Epic bus ride to the end of the land

(Backdated. Posted 22/8/2017.)

Unlike the budget hotel in Bath, this hotel in Penzance included a full English breakfast, of which we availed ourselves. Very tasty.

We’d be spending the day in and around Penzance, but leaving in the evening, so we had to check-out. The hotel initially seemed a bit iffy about having the space to keep all our bags for the day. The station doesn’t offer left luggage, but the taxi depot across the street does, at UKP 2 per bag per day. After I’d arranged this, it turned out the hotel manager was in fact happy to mind the bags, but the taxi depot seemed more logical as it was much closer to the station.

The taxi depot seems to be linked to the gym next door, and we were instructed to knock there for admittance.

Okay, bags dropped, let’s explore.

The bus from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

Epic bus ride

We headed for the bus station. I had in mind two things for the day: St Michael’s Mount, a castle on an island just offshore, and Land’s End, the very western tip of Britain.

Various other buses depart from the bus station, including one to Mousehole, which apparently isn’t pronounced “Mousehole”, but “mowz ull”. Most of the buses on that route have a mouse logo.

The bus from Penzance to Mousehole, Cornwall

The bus to Land’s End was leaving first. In the tradition of the privatised bus companies with poor online information, the fare bore no resemblance to what was hinted at on their web site, but no matter, this turned out to be possibly the most fun bus ride I’ve ever taken.

As you leave Penzance, there’s a glorious view out the back window as the road climbs up the hill heading southwest, similar to an old travel poster that I’d bought as a tea towel the day before in a tourist shop.

View over Penzance

Between Penzance and Lands End, Cornwall

The road from Penzance to Lands End is about 10 miles of mostly narrow lanes. At least, Australians would call them lanes. The Brits call it a B road.

It would be tricky enough to drive a double-decker bus along this route if the roads were empty. But they were full of other traffic – cyclists, locals in their cars, bewildered tourists (some in left-hand drive vehicles from continental Europe), trucks, other buses…

It was epic. Many of the passengers sat in the open section of the top deck, watching with amazement as we drove along, each carefully orchestrated dance with the oncoming vehicles seeming more complex than the next.

On the bus from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

On the bus from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

Traffic from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall


Cars squeezed past us. Trucks had to find a slightly less-narrow section of road to get past.

At one point in a super narrow section we came across another bus from the same company – that driver reversed his bus back up the road to find a wider spot where we could pass.

Check this short video. I almost edited in a dramatic sting at the 30 second mark.

As we drove through villages, many with narrow or nonexistent footpaths, there was also the odd feeling for us on the top deck of rolling past people’s upstairs windows.

And I haven’t mentioned the low branches. Some sections of the route had a tree canopy over the road. I’m guessing the local authorities never trim the trees; they just let the buses do the job.

We noticed protective bars on the top front of the bus, designed to deflect the trees away from the front windscreen. Many London double-deckers seemed to have them too. Makes sense.

One passenger on the bus brought his dog, whom he said was happy to explore the local buses and trains. The dog sat happily in a seat, taking in the breeze, and would try and snap at low-hanging tree branches as they came past.

The trip was scheduled to take an hour – I’m not sure what fantasy land the timetablers are living in, as it ended up being closer to 90 minutes. Note for later: the bus back probably wouldn’t be on time. But it was all highly entertaining, and I can’t recommend this bus ride highly enough.

End of the Land

Lands End is the westernmost point of Britain. Unlike the geographically similar Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia, there’s a kind of mini theme park, with restaurants, tourist shops, attractions (Shaun The Sheep was the current resident side show) and so on. Given it was Cornwall, we decided to have Cornish pasties for lunch, then went to explore.

There’s a very nice view off the coast, and we had a look around. Plenty of other tourists around. One bloke and his (possibly long-suffering) partner was lugging a drone around, then getting it to take photos of himself from off the clifftop.

Lands End, Cornwall

Dangerous cliffs, Lands End, Cornwall

Occasionally some brave soul/Darwin Award nominee would climb over the low fence and gingerly head out among the “Dangerous cliffs” sign to take photos.

A sign pointing to various locations around the world had a customisable arm on it – for a fee (and if you were willing to wait in the queue) you could add your name, or place of origin, or some other message onto it and have your photo taken.

