Cornwall is undoubtedly inspirational – it’s been drawing creative people to its rocky shores and untamed countryside for generations.
Of course, St Ives is renowned for its historic and contemporary art scenes, but this idyllic landscape has also attracted its fair share of writers, too. From DH Lawrence to Virginia Woolf, some of literature’s most famous names have found genius in the ‘wild west’ of Cornwall.
St Ives and Zennor
A pretty, meandering road takes you from St Ives to Zennor, around 15 minutes away by car. Here, you can travel across moorland and granite coastline to seek a completely different view of Cornwall.
The small village of Zennor was the wartime home of DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda, who rented a house here in 1915. It was in Zennor that Lawrence worked on his novel ‘Women in Love’, seeing the area’s ancient beauty as an escape from the oppression of London. His first impressions were of ‘infinite Atlantic, all peacock mingled colours … the best place I have been in.’
Though Lawrence’s outspoken views were a little too radical for the village, his experience only added to its literary appeal; almost 80 years later, Helen Dunmore used his account to place Lawrence himself in her award-winning novel, ‘Zennor in Darkness’.
Today, the landscape from St Ives to Zennor is well worth a wander. For walkers, there are miles of coastal path to tread; or alternatively, you can relax in the village with a Moomaid of Zennor ice cream to hand.
Rosamunde Pilcher’s St Ives
One of Cornwall’s most famous writers, Rosamunde Pilcher, was born near St Ives (in the village of Lelant) in 1924. It’s easy to see the influence of her home county on her novels, which include descriptions of quintessential Cornish beaches and close-knit communities.
Pilcher’s most famous novel, ‘The Shell Seekers’, launched her to fame when it was published in 1987. The story features the fictional seaside village of Porthkerris, which is almost certainly modelled on St Ives. Described as an artists’ colony and popular tourist town, its narrow, cobbled streets will be recognisable to anyone exploring this part of Cornwall.
The wild coast
At times both beautiful and turbulent, the Cornish coast has provided the backdrop for many works of literature. When writing ‘To the Lighthouse’, Virginia Woolf drew on her memories of childhood days in St Ives. The writer and her family – including her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell – lived in Talland House (still privately owned) for many months each year.
Woolf also explored Cornwall in her companion novels to ‘To the Lighthouse’: ‘Jacob’s Room’ and ‘The Waves’. And so, although she’s often associated with “the Bloomsbury Group”, it’s to St Ives that many of her fans travel, seeing this as the place in which she grew as a writer. Woolf herself later wrote that ‘nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall.’
And Woolf isn’t alone – countless other writers have found sparks of creativity in west Cornwall. Agatha Christie, Emma Stonex, Robert Louis-Stevenson, Arthur Conan-Doyle and Winston Graham (among many others) have all embraced the natural drama of this stretch of coast.
Stock up your shelves
If you’re visiting Cornwall and are keen to add to your collection, visit one of our local bookshops for a browse. St Ives Bookseller is an independent bookshop on Fore Street, with a great stock of Cornish books, and Stories by the Sea specialises in children’s books. A little further afield, Penzance has the hidden gem The Edge of the World Bookshop and the Morrab Library, one of the UK’s last independent libraries and a must-visit for any serious book-lover.