Back to Britain, Part 11

Tate St. Ives Art Museum, Lifeboat Station

June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 5, 2003)



1. London revisited

6.  Royal Gardens at Kew

11. Tate Gallery at St. Ives

2. Dolphin Square Hotel

7.  Tate Britain, Riverwalk

12. Eden Project, Heligan

3. London Eye, Piccadilly

8.  Greenwich Naval Museum

13. Rainy day in Cornwall

4. V&A, Tower of London

9.  Roman baths at Bath

14. Land’s End, Penzance

5. Queen Troops the Colours

10. St. Ives’ Trewinnard Hotel

15. To Gatwick and home


Index to 46 Photos



By Lewis Nolan

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Friday, June 20, 2003 – In St. Ives


A mild breeze off the cold Atlantic made the day feel much cooler than the forecast 70 degrees.  Sunlight danced off the azure waves that nipped at the shoreline. We happily had a great day before us to explore St. Ives. I wish I’d brought some Coppertone and a golf visor.


The unexpected, bright sunshine had me scrambling from store to store to find a visor to at least shield my face from sunburn. We probably walked five miles in all during our meanders through the town’s streets and walking paths. My fascination with sailing and the sea has led us to many harbors and seaside towns during our travels over the years. Betty and I agree that St. Ives is without a doubt the prettiest we’ve seen.


 Here is how the “Let’s Go” guidebook to Britain describes St. Ives:

Lewis at Porthmeor Beach. Surfers brave cold water
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo


The town’s cobbled medieval alleyways, splashed with the color of overflowing flowerpots, have drawn visitors for more than a century. In the 1920s, a colony of painters and sculptors moved here; today, their legacy fills the windows of the countless local art galleries, including a branch of the Tate Gallery. Virginia Woolf too was bewitched by the energy of the Atlantic at St. Ives. “To the Lighthouse,” one of her masterpieces, is thought to refer to the Godrvey Lighthouse in the distance, disappearing and reappearing in the morning fog. Whether you seek the perfect muse or just the perfect strip of sand, St. Ives has it, even if it’s hidden beneath a veneer of postcards and ice cream cones.”


Fodor’s “Upclose” guidebook to Britain also waxes poetic when describing St. Ives:


“As you approach St. Ives, the view will stir you to the bone. With waves lapping on one side of the hill and a harbor on the other, you’ll wonder why you didn’t catch a fast train here to begin with. The yellow lichen that covers most rooftops throughout Cornwall descends on St. Ives like magic gold dust. The water is aqua and deep blue. Purple and red umbrellas blossom on the sandy beaches on sunny days and palm trees spike the blue skies.” 


The harbor is only a few hundred yards across. It is protected by two massive, concrete, piers. A gap allows passage of fishing boats and other small craft. Except for the gap, walkways on the town’s harbor-front wharves are wide enough for a truck. A walker can almost completely circle the harbor on foot to see St. Ives from every angle.


High above the harbor is what locals call “the Island.” It is really a narrow-throated peninsula that has been kept clear of development. The mostly open-space area is covered with a thick, soft turf that must be centuries old. I felt like I was walking on pillows when I stepped off the rocky paths that circle the Island.


At the peak of the Island is a Coast Watchers Station. It is one of several dozen stations in Britain that are staffed by volunteers. The willing hands – many of them retirees – stand duty shifts and monitor everything that passes at sea. They record in logbooks descriptive information about fishing and recreational boats, whale sightings, passing sharks and other waterborne and airborne life. Their observations are conveyed to government agencies when appropriate. Each station has a radio than can be used in emergencies.

Lewis at Coastal Watchers Station
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo


Betty and I both do some volunteer work in Memphis. We’ve seen first-hand the dilemma facing most not-for-profit organizations. There is a constant struggle to find sufficient numbers of volunteers to carry out all sorts of important work. Recruiting efforts are hindered by the ever-growing length of the workweek in America.


With such a beautiful view and interesting volunteer work, the Coast Watchers Station at St. Ives doesn’t seem to face much of a shortage of people willing to help out. The watchers have one of the grandest views I’ve ever had. A person facing the ocean will have the picture-perfect town and harbor on his right. Beneath and a little to the right is the tiny Porthgwidden beach.  Below and to the immediate left are wave-battered rock formations whose black cliffs and stones suggest basalt. To the left there is the wide Porthmeor Beach, which on nice days is dotted with sunbathers and resting surfers. The sea’s bottom to the left forms decent waves that attract the wetsuit brigade.


Were it not for the coldness of the water (60 degrees), one could easily think that the ocean at Cornwall is the Caribbean because of its clarity and multihued colors of green and blue. What a smashing sight. What a treat it must be for the volunteer coast watchers at St. Ives to serve their country and community in the midst of such beauty.


Britain is an island nation with a strong seafaring tradition. It seems that most Brits love the oceans of the world and everything about them. The newspapers and TV news accounts are heavy with reportage about shipping and other nautical matters. I’ve been told there is no spot in England that is more than 75 miles from the sea.


Two delightful, older gentlemen in the Coast Watchers Station warmly welcomed us when we asked if we could come in to have a look. They gave us an enthusiastic tour of the observation area (about the size of a dining room) and offered their oversize binoculars for better viewing. They provided us with a locational fix of the spot 20 miles away where the infamous oil tanker Torrey Canyon sunk. Although that environmental disaster happened a quarter century ago, the memory of the pollution remains strong today. Untold thousands of birds and sea creatures died and many miles of Cornwall coastline was transformed into a gigantic oil slick for months.


Perhaps a half a mile from the station is the Tate St. Ives Gallery. The circular, glass-and-stucco building was designed to give visitors maximum viewing of the turquoise ocean and yellow sand of Porthmeor Beach. The gallery is one of the two branches of the Tate that have been built outside London. The citizens of St. Ives gave much support to the prestigious expansion of the Tate into their community, an important ratification of the town’s long tradition of being a Mecca for the arts. The modernistic building opened in 1993. It is owned by the Cornwall County Council and is managed by the Tate.


The gallery has no permanent collection. The focus is on presenting ever-changing exhibitions of modern, abstract paintings and sculptures that were created in Britain, with preference for Cornish influence. A rooftop café offers what has been described as one of Cornwall’s best locales for a cup of tea and a fabulous view.


Adult admission to the Tate St. Ives is £5. However, since I am 60, I qualified for the senior rate – free. That is the only attribute of being 60 that I can think of. But I must be thankful for making it this far in life, with reasonable health and mobility. Way too many people I’ve known over the years have not been so fortunate. 

Lewis by Barbara Hepworth sculpture in park
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We were in particular luck this day because the Tate’s newly installed exhibition featured the work of the late Barbara Hepworth. She is most prominent artist who has resided in St. Ives. The artist is probably Britain’s most celebrated sculptor of the 20th Century and one of its most important artists of all time. She was born in 1903 and died in 1975. She asked in her will that her studio and sculptures be permanently open to the public. Her nearby home and studio has been managed by the Tate since1980.  Additional sculptures by the artist adorn terrace gardens and other public areas of St. Ives.


It was only fitting that the 10th Anniversary of the opening of Tate St. Ives be celebrated with the “Barbara Hepworth Centenary” exhibition. The exhibit also marked her birth 100 years previously. The show – which ran from mid-May until mid-September in 2003 - filled the gallery with her sculptures and paintings from collections around the world.


We had a tasty lunch of sandwiches at a genuine “tea shop” near the Tate. The name of the tiny and tidy lunchroom is “Mumbles.” We were introduced to a signature dish of Cornwall, “Cornish Clotted Cream.” It looks a lot like soft butter and tastes sweeter and more creamy than the butter we eat back home. It comes from the milk of Jersey cows, which have the highest butterfat content.  Clotted cream is served as a spread or as a side dish with desserts, sandwiches and salads.


It is a delight to eat and must be a terrible temptation for those poor souls on low fat diets. However, clotted cream is no diet buster for people on the Atkins program. Atkins has taught millions of Americans that it is okay to eat fats and proteins in reasonable quantities as long as they keep the carbohydrate count low. It is a controversial approach to weight loss. But it has worked for me.


After our long trudge around St. Ives, I decided to take a short nap back at the Trewinnard Hotel. Ever the indefatigable shopper, Betty decided to poke around the town’s trendy stores. She bought several gifts for family and friends. For our greyhound Dickens she purchased a Union Jack scarf and a squeaking dog toy shaped like a Royal Mail Postman.


Later, we walked to a nearby restaurant recommended by our hosts, Ken Maidmint and Glynis O’Shea. The name of the seafood house is The Wave. It has a comfortable setting that is very modern, sparse and hard-edged. I fell off the Atkins Wagon and went for sea bass served on fennel and spicy, shredded potatoes. Betty had broccoli-almond soup and fresh crab served with gnocchi pasta. It was the best meal we had during the trip even if it was fancier food than we prefer. The seafood was wonderfully fresh and absolutely delicious. But we thought it was unnecessarily dolled up with a lot of fresh spices and a gravity-defying, vertical presentation.


We were surprised to learn the new chef is Irish since the food that comes out of his kitchen is classic, French haute cuisine. I don’t think a really fresh fish needs much spice or sauce. Too much spice seems to trigger weird dreams for me.


After dinner, we visited the St. Ives Lifeboat Station. It is located right on the wharf and is adjacent to a stone ramp used to by the station’s waterproofed tractor to launch the boats. When low tide empties the harbor, the vehicle tows the boats across the sand bottom.


The main lifeboat is a 38-foot craft of the Mersey Class. It was designed to be fast launched from a carriage, or trailer. It has a top speed of 16 knots, a range of 140 miles and is made of aluminum. The boat is self-righting and has twin propellers that are fully protected by partial tunnels and substantial bilge keels. The station’s other boat is a small, Zodiac-style craft used in shallow waters.  


The station’s two boats are manned by a paid coxswain and half a dozen volunteers.  Women volunteers manage the station’s small gift shop. The station is one of 220 in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. They are operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity with the noble mission of saving lives at sea. In all, the RNLI’s lifeboats are launched more than 6,000 times a year and are credited with the rescue of more than 6,300 people every year.


Station volunteers spend a lot of their own time training and honing their seamanship skills. It is usually the worst weather that they must face when the Mayday calls for help come in over the radio. The volunteers carry pagers with them at all times. They are constantly ready to leave work at a moment’s notice or leap out of bed to answer duty’s call. Some years back, an awful storm claimed the lives of an entire crew when the St. Ives lifeboat sunk during a rescue mission. 


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