Emma Clegg takes her son on a weekend to the seaside town of St Ives, with its golden beaches and a bright light that was once a magnet for the modern art movement

Take one mum. And a teenage son. Put them on a train and send them to St Ives. Not to meet a man with seven wives – a nostalgic literary reference way above the remit of said teenager – but to escape to a fishing town and coastal landscape on the same south west claw as Land’s End. One that became organically associated with a colony of post-war abstract modernist artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron, drawn here by the extraordinary Mediterranean-style light. The challenge: to keep Fin (15) away from his phone long enough to engage with what St Ives has to offer.

Located on the Atlantic coast of north-west Cornwall, we reached St Ives on the train, passing through Exeter St Davids, Plymouth, Saltash, Truro and Redruth until we reached St Erth. We followed a slope downwards to the branch line platform that took us the four miles to St Ives. Here the pace changes and you start to shake off the prickling dust of the city. The 12-minute train journey embraces the coast, providing dreamy views of the glistening Hayle Estuary, the pools and turf of the Lelant Saltings and the white sands of Carbis Bay.

Tregenna Castle

We were welcomed with a swelling vision of sea and sky and clustered white houses stretching along the arc of St Ives Bay. We reached Tregenna Castle Resort by a short taxi ride (a hill was involved so a taxi to the castle, and a walk back to St Ives was the norm, we discovered). Once a seaside home, the castle has been welcoming guests for 240 years. The main thrill is in the views from the castle over the bay, and we had an exceptional one in our spacious second floor room.

The complex at Tregenna Castle is not short of space – 72 acres, in fact, where you’ll find woodland, lawns and a par three 18-hole golf course. There’s a heated outdoor pool open from May to mid-September with views over the bay, and an indoor pool and a jacuzzi (both thoroughly tested by us). There are also tennis courts, badminton and squash courts and a health and beauty treatment centre, Castle Beauty, where we had an aromatic massage and a three algae back ritual (think cleanse, detoxify and smooth). This was a first for Fin whose initial nerves about a hands-on treatment were quickly dissipated.

I felt I had been flying high, letting myself be swept along by the warm, open skies and the experience of the white galleries

That evening we enjoyed a meal in the brasserie at Tregenna, a steak fettuccine with a Cajun sauce and a St Ives burger, a combination of beef and pork, and skinny fries. The brasserie seemed bustling for January, and there is apparently a coterie of visitors who arrive in the winter months to revisit favourite haunts, walk the coast and revel in the wintry coastal landscapes.

The rooftop at Tate St Ives

The next day was a joy. I exaggerate not. Not only did it involve the Tate St Ives (of more anon), but a whole day spent with Fin (who only appears from time to time at home, his head plus headphones half viewed around a door, usually to demand food). Stripped of technology and under an umbrella of expansive, billowing sky, we followed the woodland walk from the castle and headed to St Ives, with ever-changing scapes of the town, the harbour and the sea beyond.

The Tate St Ives was designed around a redundant gas works, reflected in its curved front façade and winding step approach. The 10 galleries feature work by iconic 20th-century artists who lived and worked there – from Henry Moore and Naum Gabo to Peter Lanyon and Marc Rothko – and show the role of St Ives in the story of modern art. The new extension exhibition space is used for large-scale seasonal shows. Our task (designed by me to keep us focused) was to choose an artwork in each gallery that we’d like to take home with us. None of our choices correlated – Fin was more Ben Nicholson (A Continuous Line) and Maggi Hambling (Minotaur Surprised When Eating) and I was more Henri Matisse (The Inattentive Reader) and Mark Rothko (Untitled), but each choice required eloquent justification, which was half the fun.

The large white open gallery spaces, full of rich modern statements, abstract sculptures and visual conversations, were exhilarating, uplifting. Not everyone will like the work here, perhaps too abstract for some tastes, but we revelled in it. Fin was open and engaged, pleased that it was modern (he disapproves of most pre-20th-century artworks). I felt I had been flying high, letting myself be swept along by the warm, open skies and the experience of the white galleries.

The Cornish Deli

Leaving the Tate St Ives somewhat reluctantly (after a ‘ridiculous’ [said Fin] amount of time spent in the gift shop, which was stupendous), we had lunch in the Cornish Deli in Chapel Street. This was a creamy goat’s cheese and balsamic beetroot salad for me and a handmade ham and cheese wholemeal sandwich for Fin. The owner, Mark, was warmly welcoming. There was a painting of the front of the deli on the wall and Fin pointed out that it could be us sitting behind the right-hand window (see far right).

Next stop was the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden on Barnoon Hill. This was Dame Barbara’s home and gallery until her death, her workshop outside maintained just as she had kept it. The sculpture garden, punctuated by mammoth statements in metal and stone, was as awe-inspiring as a domestic garden could be – Fin lost his ‘whatever’ expression as he took pictures enthusiastically from different angles.

A view through one of Barbara Hepworth’s pieces in her Sculpture Garden

The next morning we explored the winding streets with the small galleries and shops, and took the coastal path from St Ives above Carbis Bay, looking down on its rocky inlets and beaches of tide-channelled sand.
Returning to Bath on the train, I looked at Fin, reunited with headphones and tech, and hoped that he, as I knew I would, might keep a bright memory of our ­­­­time in St Ives.

Rooms at Tregenna Castle with sea views and breakfast from £105; treatments at Castle Beauty from £35; tregenna-castle.co.uk; stives-cornwall.co.uk

Featured image: St Ives Bay and harbour