“from St Erth to St Ives
They’ve all passed out of our lives”.
St Ives (1877) was opened by the Great Western Railway at the end of the 4-mile branch from St Erth. It is the most westerly station mentioned in the song. The branch now includes three intermediate stations; Lelant Saltings; Lelant and Carbis Bay.
For much of its life the station has had a service of local trains linking it with St Erth or sometimes Penzance. Although as St Ives became more and more popular as a holiday resort from the 1930s onwards the line became busier and summer Saturdays saw portions of trains direct from London Paddington, including the famous “Cornish Riviera Express” serving the branch.
In the late 1950s holidaymakers began to switch to their cars and the decline that led to the branch eventually being threatened with closure set in. In 1968, after the line was saved, the old station building was demolished to make way for a car park and the decline looked set to continue.
In the end, growing traffic congestion and lack of parking in St Ives has helped secure the line and allow it to prosper. A “park and ride” facility was established at Lelant Saltings in 1978 and the number of motorists parking their cars there and boarding the train for the 10-minute journey to St Ives grew every year.
The line is supported by an active Community Rail Partnership, typical of many small branch lines, which aims to encourage rail travel. In 2018/9 750,000 passengers used St Ives, the second highest figure for any of the saved stations in the song.
The Train to St Ives – 2004 (using notes made at the time)
Back on that early summer’s day in 2004 we were looking out of the train window waiting for first sight of St Ives to come into view. It really is one of the most spectacular approaches to any station in Britain; the train rounds the bend and then suddenly the whole town is laid out in front of you. On a sunny day it looks almost too perfect; like a film set.
We had booked a hotel within walking distance of the station and after leaving our bags we went straight to Porthmeor Beach to sip cocktails whilst watching the sun go down. St Ives is a nice combination; on the one hand it feels like a bit of a posh Mediterranean town; but on the other it is also a great place to rediscover the joy of a typical British seaside holiday spending time eating and drinking too much and paddling in the freezing sea.
We returned to Porthmeor the next day to visit the Tate St Ives. Originally a fishing village, St Ives grew into an artist’s colony in the early 20th century as it was also developing as a tourist resort. There were plenty of examples of the “St Ives School” at the Tate and there were lots of commercial galleries in the town featuring a good cross section of local talent as well.
We spent a lot of time walking on the trip. First, we meandered around the town browsing in shops. Along Fore Street, the main drag, we found traditional fudge, and on the wharf we found delicious ice cream. Although we had to learn quickly to shield our food from the seagulls. The local birds had developed quite a knack of swooping on unsuspecting visitors and stealing their ice creams.
We also went on longer walks along the cliffs and on one of them we took fresh crab sandwiches to eat as we sat on St Ives Head looking out across the bay to the Godrevy Lighthouse, said to be the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse”.
One evening we had a celebration meal of lobster at an upmarket eatery. It was quite delicious, but probably if I am honest, the best thing we ate on that trip was a humble Cornish pasty. On our last day we bought proper hand-crimped versions from a local bakery and took them with us onto the beach: simple but just magical.
As we sat on that beach, we could see the little branch line train popping back and forth every thirty minutes in the distance. I could not help wondering what a terrible mistake it would have been to have cut this vital lifeline. It also crossed my mind that it was regrettable that similar resorts like Ilfracombe, Padstow, Mablethorpe, Seaton and Sidmouth had not been so lucky and had their railways destroyed.
The busy trains were perhaps the ultimate proof that quite a lot of the Beeching Plan was folly. “From St Erth to St Ives; thank goodness it is still part of our lives”.