Bunker Projects founder Charlie McVeigh explains why he believes the Cornish town of St Ives is setting an example for other seaside resorts to follow
In the middle of the July heatwave we hopped on the slow train from London Paddington to St Ives. It was an important wedding anniversary and the decision to celebrate it with a long weekend in the UK – rather than, say, Paris or the Amalfi Coast was influenced by a chaotic array of conscious and sub-conscious influencing factors that will be common to many.
Firstly, I hate airports. I don’t dislike flying once I am on the plane but everything about checking in, security, phony Duty Free, delays and the generally dehumanising experience of air travel makes me grind my teeth.
By way of contrast the train to St Ives was a bona fide highlight of the trip. Super-fast to Exeter, and then, like my mood, it slowed right down and viscerally decompressed as we passed Newton Abbot and started to straddle the coastline itself on the fabled Dawlish run past empty or busy beaches, castles, quiet Regency towns and the odd glinting lighthouse. Philip Larkin nailed it in Whitsun Weddings: “All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept for miles inland, a slow and stopping curve we kept…”
By the time we exhaled into St Erth to change on to the tiny-wee branch line through Carbis Bay to St Ives, I was deeply, profoundly relaxed by the journey. But also by the knowledge we were going to step off the train literally on to Porthminster Beach and from then on would not be back in a mechanically powered vehicle again until we left three days later. Yes, everything about St Ives is walkable.
Secondly, even this old dinosaur gets that staycations save the planet from alien attack – or something like that. Enough said.
Thirdly, I wanted to be sure of eating and drinking well. Readers of last month’s column will be aware of my views on the desperately poor quality of much of the restaurant food in France. My one and only friend in St Ives – but what a friend! – Richard Boon of Hubbox fame had booked us a table at his place, but also – for the nerve-jangling set-piece anniversary celebration itself – a table at the Porthminster Beach Cafe. The fact we turned up at the competing PorthMEOR Beach Café by mistake – a 20-minute walk away on the other side of the town-peninsula on an even more striking beach – made no odds. Yes, it was heaving and fully booked. Yes, Mrs McVeigh’s low expectations of my capacity for personal admin were once again comfortably under-sailed. And, yes, they found us a table and we ate perfectly cooked seafood while watching the sun do what it was supposed to do, only more so. I hadn’t had the nerve to tell Mr Boon about this until now – sorry Richard.
Both Beach Cafes are magnificent. You felt either place could have got away with “ok ” given the views. Instead, you get confident design, friendly, articulate, knowledgeable service, not to mention food and drink of global quality.
And then there’s Hubbox. Reputedly a better burger chain, it's several hundred notches above that. Pints at the bar before with Boon, his son and their group chef were brewed by Harbour and were, well, bloody good. Cocktails were made with panache by good-looking bar staff for the heaving restaurant but without ever losing the warmth, bants and eye contact that so define a truly great bar. Of course there are burgers, but there’s also lobster on a big menu with both quirk and comfort for all. And there's lovely, super-efficient floor service by the kind of nice person who grew up in St Ives and is pleased and proud to stay there.
There are drawbacks. The hotels aren’t brilliant and are expensive (though I do recommend the tiny Trevose Harbour House where we stayed on our last night). The town and beaches are super-busy, which can get a tad oppressive in a small place. But, frankly, it’s hard to find fault especially when the sun shines, which it notably did on us.
So how does St Ives do it and so many other seaside towns don’t? It has the beautiful geography. It has the cultural history – now is the moment to mention the spectacular Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden – for me the best art experience anywhere. And the Tate is impressive, if possibly too large and ponderous in scale for the town. And the town tells its story with verve and passion, such that it crawls with tourists from China and Holland as well as London.
But all seaside towns have the sea, something which we all crave. Most are walkable and can be readily reached by train, precluding the need for motorised transport on arrival. Many are much nearer to urban conurbations – I don’t think there are many more remote towns in England than St Ives. A significant number – think the Kent coast – have a spectacular mix of Victorian, Regency and even medieval architecture.
The genius that is Mitch Tonks has shown most half-decent seaside towns can support a thriving Rockfish. I had lunch with he and Henry Dimbleby in his posh restaurant, The Seahorse in Dartmouth, on a Monday in mid-January and it was full to the gunnels. In fact, it is further testament to St Ives you don’t much miss Mitch when you’re there.
So let’s call the bottom on the seaside town. Some are unquestionably already thriving – Whitstable, Brighton etc – but the government is sufficiently worried by the plight of many to have launched the Coastal Revival Fund to support regeneration. With intelligent and sentient government support (a big ask, I concede), I for one am sure each one can and must find its mojo, its own narrative, its own place in the sun. None of us want to fly on planes or get skin cancer – let’s face it a good lashing by rain and salt spray does wonders for the complexion.