The days of ore

St Ives may have the most beautiful beaches in bygone days but it was hardly the coastal view that attracted visitors.

Although Cornwall is one of the most geographically isolated parts of Britain, paradoxically it appears to have enjoyed its fair share of visitors from across various parts of the ancient world. Visitors from Ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece and Rome have at various times trodden Cornish soil and interacted with the natives.

Cornwall’s popularity in those far-off days was hardly attributable to its spectacular scenery, stretches of golden sands or board-rideable surfs. Cornwall had something far more precious – tin and copper (in addition to other valuable ores) found near the Earth’s surface and running through its very bedrock. Such easily mined resources were pretty scarce in other parts of Europe.

What made these metals so special? Around 5,000 years ago the Sumerians discovered that a small amount of tin ore added to molten copper produced an incredible new alloy – bronze. Bronze was harder than tin or copper but was far easier to fashion (by means of casting) into useful things like weapons, armour, agricultural implements, household objects and jewellery. So ended the Stone Age, and with the Bronze Age came a growing international interest in Cornwall. The county’s metal resources began to be exploited around 4,000 years ago with the burgeoning demands of the civilisations of the Near East and Europe. Prosperity increased and early Bronze Age settlements sprang up around the county, some of whose remains still exist in places.

Two particularly beautiful archaeological artefacts – a fine gold cup and a bronze sword hilt – illustrate the connection between ancient Mediterranean cultures and Cornwall. A sensation was caused in 1837 when archaeologists excavating Rillaton Barrow (on eastern Bodmin Moor near Liskeard) unearthed a fabulous gold cup. The ancient burial with which it is associated, along with other grave goods, indicates that the object was owned by a person of very high ranking, probably a chieftain or royal family member. Having been cleaned and restored it served for a while in the ignominious role as a holder for King George V’s collar studs; thankfully the Rillaton Gold Cup can now be seen in the British Museum. It displays remarkably adept Aegean-style metalwork and is thought to have been made around 2,300 BC. Strangely enough, a local legend claimed that a mysterious gold cup lay deep within the barrow – could this possibly have been a memory passed down through a couple of hundred local generations? Another example of an Aegean import, probably Mycenaean, is the so-called Pelynt Dagger – actually an ornate bronze sword hilt – found in 1845 in Pelynt Barrow near Looe and now on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.

Bronze Age Cornish prosperity peaked at around 1,500 BC, followed by a social decline. The Celts had begun to populate parts of Europe and the British Isles, introducing new farming practices and communities that were more geared to martial matters. While it’s not known whether there was a violent clash of cultures between the ancient inhabitants of Cornwall and the Celts, it is certain that the seafaring Veneti, Celts of the Brittany peninsula, managed to seize control of the metal trade between Cornwall and the rest of Europe. Around 1,000 BC there was a sudden resurgence in metalcraft and more technologically sophisticated design.

But the magic and usefulness of bronze began to evaporate in the 8th century BC when the Iron Age arrived in Britain. Iron ore is smelted, cast into ingots and hammer-fashioned into implements by blacksmiths; with the addition of carbon it becomes steel, a material weighing about the same as bronze but far harder and more suited to weaponry and agriculture. With its acidic soil, Cornwall has few surviving iron implements from this era, and the patchy nature of human settlement in the county has made it difficult to identify sites linked with iron working. One of the few examples lies at Trevelgue Head Iron Age settlement on the cliffs above Newquay, where the remnants of an ancient foundry have been unearthed.

Cornwall continued to mine and export its metals, whose uses changed with technological advances, right up to modern times. With the closure of South Crofty near the village of Pool in 1998 came an end to four thousand years of Cornish metal mining – for the time being, at least, for the story of Cornwall’s metal wealth may not yet be finished.

St Ives out of season is also not a bad idea

Think of St Ives and beaches, ice creams and sunny clifftop walks come to mind. The cosmopolitan artists’ haven in south west Cornwall has always been about more than bucket-and-spade brigade, though in the summer months – when the sands are thronged, the traffic end-to-end and the queues for fish and chips snake along the harbour – you could be forgiven for forgetting that. St Ives in late autumn and winter is quite a different fish. While some hotels, guest houses and cafes shut up shop for three or four months, it is far from a ghost town.

In fact, there is just enough buzz to make it a perfectly smug place for a winter break: there are no cars, the beaches are empty and majestic, the coastal path blissfully clear and rooms and restaurant tables are yours for the taking. And when the mist rolls in, as it surely will, there is plenty to do – from exhibitions to thermal spas, shopping to cosy hidden bars.

There is even more reason to visit St Ives this winter. Great Western has just relaunched its London to Penzance Night Riviera sleeper service with some quite neat new cabins which have surprisingly comfortable, if narrow, beds (bunks if you’re sharing) that can be converted into sofas, plus a small sink, wifi and phone-charging sockets. The 23.45 from Paddington arrives into St Erth just in time to catch the 07.49 to St Ives on the branch line, which is an attraction in itself. The beautiful, 15-minute pootle around the coast has views across the Hayle estuary and Carbis Bay, dotted with oyster-catchers and flashes of wild flowers.

The other draw is that the new Tate St Ives, officially opened in October, having been closed for 18 months for a £20 million refurbishment and extension. The original gallery, which opened in 1993 and attracts over 250,000 visitors a year (over three times the number for which it was designed), has now doubled in size. The new extension, an “anti-iconic” build by Jamie Fobert Architects, has been cleverly carved into the cliff; the only signs of it are six light wells on the hillside and a handsome new facade clad in sea-green and sky-blue ceramic tiles which seem to change with the weather.

The new exhibition space is currently given over to a single, vast, room of sculptures by Rebecca Warren, but the space is flexible and for the next show in February, which is dedicated to Virginia Woolf and women artists since the 1850s, it will be divided up into various rooms.

The tiles on the new Tate St Ives extension change colour with the weather The old gallery spaces, centred around that remarkable loggia which reflects the sea back into the gallery, have been de-cluttered and refreshed, the better to show off the permanent collection of work by artists more or less connected to St Ives – from Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and Mark Rothko right up to 2017 Turner Prize nominee Lubaina Himid. It is a joy to walk around and thanks to a redesigned entrance hall and cafe (still the best place for coffee with a view in town), the queues in summer should be shorter, too.

Visiting in November, I had one dull-ish day and another filled with gorgeous sun, which I devoted to the South West Coast Path. I caught the branch line back to Lelant Saltings and walked the four-and-a-half miles to St Ives, through fields and churchyards, down country lanes (peeking into the vast back gardens of mansions), across clifftops and beaches including the wild Porthkidney Sands with its view across to Godrevy lighthouse, as immortalised by Virginia Woolf. Magnificent – and I saw a handful of people the whole way.

According to locals, the Pedn Olva hotel at the top of The Warren has outside terraces overlooking Porthminster beach and the harbour. You might even spot a dolphin. It is open to non-residents and is excellent for a coffee, a drink or a meal with really friendly staff.

My local favourites include the Beach Cafe Bar on The Wharf. You can get fabulous coffees, drinks and food all day and late evenings in the summer.

The Pilchard Press, the UK’s smallest – and Cornwall’s first – micropub which is fairly comprehensively hidden behind some bins and a pasty shop on the harbour. Inside the whitewashed cave are about four card tables and a bar serving five craft ales (as well as beers and wine) of varying strength. It opened last year and will not be hidden for long, I suspect.

The view from inside the sauna on the cliffside at the C Bay Spa I stayed at the Gannet Inn, a very cosy hotel in Carbis Bay, on the road to St Ives, which opened last year. The stylish rooms are named after sea-birds and have distant views down to the sea, the food is hearty and the welcome warm. The lounge, stuffed with leather and tweed armchairs and centred on a roaring fire is a very pleasant place to return to. Guests get access to the beach and spa at its sister property, the Carbis Bay Hotel, 10 minutes’ walk away.

The spa has two pools – one large and bracing, the other small and toasty with hydrotherapy jets – and a charming round sauna perched on the cliff, overlooking the beach as the waves crash in the distance. Who needs summer sun when you have views like this all to yourself?

If you are planning a long winter break for yourself, why not book one of the Blue Mist accommodations? There is a studio, family-sized and larger cottage for groups of all sizes, guaranteed to give you the cosiest stay for you.

Rock-pooling and swimming in the St Ives beaches

A strandline is the visual mark of the highest point reached by the tide on a beach and consists of sediments, such as seaweed and other organic matter, driftwood, and general detritus including litter. Due to variations in the height of the tides there can be several strandlines on a single beach and they can be home to a wide variety of life, including sandhoppers, beetles and small crabs, which in turn provide food for birds such as oystercatchers, turnstones, dunlins and sanderlings. With each high tide, new life and materials are deposited, helping to sustain these unique habitats.  

Beaches are increasingly under threat from pollution and most of it washes up in the strandline. Many local communities and organisations now arrange regular beach cleaning days, while many of the more responsible visitors and beachcombers, who search the strandline for interesting or unusual items, such as driftwood, shells, bones, sea glass and weirdly-shaped egg cases, also help by removing any rubbish they come across.

While there is easy access to most of the beaches around Cornwall, in particular St Ives, there are a number of coves in which the access route is less obvious and these often require care and attention if planning to visit them. All beaches and the whole of the coastline are subject to change due to the effects of the tides and adverse weather conditions, and coastal erosion can sometimes result in a beach that was relatively easy to access becoming less easy to reach, or even inaccessible. Therefore it’s important to plan a safe route down to the beach, not forgetting to ensure that there is an equally safe and easily negotiable way back up the cliff.

One of the results of the action of the tides are the delightful rock pools that appear on rocky beaches when the water recedes. Like a window into an underwater world, they can provide hours of fun for people of all ages, from children to adults. Here are some basic tips to help to get the most out of your rock pool rambles:

1. Check the tide times; the lower the tide, the more pools there will be.
2. Start with the pools closest to the sea and work your way back up the shore.
3. Keep an eye on the tide and ensure you have an easy return route up the beach.
4. Be aware that wet rocks and seaweed can be slippery.
5. Wear stout footwear.
6. Take a bucket or plastic container.
7. Nets are commonly used but not advisable as they can cause damage to small creatures; instead, use your bucket or container as a ‘scoop’.
8. Don’t wade into the pool as this can cause damage – it’s better to stand or kneel on the edge.
9. Carefully replace rocks or stones after looking under them.
10. Always gently return sea creatures to where you found them, ensuring they are the right way up.

Jellyfish can be washed up on beaches, especially around the strandline, or encountered in the sea and in rock pools. They are simple creatures consisting of 90% water and have no brains, bones or blood but some of them can be quite beautiful to look at. However, some jellyfish found in UK waters can sting, even when dead or stranded on a beach, so they should never be handled and avoid any contact with their tentacles. Fortunately, most stings are merely unpleasant, similar to a nettle sting, but if you are stung, inform any lifeguard present and seek medical attention if the pain is severe – applying an ice pack or taking ibuprofen and paracetamol can ease the pain and swelling.

Over 200 people die every year around the coastline of Britain and Ireland, and thousands more find themselves in difficulty and have to be rescued. The safest beaches on which to swim are those patrolled by RNLI Lifeguards, provided you follow their advice.

If on a beach where there are no lifeguards and you decide that the conditions are nevertheless suitable for entering the water, please be aware of the following advice:

1. You are responsible for your own safety and that of any dependants.
2. NEVER swim alone.
3. Do not allow children to enter the sea alone.
4. Check where any safety equipment is situated. Sennen Cove
5. Wear a wetsuit if intending to be in the water for more than 15 minutes.
6. In high swell avoid deeply shelved beaches and don’t swim near rocks or into caves.
7. Swim only within sheltered coves or bays unless you understand the tidal streams that can be found near headlands and in the open sea – that takes local knowledge and experience.
8. Never jump or dive into water unless you have checked it for depth and obstructions such as rocks.
9. Never use inflatables – they can drift on the current or in the wind.
10. Avoid areas where rip currents commonly form, such as river mouths or estuaries, piers or the edges of coves, but also be aware that they can be found anywhere off the beach so learn to spot their characteristics, such as a break in the pattern of the waves, excessive foam, or debris being dragged in the opposite direction.
11. If caught in a rip current do not attempt to swim against it but instead swim to the side, parallel to the shore, until free of the current, then swim to the shore.
12. Never approach seals or their pups.