A little while ago (see 2 July, I wrote about the English seaside town of Broadstairs. England’s second best seaside resort I said.
Now, at last, I have escaped from the Fiction Factory for a few weeks and I’m 300 miles southwest of London in England’s best seaside town. St Ives, in Cornwall.
The wave rolls towards us, pushing up the face of the sea like the surfacing back of a hidden sea monster. It was big enough when it was fifty yards away, gathering itself for the final run into the beach; as it approaches it rears above us. At the last second I notice how small the Nipper looks against this wall of water. I wonder – too late to do anything about it – whether this might be a little too risky. Then what feels like a lorry load of cold Atlantic water slaps down on us like the hand of God. The wave turns me upside down and drives me down deep enough for my shoulder to bump against the sandy sea bottom, before I claw myself upright again and kick upwards.
I surface, spitting salt water from my mouth, and look around. The Nipper emerges spluttering from the foaming water, looking like a blond-haired seal in his black wetsuit. “That was a total crusher,” he says, laughing like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. “I got totally crushed.”
There are many things to love about St Ives in Cornwall. When the sun shines, the view from our apartment could pass for a sumptuous stretch of Mediterranean sand. From the coast path above the town you get a gorgeous view of stone houses tumbling down the slope like children’s toys hastily swept up to clear space for the harbour, and beyond it the deep, impossible blue of the sea stretching away to the far Atlantic horizon.
Admittedly, when the sun doesn’t shine (which, this being England, is often), it can feel more like Iceland. But you don’t go on holiday in England if you want endless sunny days and a sea as warm as your bath.
There is plenty to do and see, reflecting the layering of the town’s long history as a fishing port, and artist colony and now an unashamed holidaymaker’s haven. But for me and my eleven year old son the highlight is always the time we spend at Porthmeor Beach.
If you go to St Ives people will inevitably say: ‘You must go to the Tate gallery, of course.’ Tate St Ives is undoubtedly a popular attraction. It opened on the site of an old gas works in 1993. It always looks appealing; facing the Atlantic with its bold art deco front and white curving roof over the entrance staircase. It’s hard to resist going in.
Until you turn and look the other way, towards the sea, and – if you’re me and the Nipper – Porthmeor Beach wins every time. There are several great beaches in St Ives, all of them great for families in their different ways. But Porthmeor is where we come for our Dad and Lad fun. The beach is north-facing, so sheltered from the fiercest Atlantic swells. That might mean this isn‘t the place for the hardcore surfers, but the waves are more than adequate for a thrilling session of body boarding, swimming and general water-based roughhousing. This a not a beach for sunbathing or gentle games of Frisbee. It gets too full for that, and in any case the focus is all on the water. People come here to go in the sea, and it rarely disappoints, even when the water is so cold that it makes your wrist-bones ache where it touches the flesh exposed sat the end of your wetsuit sleeves.
So mum can wander the galleries, but for the boys its on with the wetsuits, check the tide tables (the waves are especially frisky at high tide) and down to Porthmeor. If you’re really greedy, the Tate allegedly has a rack for your surfboard, so you can surf in the morning and soak up culture during the afternoon. I confess I’ve never checked this out. Personally, I’m only fit to soak up beer after a few hours in those waves. (And Cornwall has many fine local ales, but that’s another story.)