From St Ives station, there’s a view of sand, palms and, across misty blue water, a lighthouse on a rocky island. Virginia Woolf and her sister, artist Vanessa Bell, saw this view as children from the house their father rented. It later featured in Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, set in the Hebrides but clearly inspired by St Ives. She describes “the great plateful of blue water” and “hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere in the midst”. Images have lingered ever since I read it years ago at college, and my pub walk is something of a literary pilgrimage.
Five minutes after leaving the station, I’m in front of Talland House, a big white early 19th-century building with wrought-iron balconies looking out to sea from between evergreens. A plaque records that Woolf spent 12 summers here from 1882, when she was born. I’m planning to walk to the Badger in Lelant, a pub that Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) enjoyed around 1909-10. But first I’m ambling round St Ives to soak up the art.
The morning sun is pouring through a hole in a bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. The light that drew so many artists intensifies the jumble of white, grey, gold and azure below. I ramble down cobbled lanes, past galleries and cafes, to the harbour and then over a grassy headland known as the Island, to the seaside rotunda of Tate St Ives. The churning surf and shifting sands of Porthmeor beach are just outside, framed by the gallery’s curving front window.
My favourite space among the town’s galleries is Hepworth’s leafy garden. Cornwall’s sea-warmed air means spiky agaves, palms and bamboos flourish among the sculptures. A waxy evergreen magnolia and flamboyant camellias surround the greenhouse, sweet with jasmine and geraniums. The branches of a cherry brush against towering bronze arcs. The massive Four-Square (Walk Through) in the middle of the garden echoes the church tower I can see through forked branches. Some of Hepworth’s tools are scattered in a workshop as if she’s just paused for tea. It’s one of those museums that alters your perspective on the world outside: after it, every mossy chimney and cracked cobblestone, every wet-haired surfer and red-legged wading bird looks like a work of art.
The landscapes around are stippled and spiked with standing stones, cairns and burial chambers. A couple of hours later, I’m on the rocky top of Trencrom Hill, its wide views bathed in light. Inside the banks of an iron age hillfort are hut circles and boulders. I can see as far as the Hayle estuary, where I’m heading, and St Michael’s Mount, linked to this hill by a folk tale about boulder-lobbing giants. On the way up, I passed huge Bowl Rock, said to be one of the balls the giants threw.
I had planned to toddle straight down the coast to the pub after doing the galleries, but the night before I read about a letter from Woolf to her brother-in-law Clive Bell, written on Boxing Day 1909. She describes sitting by the fire at the inn, “thinking how one staggered up Tren Crom in the mist this afternoon, and sat on a granite tomb on the top, and surveyed the land”, and I know I have to climb this old hill too. The sunken tracks that lead there are full of ivy and ferns, and accessed by worn stone stiles. Often the only noises are wood pigeons, streams or cocks crowing.
The moments of doubt as I puff up through prickly gorse vanish in the hilltop sunshine. Here are the rocks Woolf compares to “couchant camels” and “granite gate posts”. A 13-mile walk called St Michael’s Way leads here as it crosses Cornwall from coast to coast. It’s an ancient section of the Camino de Santiago, revived 20 years ago and now part of a growing trend for modern pilgrimages. Near Lelant, St Michael’s scallop shell waymarks and the acorns marking the South West Coast Path converge on an undulating clifftop track.
There are views of Godrevy lighthouse across wide beaches. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf describes “green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them”. It’s late afternoon as I finally follow the coast towards Lelant and the granite tower of St Uny’s church glows orange in the dying light. Ancient stone crosses stand in the graveyard under holm oaks. Stepping inside to admire the barrel roof and Norman pillars, I wonder why there’s a copy of the Bible in German but learn that Rosamunde Pilcher was born in Lelant in 1924. Nearly 70 years later, German TV channel ZDF started screening films based on her Cornish-set novels and now German visitors come in their droves. Who’d blame them? The sea air is as mild and malty as a pint of Cornish Best and plovers are gathering by the estuary in the soft evening light.
Google map of the route
Start St Ives railway station
Distance 10½ miles
Time 6 hours
Total ascent 565 metres
Buses and trains run regularly back to St Ives from near the pub in Lelant.
Standing at a crossroads in the middle of Lelant, the Badger is an old-school 18th-century inn. Woolf was happy here: “very comfortable and humble” she wrote, “at the centre of the gossip of the village”. It serves filling portions of classic country pub grub much to the delight of German visitors, who recommend the burgers, fish and chips and “urige [rustic] Atmosphäre mit schönem Biergarten”. It has St Austell ales on tap and the ploughman’s comes with Cornish yarg; also there are Sir Woofchester’s chicken flavoured “beer” and Paw Star dog martinis for canine guests.
Where to stay
The Badger has six cheerful bedrooms If there’s no room, buses leave from almost outside the pub door for Penzance, close to whose harbour Artist Residence (doubles from £120 room-only) has stylishly individual rooms and gourmet food. To walk it off next day, the far end of St Michael’s Way has a new forest of sculptures along the coast path nearby).
Doubles from £90 B&B, badgerinn.co.uk