Friday, 8 January 2016

As I was going to St. Ives...

      As I was going to St. Ives,
      I met a man with seven wives,
      Each wife had seven sacks,
      Each sack had seven cats,
      Each cat had seven kits:
      Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
      How many were there going to St. Ives?

So runs the famous riddle. I suppose it still counts as a riddle even if there is no clear or widely accepted answer to it, but that doesn't make it any less irritating. It also quite neatly sums up some of my objections to mathematics, as as subject, an aversion which probably dates back to my school years. I can still vividly recall, as an eleven year old boy, being given an impromptu maths test that included the question, "If it takes four minutes to boil one egg, how long does it take to boil eight eggs?" Naively assuming that, in a maths lesson, it was a maths, rather than a cookery, question, I dutifully multiplied four by eight to answer "32 minutes". Of course, the answer was four minutes, because you can boil all the eggs at the same time, not that boiling even a single egg was something I think I had done at that age. Any possible interest I may have had in maths died that moment, and thereafter I considered the subject to be annoying, tricksy and deceitful.

All of which is a surprisingly negative way of introducing a post about St. Ives, the little seaside town on the north coast of Cornwall, England; a place that I visited for the first time in 2015, and almost immediately fell in love with. I had been to Cornwall several times before, and had even done some volunteer work near Penzance on the south coast, but this was the first occasion that I had been to this part of the county. St. Ives is unashamedly a tourist village, and every Friday and Saturday the roads are jammed as one group of holidaymakers swaps over with the next set. Despite this, the place managed to accommodate all of these tourists without feeling overly spoiled.

It has come a long way from its origins, as a sleepy fishing village, but there is nevertheless a clear sense of a real community remaining beneath the seasonal tide of emmets (the Cornish name for tourists, from an old English word for ants - the logic speaks for itself). For many, the draw of St. Ives is the bright blue sea, and its warm sandy beaches. St. Ives is surrounded by bays, each of which offers something different for different people. For families who wish to sunbathe and paddle, there is the broad expanse of Porthminster Beach, with its cafes and restaurant. To the north west, there is Porthmeor Beach, which draws surfers and bodyboarders. Around the natural promontory known as The Island, between the two, there are three or four other little sandy alcoves, which slowly fill up with holiday-makers.

The town itself is full of the usual shops and restaurants that one would expect of the seaside, but St. Ives also has an outpost of the Tate Gallery, as well as a museum dedicated to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who used to live there (some of whose works are also dotted around the town). Tucked away in the winding streets of the town itself are dozens of little art galleries and shops selling a wide variety of attractive oddments. It feels like a creative place, and one where people are encouraged to be themselves.

I had had a hectic and stressful time before I arrived, and so I was more than content to swim in the sea, and wander the streets, never once getting back into my car. Slowly, over the following week, I began to feel myself unwinding, and the taste of salt water on my lips brought back pleasant memories of childhood holidays by the sea. One day, splashing about in the water, I was startled to see the head of an equally curious harbour seal in close proximity, which soon disappeared beneath the waves, leaving me uncertain as to what I had seen. Later that evening, walking along Smeaton's Pier, I was reassured to see two of these lovely animals rolling languorously in the shallow waters beneath. St. Ives felt very much at ease, with itself and its temporary inhabitants, and that sense of relaxation was exactly what I needed. 

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