Though more densely populated than the Lizard, the Penwith peninsula is a more rugged landscape, with a raw appeal that is still encapsulated by Land’s End, despite the commercialization of that headland. The seascapes, the quality of the light and the slow tempo of the local fishing communities made this area a hotbed of artistic activity from the late nineteenth century onwards, when the painters of Newlyn, near Penzance, established a distinctive school of painting. More innovative figures – among them Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo – were soon afterwards to make St Ives one of England’s liveliest cultural communities, and their enduring influence is illustrated in the St Ives branch of the Tate Gallery, which showcases the modern artists associated with the locality.
Eight miles west of Mousehole, one of Penwith’s best beaches lies at PORTHCURNO, sandwiched between cliffs. On the shore to the east, a white pyramid marks the spot where the first transatlantic cables were laid in 1880. On the headland beyond lies an Iron Age fort, Treryn Dinas, close to the famous rocking stone called Logan Rock, a seventy-ton monster that was knocked off its perch in 1824 by a gang of sailors, among them a nephew of writer and poet Oliver Goldsmith. Somehow they replaced the stone, but it never rocked again.
The extreme western tip of England, Land’s End, lies four miles west of Porthcurno. Best approached on foot along the coastal path, the 60ft turf-covered cliffs provide a platform to view the Irish Lady, the Armed Knight, Dr Syntax Head and the rest of the Land’s End outcrops, beyond which you can spot the Longships lighthouse, a mile and a half out to sea, and sometimes the Wolf Rock lighthouse, nine miles southwest, or even the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles away.
To the north of Land’s End the rounded granite cliffs fall away at Whitesand Bay to reveal a glistening mile-long shelf of beach that offers the best swimming on the Penwith peninsula. The rollers make for good surfing and boards can be rented at Sennen Cove, the more popular southern end of the beach.
East of Zennor, the road runs four hilly miles on to the steeply built town of ST IVES. By the time the pilchard reserves dried up around the early 1900s, the town was beginning to attract a vibrant artists’ colony, precursors of the wave later headed by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and the potter Bernard Leach, who in the 1960s were followed by a third wave including Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron.
Porthmeor Beach dominates the northern side of St Ives, its excellent water quality and surfer-friendly rollers drawing a regular crowd, while the broader Porthminster Beach, south of the station, is usually less busy. A third town beach, the small and sheltered Porthgwidden, lies in the lee of the prong of land separating Porthmeor and Porthminster, while east of town a string of magnificent golden beaches lines St Ives Bay on either side of the Hayle estuary.