Why We Should All Be Moving To Cornwall, According To The Creatives Who Did It
Mr Alex Hill
Maps aside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cornwall was an island – that’s certainly the way many of its varied inhabitants see it. Somehow, this southwestern-most tip of Britain feels worlds apart, with its own microclimate, language and place in the Celtic nations. And while we’re suspending our disbelief, you might also imagine a massive magnet in Land’s End pulling people operating on a certain frequency down to this corner of the country: surfers, artists, lovers of the wild.
Brighton-born producer Mr Alex Hill moved to St Ives, the epicentre of cool, cultured Cornwall, a few years ago with his family. But he started coming here with his parents back in the 1970s and has loved it ever since. “Cornwall is wild and really special,” he says. “When you’re this far down, you’re close to the Atlantic weather coming in and it really feels like you’re on the edge of the Earth.”
Hill lives at the top of the town, in an area lined with coffee shops, galleries and pubs, but with easy access to the coastal road that takes you all the way down to Sennen Cove. His job gives him the perfect excuse to explore every corner of this fabled county. “I pull together photoshoots and scout locations, so I spend a lot of time driving around looking for places to shoot, which, in this part of the world, is a joy. I feel very lucky to get to find nice spots and share them with people.”
Mr Nick Pumphrey
When he’s not working, spending time with his family and planning his wedding, Hill is either surfing (“everyone here gets in the sea and feels nourished by it”) or walking his Sri Lankan rescue dog, Barry, along the beach. It’s where he bumps into half the town – the people who make living in St Ives so special.
“There’s a really lovely creative community here,” he says. “Every other person is a photographer, filmmaker, writer, curator or artist. It’s incredible for attracting those kinds of people. It’s a great place for like-minded people.”
He might bump into someone like Mr Nick Pumphrey, who was born and bred in St Ives, and makes a living photographing the sea and its surfers. “Cornwall does feel like an island,” Pumphrey says. “We’re on the end of it all, surrounded by nature.”
“The nature of being here is that it’s slower and it’s often harder, but there’s a community of people that you get really close to”
He swims out to sea regardless of the weather and has taken pictures during even the most dramatic of storms. “The last few days, we’ve had amazing waves out here, so I swim and shoot for three hours or so. I love that it’s uncontrollable; you don’t know what’s going to happen, which keeps it interesting. There’s always a chance you’re going to capture something beautiful, so it’s addictive. I get the same feeling as I do with surfing.”
Throughout his youth, surfing took Pumphrey around the world every British winter – a common life cycle for Cornish people who used to work through the summer months, then head off travelling once the money-making season was over. The community would come and go, which had its pros and cons. Yes, it meant that the town was decimated for half of the year, but for Pumphrey it also meant “elders returning with exciting stories of their travels”.
Mr Richard Blake
The pandemic changed that cycle, forcing people to stay in St Ives for consecutive winters. Although many peoples’ world adventures were frustratingly curtailed, it also encouraged a stronger sense of local community. Wanderlusters like Pumphrey realised that they didn’t have to skip town every winter.
“People have hung around a bit more now, including myself,” he says. “It’s been just over two years that I haven’t moved. And I travelled for 22 winters before. It’s a new way of being: staying put. I was always running to something which I thought was better, whereas when you stay still, you start to see what you’ve actually got. More independent, local ideas are emerging.”
Also shaping the local scene is Mr Richard Blake, who moved to Cornwall 18 years ago to go to Falmouth University (“I found a place on a map that was near the sea, because I just wanted to surf”) and hasn’t looked back. He now runs the local coffee shop, Yallah, and imports beans from Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil to his Cornish roastery.
Winters here aren’t for the faint-hearted, but for Blake, they create a welcome rhythm of life: buzzy and profitable spring and summers full of new faces; autumns and winters that feel local and offer up more time and space. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t enjoy both,” he says. “The winters are dark and wet and it can be bleak, but the reward when you get it is those amazing days when it’s as beautiful as anywhere in the world. The wildness and the expanse of everything.”
Blake enjoys the work-life balance and the sense of community in this part of the world. “Cornwall has always felt like home to me,” he says. “From the moment I made the decision to start a business here, I’ve always been surrounded by a great creative community that had similar reasons for being here: making a conscious decision to step out of the rat race and the city and appreciate the wilds of Cornwall. The nature of being here is that it’s slower and it’s often harder, but there’s a community of people that you get really close to.”
Like Hill and Pumphrey, Blake still surfs regularly, even if he doesn’t find it easy. “I can surf well enough, but it’s a difficult sport and I wouldn’t say I’m good. I love getting in the sea though, whether it’s just going for a dip or a surf. In the hard times, you jump in and all is forgotten. There’s no stress and strain. If I don’t do that for a couple of weeks, I get agitated.”
If it’s not surfing that draws people here, it’s art. St Ives was the home to modernist artist and sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth and her sometime husband, abstract painter Mr Ben Nicholson. When the Tate opened its St Ives gallery in 1993, it cemented the area’s reputation as an art hub. The local fine artist Ms Felicity Mara works from the dreamy, beachfront Porthmeor Studios, where Nicholson once painted.
“He was just next door to my studio,” she says. “He worked in the big studio without the sea view because he didn’t want to be distracted.” When people visit, they always ask her how she gets any work done with such a spectacular sea view. “I almost ignore it, but I feel its presence. It comes into the work, and other people with a sea view find that. Some people actually block it out with curtains, but I could never do that.”
Mara has seen plenty of change since she moved here from London nearly 30 years ago – the rise in second homes, holiday lets and the renewed popularity of the area – so during the pandemic, she says, “it was a wonderful place to be because we were totally on our own and we were able to see it again as it was when we first came here”.
Like Pumphrey, though (who points out that this part of the world has been popular with visitors since the 1900s), Mara understands that the ebb and flow of people here adds to the appeal. “Part of the charm here is that you can have quite big things going on in a small place,” she says. “The combination of the sea, art, landscape and tourism. It all works together.”
Mr Alex Hill in Ms Felicity Mara’s Porthmeor Studio
For Mara and the others, the best thing about Cornwall seems to be the sense of freedom. “It seems to have different rules,” she says. “Cornish people are independent in their spirit and don’t feel ruled by anyone else. There is that sort of freedom from the rest of England because it’s such a long way. It seems to have an independent existence.”