Dalek at Lands End, Cornwall

Non-accessible path, Lands End, Cornwall

Some of the footpaths around the site were marked as “Red” (for able-bodied walkers) or “Green” (more accessible) routes – though it seemed some of the sealed Green routes were far steeper than the unsealed Red ones. I wonder how people with mobility difficulties actually find them.

I was able to set up this comedy pose.

Lands End, Cornwall

Lands End, Cornwall

Lands End, Cornwall

One building doubling as a tourist trap shop and ice-cream parlour looked inviting, and it was certainly warm enough for an ice-cream. Then we walked along the coast for a bit to take in some more views.

We got back to the bus stop, and it turned up (late) and we headed back to Penzance. Cue more traffic adventures.

On the way we got a better view of a stone circle I’d spotted along the way — I can’t quite figure out which one it was. There are no less than 17 around Cornwall, but this was right next to the south side of the road the bus passed along.

Stone circle, near Penzance

The castle

Back in Penzance, we then changed onto a bus to Marazion Beach, further east along the coast from the centre of town.

From there you can walk to St Michael’s Mount – a castle on a hill out in the bay – if the tide is out, but it was coming in, so rather than swim, we hopped onto a small motorboat to the castle instead.

St Michael's Mount, near Penzance

The boat operator (captain?) let us know the castle would be closing before too long, and rather than rush through, we opted instead to explore the grounds at the base, and have some afternoon tea.

It all brought to mind the The Goodies classic episode “Bunfight at the O.K. Tea Rooms“, where Graeme suggests they head to the “wild and woolly west” (Cornwall) looking for gold, but find cream, scones and jam instead.

The final scene is a bun fight using various foods, apparently actually filmed in Cornwall, with a great Bill Oddie composition providing the soundtrack.

Three brave men went searching
For a fortune in the west
Now they face each other in the dawn

The finale of their dream
In the land of clotted cream
Turned against their fellows
Who had a lust for jam and scones …. scOnes!

As we enjoyed our tea and scones, jam and clotted cream, we noticed a huge seagull nearby, drinking from others’ leftover milk jugs. A little bit freaky.

Seagull has afternoon tea, Cornwall

We boarded another motor boat back to land – ending up in a different spot due to the incoming tide.

St Michael's Mount, near Penzance

Marazion Beach, near Penzance

Rather than another bus ride back to Penzance, we decided to walk along the beach. It didn’t seem like too far, though 5 kilometres is actually quite a distance in the heat. Very picturesque though, and good to stretch the legs.

Trainspotters may enjoy the walk, as part of it is parallel to the railway line, including a GWR maintenance depot.

Shunting train near Penzance

Level crossing near Penzance


Railway crossing warning sign, Penzance

High Speed Train at Penzance

Railtrack sign near Penzance

This Railtrack (defunct) sign intrigued me. I wonder if it’s a way of saying that eventually the railways might claim back the path?

Back in the centre of town, I noticed just how many shops have Poldark-inspired displays and products. Fair enough, might as well milk these things while you can.

Cornwall: Poldark country

The pub crawl

We started pondering dinner before catching our sleeper train.

Pub 1 was very close to the station, so super convenient. But there was a 50-60 min wait on food, they said. I didn’t mind this, but we decided to try elsewhere.

At Pub 2 we bought some drinks to cool down, then asked about food. Sorry, they said, they were booked out for food. Booked out? Yep.

On to Pub 3. Menu looks good. In we went. The kitchen already closed. Out we went.

Turks Head, Penzance

Pub 4. It was now 8pm, and after this impromptu pub crawl, I felt like we were in a hurry, as we needed to be at the station by about 9:30 as the train leaves at 9:45pm.

I mentioned that we were in a hurry to the barman, who said there were plenty of seats in the garden and he’d send someone down to take our order, as he couldn’t do it.

We read the menus and waited. And waited. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to ask if this must be why they call them wait staff… because you have to wait.

I went back up to the bar to buy some drinks and asked again if they could send someone to take our orders.

Eventually they did indeed take our orders, and we waited some more. Then the waitress came out and said the chef is not entirely happy with the way one of the meals has come out, but they won’t be long.

Have I mentioned we’re in a hurry?

At this point it becomes clear that we should have just bought our meals at the first pub, wait or no wait.

Honestly, I hate being in a rush like this, and my stress was no doubt starting show to my travel companions. When the food eventually came out, I’d actually lost much of my appetite, and I’m sure it was very nice, but I only ate half of it. The others ate their meals, we paid and then we legged it. It was 9:13pm.

Fortunately the walk back to the station isn’t too far, but wait! — first we needed to get the bags from the taxi office.

We knocked on the door. No answer. Tried the associated gym next door. Nope. FFS.

It was now 9:20 and the train was due to depart at 9:45. I found a phone number and rang. See, I told you I need a functioning phone when I’m on holiday.

While they were sending someone down, I went over to the station to pick up the train tickets from ticket machine (at least that went smoothly).

The bags were released and we went to find our carriage on the train. I was calm again.

The Night Riviera sleeper train at Penzance

The Night Riviera

The Night Riviera is one of only two sleeper trains left in Britain.

I used the other one, the Caledonian Sleeper, from Inverness to London way back in 1998. It was such good fun that I thought it’d be great to do it again, and drag everyone else along for the ride.

To be perfectly honest, this was the main reason we’d come to Penzance: to catch the sleeper train back. Given that it’s subsidised to encourage tourism to Cornwall, from that point of view, it certainly worked.

The conductor greeted us and showed us to our compartments, and explained how the various bits and bobs work. I’d booked two adjacent compartments for the four of us. They’ve got bunk beds, and, it has to be said, not a lot of space for anything else.

The toilet was at the end of the carriage (but proved to be nicer than the average British train toilet – Vileroy and Bosch porcelain!) and there was a lounge car elsewhere on the train.

We had a choice of breakfast: a croissant, muesli (which the Brits often call Alpen, which confused I+J a bit) or cornflakes. And we could nominate the time for it to be served (doubling as our wake-up call). Given in the morning we had to make a connection to Eurostar, we opted for 5:30am, which is appalling early for a holiday, but oh well.

The train was scheduled to arrive in London at 5:23am. You can sleep in later than that, but you have to vacate the train by 7am — after that, presumably they need the platform for peak hour.

The conductor noted that the power points in the cabins are really for shavers; for charging phones she recommended trying seats in one of the other carriages. Mind you, from the sounds of it you can actually use the cabin power points for phones if you have the right adaptor.

Cabin on board The Night Riviera sleeper train

The cabins aren’t very roomy, as you’d expect. Perhaps a little cramped for two people, and I wondered if I should have paid the extra and booked a cabin for each person (they have connecting doors so they can be paired up), but my travelling companions didn’t seem to mind – it was something new and different, after all.

The fares for the four of us? £168.20 (£42.05 each with various discounts including GroupSave) for the trip itself, plus £180 (£45 each) sleeper supplements for the twin-share cabins. If we’d wanted a full cabin each, it the supplement would have been another £100 – a total of £280 (£70 each). Maybe next time.

The train rolled out of Penzance on-time at 9:45pm. Normally by train it’s about 6 hours to London; the fact that it takes 7.5 on the sleeper train probably means they either run slowly, or perhaps they park it somewhere along the way.

I spent some time in a seat elsewhere in the train charging my phone enough to get us to Brussels the next day, catching up with the world via WiFi, and watching the darkening scenery of Cornwall passing by. The seats in that carriage started to fill up as we made stops along the way.

Then I headed back to the cabin and drifted off to sleep.

Heading to the wild, wild west (Cornwall)

(Backdated. Posted 16/8/2017)

We bade our farewells to the family and my uncle K gave us a lift to Taunton station.

First step to our next destination was a train to Exeter, or to be precise, Exeter St Davids. As with Bath a few days earlier, Exeter is served by multiple railway stations, originally built by different railway companies.

Exeter Central is, as the name would suggest, more central, but it’s Exeter St Davids that opened first, and is now the busier main station. (Some people complain that Melbourne Central Station isn’t the main/central station. It seems that situation isn’t unique.)

We had to change trains at Exeter, but first we peered outside (pouring with rain, pretty much the first rain we’d encountered on the trip) and bought some sandwiches to eat on the way.

Our next train was heading for our destination: Penzance. It was the grandly named Cornish Riviera Express. Apparently this name has been used since 1904. It was mentioned on the station displays, though I didn’t notice any specific branding on the train itself, which was a standard High Speed Train (Intercity 125) set.

The train to Penzance, from Exeter St Davids

Grey and green, somewhere in Devon

We zoomed along through Devon, with some great scenery despite the grey skies.

Due to the hilly countryside, there are a large number of railway viaducts providing views over towns such as Plymouth. This is the view from the Keyham Viaduct – apparently it’s 27 metres up in the air. (Here’s what it looks like from below.)

Plymouth: rail viaduct over St Levan Road

Yet another grand bridge built by Brunel carried us across the River Tamar and into Cornwall. In fact we passed over numerous bridges, with some very impressive views along the way. Of course you can’t really see the bridges when you’re in the train, though in this case we got a good view of the parallel road bridge.

And then… we stopped at St Erth, one station short of Penzance, about 10 kilometres away.

For a while we didn’t move. My spidey sense detected something wrong. Then the announcement.

A truck (sorry, a lorry) had struck a bridge up ahead. The conductor, sorry train manager (fair enough, these HST trains are pretty long, and they actually have quite a few staff) got on the PA and apologised profusely, but we’d need to hop off the train here and wait for replacement buses.

We all got off the train in the drizzle and sheltered in the undercover part of the platform. The train manager and her colleagues were on their two-way radios trying to find out about replacement buses and/or whether the train would continue on once engineers had checked the safety of the bridge.

After a few minutes they said that due to the delay, the train would be short-shunting and heading back to London.

One of the rail staff suggested, given there was no ETA on trains resuming, that people exit the station and try their luck with the local buses. I checked Google Maps for buses – they ran about every 20 minutes from here to Penzance. I also checked the Uber app. Nothing nearby. So in light drizzle, we joined a queue of the braver passengers at the bus stop on the main road.

St Erth station, Cornwall

Bustituted on the way to Penzance

A bus arrived and a rail staffer hopped on first to check with the driver about them accepting rail tickets. The bus driver, who in fact is from the same parent company, seemed more concerned with just keeping to his schedule, and let everybody aboard gratis, so we squeezed on with our luggage and had a slightly more lurchy, cramped arrival in Penzance than expected.

We’d come halfway around the world and we’d been short-shunted and bustituted.

The train had been due in Penzance at 3:11pm. The line was shut until about an hour after that, but the bus got us there about the same time the line re-opened, so we probably ended up saving some time. As it was, the Train Manager had said we should be able to claim a refund on our tickets, so a few days later, I did just that. I haven’t actually had a response yet. (I don’t know how it works when the incident is outside the train company’s control.)

Update: On 14th September, GWR emailed me to say they’d be refunding us £60, by cheque. Will be interested to see if a cheque shows up in the mail.

GWR web site: Trains delayed

From the bus station, we walked to hotel, just off the main drag, which curiously is called Market Jew Street. Apparently the name is a derivation of the Cornish Marghas Yow meaning Thursday Market.

The bloke on the hotel front desk asked “Where from Oz are you?” Melbourne – “Ah! I had a working holiday there, lived in Hawthorn for a while.” Small world.

(Few people in Australia say “Oz”, by the way. It appears to be particularly British slang for Australia.)

Across from the hotel was a shop full of various secondhand goods, and a Dalek in the window. Nice. (Weeks later, regular Doctor Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss would spot it too, and if you Google for Penzance Dalek, it looks like everyone who’s been through town has seen it.)

Nearby was a house marked with a non-blue plaque noting that the aunt and mother of the Brontë sisters had once lived there. History.

We headed down towards the sea to explore.

Chapel Street, Penzance

Letter box by Penzance Harbour

It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining, but the weather was more than a bit breezy. Powerful waves were hitting the coastline.

I was keen to look closely, but keener still to keep my feet dry, as in an attempt to pack light, I’d only brought one pair of shoes on the trip. As you may be able to hear from my exclamation, this was not entirely successful.

Western Promenad, Penzance

No pirates were obvious, but they wouldn’t be, would they?

Trivia from Wikipedia on The Pirates Of Penzance: The work’s title is a multi-layered joke. On the one hand, Penzance was a docile seaside resort in 1879, and not the place where one would expect to encounter pirates. On the other hand, the title was also a jab at the theatrical “pirates” who had staged unlicensed productions of H.M.S. Pinafore in America.

Apparently the lack of international copyright had caused problems for Pinafore.

Nowadays the locals seem enamoured of Poldark, which is filmed and set around Cornwall.

Other sights included a drydock, ship in situ, and various other shippy infrastructure which indicated it’s very much a working harbour.

Drydock, Penzance

Penzance Ship Repairers

Penzance Harbour

The Dolphin Tavern, Penzance

After a long walk around, we ended up back in the middle of town, and decided to eat dinner at a pub we’d spotted – The Dolphin, by the water. Most delicious.

Then some more walking around before we headed back to the hotel.