Thursday 14 February 2013

The Cornish Riviera!

There is a view that Cornwall ought to be a country within the UK rather than a county within England, and it certainly does feel as “foreign” as Wales or Scotland even though it is English. It is also a long way from here, and people do fly to Cornwall. It is also the destination of the exotically named “Night Riviera” train, the only sleeper train operating wholly within England. For our post-Easter break last year we devised a tour which encompassed London, Cornwall, Plymouth and Birmingham, with the Night Riviera forming the longest section of the journey.

This was to be a leisurely holiday, and with “Anytime” tickets we caught the first convenient train to Peterborough, and then on to London. Our time in London was spent at the Natural History Museum (arising out of the discovery that one of Alison's ancestors catalogued some of the beetles – and one named after him – when it was part of the British Museum). The cloakroom here took care of our coats and bags, and the cafeteria supplied a decent lunch. I think we saw almost everything they have, except the dinosaur exhibition for which there was an almighty queue, this being a school holiday! (We had to queue for a fair while to get to the front door, but we enjoyed looking at the façade of the building – not a visit to make if you've a train to catch, unless, that is, it departs just before midnight, as ours was timetabled to do!)

The Night Riviera's gleaming coaches stand at platform 1 at
Paddington station while the staff prepare it for boarding.
The early-arriving passengers are in the 1st Class Lounge nearby;
many others are still on their way.
From the Natural History Museum we walked to Paddington station, a very pleasant walk along Exhibition Road and across the western end of Hyde Park. Pizza for dinner in one of the huge number of restaurants between Hyde Park and the station and then off to await the train in the comfort of the First Class Lounge at Paddington – after a day at a big museum this was very welcome! This takes us back to a way of life that has all but gone. Here we are on the platform of a big terminus in a lounge-style waiting room with free soft drinks, hot drinks and nibbles, and outside a gleaming locomotive, with a name, brings in a train of gleaming coaches, dedicated to this service. We wait for the train to be prepared and then, over an hour before departure, boarding is announced and we make our way to the train and are met by the attendant for our coach who shows us to our cabin.

Class 57 diesel locomotive "Restormel
Castle" at the head of The Night Riviera
at platfrom 1, London Paddington

Magazine and hot chocolate in the Club Car
The Night Riviera does not leave London until 23:45, so most passengers are asleep in their beds before it moves. We had already eaten and rested but I repaired to the Club Car for a mug of hot chocolate before turning in. The train is “classless” and everyone travels in either a sleeper cabin or a reclining seat, and, like the Caledonian Sleeper we had tried the previous year, single cabins can be joined to make a large shared cabin. They also have TVs on this route, with a selection of recorded programmes to watch. Given that the idea is to sleep, we did not take advantage of this facility!

Awoken by my alarm in time for the breakfast we had ordered (to be taken in the Club Car, rather than in bed), we were well into Cornwall by the time we looked out of the windows, and now the train was beginning to stop and drop passengers at several places as it went on to our stop at the very end of the West of England main line, Penzance. We got off the train and left our luggage at our guest house just around the corner and explored the streets of Penzance, which were just beginning to wake up for the day. Not many shops were open yet, and there we were, fresh from London and having slept off the exertions of a day at the Natural History Museum!

A visit to St Ives was on our list of essentials for this trip, and we took the bus and spent most of the morning and afternoon there, a place we've stayed a couple of times when we've come down here by car in the past. A couple of pints of Doom Bar ale (brewed at Rock in Cornwall, but also available at the Jolly Brewer in Stamford if you're not up to the trip!) with lunch, a great big ice-cream with clotted cream and a flake, and some walking around the town with tea at the Tate St Ives gallery – it all seems to be eating and drinking, doesn't it?

Changing trains at St Erth
We caught a train back to Penzance. Fascinating, this line, as it was saved from closure by becoming a park-and-ride for those visiting St Ives by car, there being insufficient space in the town for all the cars to park there. The little train was packed for the first couple of miles along the shore until 90% of the passengers left at the car park and then we and a few others were left to ourselves for the last stretch to the change at St Erth onto a mainline train for the short hop to Penzance.

Now we formally checked in at our guest house and explored Penzance a little further with the objective of a fish and chip restaurant in mind. Walking back along the seafront we discovered the huge art deco lido, not yet open for the 2012 season, the ferry terminal for the Scilly Isles, some boatyards and finally back to bed. I returned in daylight the following morning to photograph some of the sights, and then we checked out and wheeled our baggage onto a Manchester-bound CrossCountry train to travel on to our next “essential” stop – for which we had already booked – the Eden Project. 

On our way to Eden!
First class travel was quite affordable and we had a great variety of views of countryside, estuary and sea until we left the train at St Austell and caught the connecting bus to the Eden Project. 

Mediterranean lunch with Cornish beer
We had arranged in advance to have our luggage stored there and we enjoyed our first spring visit to this amazing place, having been twice before in August. Writing about this day would need an article or two to itself! And so to the last bus back to St Austell and the next train to Plymouth where we checked into a city-centre hotel for the next two nights.

Plymouth is one of those historic cities that had to be substantially rebuilt after receiving a lot of enemy attention during the second world war (not surprising when you look at how much of the Royal Navy is still there now), and is therefore fascinating architecturally in many ways. We had also arranged to meet some friends here – which is what initially brought Plymouth into the tour – and we had some shopping to do, shopping which spilt over into the following day in another city ...

And so to the final day. The train out of Plymouth was the only one which we had booked in advance with reservations so as to be able to afford the long-distance first class fare to Birmingham. Like East Coast Trains, CrossCountry first class offers free catering (not including the wine, though, for which we had to pay), and we looked forward to dining as we passed along the south coast on one of the most scenic routes in England. Given that we boarded at noon for a 12:23 departure, we imagined that lunch would soon be served. But CrossCountry is not like East Coast, and snacks were all that was on offer until the hot meals came on at Bristol. Bristol!! It took several snacks to keep us going until Bristol! No china plates or steel cutlery, either. The CrossCountry shepherd's pie when it came was very good. Worth waiting for. But on a cardboard plate? With plastic cutlery? We'd paid a bargain price for our tickets, and we did get comfortable seats in a spacious coach and the food (but not the wine!) was free, but I think if I'd paid the full fare I'd have felt less happy. Lunch over, the approach to Birmingham through leafy suburbs and along the canal is one of the best city approaches in the country until the final plunge into the tunnels that take us beneath the city's famous canals into the heart of the city centre.
Arrival in Birmingham gave us plenty of time for shopping. Looking for a black shirt in so many shops, having failed to get one in Plymouth, I ended up in M&S! Ah well. Birmingham's shops are always worth a look anyway – never change trains here without time to shop ... the station is a building site at present, and is destined to remain so until 2015, although the first phase of the new station opens in April this year.

We boarded our little CrossCounty train for Stamford having had a thoroughly enjoyable time in three great cities, three coastal towns, some great scenery, and a disused clay pit masquerading as the Mediterranean and a tropical rain forest. All at a leisurely pace and yet all packed into five days and four nights!

I have since come across another view of the fabulous Night Riviera train ride:


  1. Hi there. Thanks for your comment. I'm curious tho: I don;t see any difference from my experience? Have the sleeping cabins been updated? LLGxx

    1. Yes: blue carpet on the cabin walls now! Fittings otherwise much the same, though.

  2. News: