In the footsteps of Virginia Woolf: walking the west Cornwall coast to the Badger pub
18.09.2023 - 13:33
From St Ives station, there’s a view of sand, palms and, across misty blue water, a lighthouse on a rocky island. Virginia Woolf and her sister, artist Vanessa Bell, saw this view as children from the house their father rented. It later featured in Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, set in the Hebrides but clearly inspired by St Ives. She describes “the great plateful of blue water” and “hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere in the midst”. Images have lingered ever since I read it years ago at college, and my pub walk is something of a literary pilgrimage.
Five minutes after leaving the station, I’m in front of Talland House, a big white early 19th-century building with wrought-iron balconies looking out to sea from between evergreens. A plaque records that Woolf spent 12 summers here from 1882, when she was born. I’m planning to walk to the Badger in Lelant, a pub that Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) enjoyed around 1909-10. But first I’m ambling round St Ives to soak up the art.
The morning sun is pouring through a hole in a bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. The light that drew so many artists intensifies the jumble of white, grey, gold and azure below. I ramble down cobbled lanes, past galleries and cafes, to the harbour and then over a grassy headland known as the Island, to the seaside rotunda of Tate St Ives. The churning surf and shifting sands of Porthmeor beach are just outside, framed by the gallery’s curving front window.
My favourite space among the town’s galleries is Hepworth’s leafy garden. Cornwall’s sea-warmed air means spiky agaves, palms and bamboos flourish among the sculptures. A waxy evergreen magnolia and flamboyant camellias surround the greenhouse, sweet with jasmine and geraniums. The branches of a cherry brush against towering bronze arcs. The massive Four-Square (Walk Through) in the middle of the garden echoes the church tower I can see through forked branches. Some of Hepworth’s tools are scattered in a workshop as if she’s just paused for tea. It’s one of those museums that alters your perspective on the world outside: after it, every mossy chimney and cracked cobblestone, every wet-haired surfer and red-legged wading bird looks like a work of art.
The landscapes around are stippled and spiked with standing stones, cairns and burial chambers. A couple of hours later, I’m on the rocky top of Trencrom Hill, its wide views bathed in light. Inside the banks of an iron age hillfort are hut circles and boulders. I can see as far as the Hayle estuary, where I’m heading, and St Michael’s Mount, linked to this hill by a folk tale about boulder-lobbing giants. On the way up, I passed huge Bowl Rock, said to be one of the balls the giants threw.
I had planned to toddle straight down