We thump our foam boards down on Porthmeor Beach. Shrink-wrapped in a quartet of borrowed wetsuits, we’re warm, despite a steady drizzle and temperatures the wrong side of ten degrees. Our chirpy St Ives Surf School instructor, Giacomo (there are no waves in Rome, so here he is), briefs us on the basics. ‘Turn your back on the wave, lie belly-down on the board, look straight ahead and paddle, paddle, paddle! When the wave takes you, move to your standing position and head for shore.’
Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? And, on the beach at least, it is. In fact, with stances off pat, we are extremely good at faux-surfing, dude. Trouble is, 20 yards beyond us the sea looks almost alive and Giacomo calls the ferocious, white-crested ocean ‘solid’. I ponder whether it’s too late to sidestep Mother Nature’s giant wave machine in favour of a cup of tea and a pasty instead.
No such thoughts intrude the minds of our kids. Belle, ten, and Cleo, seven, march with gusto straight for the spin-cycle ocean. Tripping off Giacomo’s every instruction, they dutifully turn their backs at the right moment and wait for the first thrilling wave to thrust them upwards and back to shore. They’re nimble and fearless, and we have to drag them from the ocean when the light begins to fade.
Swell time: Jo Tweedy visited Godrevy Lighthouse, which inspired Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To The Lighthouse
Jo’s children, Belle and Cleo, with their board on the beach. They were ‘nimble and fearless’ in the water, she writes
How did I do? I had all the elegance of one of St Ives’s famous pilchards, standing up just twice and succumbing to the fabled ‘wipeout’ many times… but it was utterly exhilarating.
The embers of Britons’ enduring love affair with Cornwall, famous for its sweeps of honey sands, hidden coves, big-hitting tourist attractions (step forward, Eden Project), centuries-old pubs and ambrosial gardens have never burned brighter than they did last summer. When the Med temporarily shut up shop, Cornwall became the next best thing on home soil. And, gorgeous jutting St Ives, with its bobbing boats, pretty houses and trio of California-esque beaches – Porthminster, Porthmeor and Porthgwidden – was top of staycation lists, alongside Padstow, Port Isaac and Poldark’s Charlestown. Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, tells me that 2.8 million visitors descended – up 20 per cent on more ordinary times. But make no mistake, St Ives out of season doesn’t mean you won’t have to queue for your post-surf cuppa.
Our half-term visit sees Wharf Road, the harbour-facing cobblestone thoroughfare that’s stuffed cheek-by-jowl with shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants – including 14th Century tavern The Sloop Inn – host the kind of crowds a resort elsewhere might pray for at summer’s height. The locals, I’m told, barely set foot here unless it’s mid-winter, preferring quieter beaches such as Porthkidney, between Hayle and Carbis Bay.
Beach life may be at this town’s heart but art and literature courses flow through its veins. We stride up one morning to Virginia Woolf’s childhood home, Talland House, and although you can only glimpse it from a side road, we did savour the same views out to sea as the author, including to white-washed Godrevy Lighthouse, which inspired her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse.
While visitors can see some of Barbara Hepworth’s work in the Tate St Ives (pictured), Jo says don’t miss a visit to the sculptor’s home turned museum
Enormous, arching skies and a daily drenching of golden light have bewitched artists too. The striking white rotunda of Tate St Ives, overlooking Porthmeor Beach, documents how the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter put the town on the global art map.
Yorkshire-born sculptor Hepworth remains St Ives’s most famous name, and while some of her works are in the Tate, her former home turned museum – a six-minute walk away – shouldn’t be missed. Hepworth’s beloved Trewyn Studio is where she lived, worked and died: in bed after falling asleep while smoking a cigarette in 1975.
From Carbis Bay we take a 40-minute stroll along the South West Coast Path. Along this stretch, we savour big picture views of the Atlantic, plenty of lush greenery and eclectic architecture, with everything from 21st Century minimalist monoliths to fishermen’s cottages lining the route.
Jo stayed at Una St Ives, an upmarket resort with ‘architect-designed’ self-catering lodges and villas
Carbis, a tiny beachside village, is a five-minute drive away from Jo’s base at Una St Ives. Pictured is its ‘small but beautiful’ beach
Carbis, essentially a tiny beachside village, exudes a glitzier air after hosting the 2021 G7 Summit. Photos of Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel posing incongruously on its small but beautiful beach have seen tourists arriving for a nose since. We stayed a five-minute drive away at Una St Ives, an upmarket resort that huddles architect-designed self-catering lodges and villas – many with hot tubs and log-burners – around a hub that includes a trendy casual diner in Una Kitchen, and a gorgeous pool and spa. Soon to expand, it’s a perfect base for families who want outdoorsy adventures, and somewhere to properly relax afterwards.
When it came to meals, tourism and the pandemic made spontaneity a little difficult; our attempts at walk-ins (particularly Art Deco Porthminster Beach Cafe, which has won awards for its Asian and Mediterranean seafood) failed, so book ahead.
Cornwall is certainly in the running for many family summer holidays this year, but switching to any of the other school breaks – one local tipped May as the best month to visit – is a sage move as the madding crowds are smaller and accommodation prices tumble. And just because it’s cold outside, it doesn’t mean you can’t go surfing.
Joanna Tweedy was a guest of Una St Ives. She stayed in a two-bedroom self-catering lodge with prices from £140 per night (unastives.co.uk). Lessons at St Ives Surf School cost from £40pp (stivessurfschool.co.uk).