From St Ives station, you can behold a captivating view of sandy beaches, palm trees, and in the distance, a lighthouse perched on a rocky island across the misty blue water. This picturesque scene, cherished by Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell during their childhood years, served as inspiration for Woolf’s renowned novel, To the Lighthouse. While the story is set in the Hebrides, it clearly draws from the beauty and ambiance of St Ives. In her novel, Woolf eloquently describes “the great plateful of blue water” and the “hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere in the midst.” Since reading this novel during my college years, these images have remained with me, and my pub walk in St Ives has become a literary pilgrimage.
Just five minutes after leaving the station, I find myself standing in front of Talland House, a grand white building from the early 19th century adorned with charming wrought-iron balconies. Peeking through the evergreen foliage, the house offers breathtaking views of the sea. A plaque on the building commemorates Woolf’s 12 summers spent here, starting from her birth in 1882. My plan for the day is to walk to the Badger pub in Lelant, a place that Woolf (then known as Virginia Stephen) frequented in 1909-10. But before I embark on my journey, I take a leisurely stroll around St Ives to immerse myself in its vibrant art scene.
As I venture through cobbled lanes, passing by galleries and cafes, I am bathed in the morning sun shining through a hole in a bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. This light, which has attracted countless artists to this town, accentuates the beautiful blend of white, grey, gold, and azure below. I continue my stroll towards the harbor and then make my way to a grassy headland known as the Island, leading me to the striking rotunda of Tate St Ives. The rhythmic crashing of the surf and the shifting sands of Porthmeor beach lie just beyond, perfectly framed by the gallery’s curved window.
My favorite spot among all the galleries in town is Hepworth’s serene garden, where spiky agave plants, palm trees, and bamboo thrive amidst her sculptures. The sea-warmed air of Cornwall provides the perfect climate for these exotic plants to flourish. A fragrant evergreen magnolia tree, accompanied by flamboyant camellias, surrounds the greenhouse, filling the air with the delightful scents of jasmine and geraniums. The branches of a cherry tree gently brush against towering bronze arcs. At the heart of the garden stands the magnificent Four-Square (Walk Through) sculpture, reminiscent of the church tower visible through the branches. Hepworth’s tools are scattered about in her workshop as if she has just taken a break for tea. This museum-like garden truly alters one’s perspective of the world beyond its borders – every mossy chimney, cracked cobblestone, wet-haired surfer, and red-legged wading bird suddenly takes on the appearance of a true work of art.
In one letter to her brother-in-law, Woolf vividly describes Tren Crom, a mist-covered hilltop, which instantly captures my attention. I know that I must also climb this ancient hill. The landscapes surrounding the area are adorned with standing stones, cairns, and burial chambers, creating a mystical and compelling atmosphere. A couple of hours later, I find myself standing atop the rocky summit of Trencrom Hill, engulfed in warm, radiant light. Inside the banks of an iron age hillfort, ancient hut circles and boulders dot the landscape. I gaze out towards the Hayle estuary, my ultimate destination, and catch a glimpse of St Michael’s Mount – a place intrinsically linked to this hill through a folk tale of giants hurling massive boulders. On my way up the hill, I passed by the enormous Bowl Rock, said to be one of the stones thrown by these giants. The view from the top of Trencrom Hill is simply breathtaking, and it opens up a whole new appreciation for the enchanting Cornwall countryside. From here, I can see the “couchant camels” and “granite gate posts” that Woolf describes in her writing. St Michael’s Way, a 13-mile path that traverses Cornwall from coast to coast, leads to this very spot. This ancient section of the Camino de Santiago was revived two decades ago and has become part of a modern trend for pilgrimages. Near Lelant, the scallop shell waymarks of St Michael’s Way converge with the acorns marking the South West Coast Path along a rolling cliffside trail.
As I progress along the coastline towards Lelant, I am treated to magnificent views of Godrevy Lighthouse framed by expansive beaches. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf beautifully portrays “green sand dunes with wild flowing grasses” – a sight that is truly unforgettable. As the late afternoon sun paints the sky in golden hues, I eventually arrive at Lelant, where the granite tower of St Uny’s church glows warmly in the fading light. Ancient stone crosses rest in the graveyard beneath towering holm oaks. Stepping inside the church, I am captivated by its barrel roof and Norman pillars. I can’t help but notice a German copy of the Bible, which piques my curiosity. I soon discover that Rosamunde Pilcher, the acclaimed author of Cornish-set novels, was born in Lelant in 1924. Nearly 70 years later, German TV channel ZDF began airing films based on Pilcher’s works, drawing hordes of German visitors to this charming town. And who could blame them? The sea air in Lelant is as mild and fragrant as a pint of Cornish Best, and in the soft evening light, plovers gather at the estuary.
Post content obtained from The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2022/apr/27/walking-in-virginia-woolfs-footsteps-st-ives-cornwall-to-lelant)
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