry and the historic landmarks used as inspiration by the artist Alfred Wallis. You can, of course, just sit in one of Rod’s Deckchairs (£2.50 for the day) on the Harbour Beach, or watch the world go by from the excellent vantage point of the Upper Deck bar of the Sloop Inn. But to ignore the festival would be to miss one of St Ives’ 21st-century gems. Phil Penfold stayed at Harbour Beach Cottage. To book through Cornish Gems, specialists in luxury homes, lettings and management.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0844 8002813. Their head office is in Truro on 01872 241241.