Seaside Special - The Night Riviera: South West Cornwall

The Night Riviera. Sounds seductive doesn’t it? A gloriously titled sleeper service that evokes flashes of the golden era of rail travel. When block-art posters depicting speeding, streamlined express trains skirting palm-fringed bays promised a rendezvous with steamers docking from somewhere exotic.

The reality? Well, this pre-Covid service did hang on to some semblance of adventure. But only if you booked a cabin. Travelling overnight in the seats is a mistake. As my trip to Perth later on in these missives will make abundantly clear. (Although that journey was earlier in actual time, these being clockwise rather than chronological chronicles. If you see what I mean.)

Turning up in the First Class lounge adjacent to Platform 1 at Paddington gave me a brief moment of Imposter Syndrome. (‘Free coffee? Wow, thank you!’) The train arrived hauled by an olive green GWR loco and I betrayed the same First Class rookie keen-ness by jumping into the lounge car on the train with sidelong glances at the comfy couch and swivel chairs and bar stools that undermined my nonchalance. A bottle of Doom Bar served to be in my plush double seat soon helped me settle.

St Michael's Mount from Penzance through the murk

Penzance, end of the line, was my destination. I had been there once before. Sometime around my second year at college, my mates and I discovered youth-hostelling as a cheap means of short breaks in glorious countryside with ready access to decent pubs. Our initial sortie to Cumbria was an overwhelming success. The cost of the expedition for a bunch of perpetually skint students was made cheaper still by a British Rail initiative that pegged fares at either £5 or £10 anywhere in the country for possessors of a young persons’ railcard for the entire month of February. They ran this wonderful enterprise for a couple of years or so. It was a roaring success. Every train across the entire month was absolutely heaving with students skittering around the country. Getting anywhere involved standing for hours in the smelly vestibule of the smoking carriage astride ruck sacks and invariably under someone’s armpit. Not that any of us were moaning. This was a deal that seems unthinkable in today’s disjointed, financially flawed conundrum of a privatised railway network.

We were bitten by the Youth Hostelling bug. We got away on trips as often as we could, even in the 11 months without a crazy British Rail offer. The Cornwall break was one of the more adventurous, simply because of the distances involved. I was with my college mates Lee, Pat, Clive, Tony and Jerry as we moved slowly from the Penzance youth hostel westwards via foot, pub and eventually bus. The St Just youth hostel sat outside the town in the Cot Valley, close to the coast. Very dramatic. The place is still there, now rechristened Land’s End Hostel and, in common with the overhaul the movement received in the early part of this century, now has a bar, family rooms and mixed dorms. I gather that morning chores, like cleaning the urinals with a toothbrush and cutting the lawn with nail scissors are no longer required either. St Just was a pretty little town and had a couple of decent boozers on the main square. Though we had to sup up in decent time to get back to the hostel before the doors were locked at 10pm sharp. That’s another draconian rule that has been ditched.

The juxtaposition of hostels, pubs and vaguely taxing walks between them was always crucial to the success of a youth hostel trip. Tensions inevitably arose around the definition of the term ‘vaguely taxing’. Lee, Clive and Jerry were by far the most ambitious. They would cajole us slackers into gradients more steep and distances more extreme than our comfort zones demanded. The very idea of jumping on a bus, or Heaven fore-fend, a taxi ride would be scoffed at.

That particular trip saw the first stages of the unravelling of the group for precisely these reasons. The difficult choices between more gentle walks combined with public transport versus  testing hikes with no realistic pub breaks produced a schism. There were terse words at Land’s End precipitated by a cream tea stop that was clearly a tourist action too far for the hard core ramblers. The actual words  ‘you have sold out!’ were bandied about before three of them stomped off into a storm force wind heading out on the north coast of Cornwall. The remainder of us peered after them, took photos of the amusing sign post at the cliff edge (‘John O’Groats 680 miles’ etc) and bought some tat. There were to be no more group Youth Hostel trips.

Reminiscing about the cream tea reminds me of a story I heard a few years later that Paul Weller and Eric Clapton were planning a short Devon and Cornwall tour together, but plans foundered when they couldn’t agree whether Jam or Cream should go on first... Ahem.

My trip on the Night Riviera terminated at Penzance bang on time at 7.55am. Passengers dispersed in various directions from the station and seemed to melt away into the post-dawn October mizzle. The town was very quiet as I wandered along the harbour road in search of a plan. Penzance didn’t feel like a destination at all, despite the railway terminus. It was more like a jumping off point for more obvious tourist spots like Land’s End, St Ives, Padstow, Newquay and the many rugged fishing coves in between. The harbour and boatyard on my left was the headquarters for the Scilly Shipping Company. Another departure point.  

I found a little gem of a pub called The Longboat Inn that served a delicious early morning cup of coffee and took my bag in to left luggage for the morning. If I had wanted a bedroom, an hour of internet time or even a film in the state-of-the-art cinema room, they were all handily available too.

Other opportunities may or may not have been offered. Whilst staring intently at my map, working out the morning’s walk, I became aware of a dead ringer for the outrageous Dawn Sutcliffe out of Gavin and Stacy, complete with gaudy earnings and shimmery blouse, looking my way. She was singing ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ and winked at me as she opened the door to the bedrooms. I was waiting for a hand to emerge from the other side of the door and beckon me upstairs. Get a grip, man! Too much caffeine, and it was only 8.30am.

The stroll towards Newlyn took me along Penzance’s promenade, on which for company I had dog walkers and, of course, joggers. Everyone I saw was wearing shorts. Hardly anyone in Cornwall wears long trousers, it’s a well-known fact. The prom was largely unremarkable at that end of town. The view across Mount Bay and towards St Michael’s Mount would have been magnificent had they not been obscured by low cloud and drizzle. This part of Penzance appeared drab, though my perception was undoubtedly influenced by the murky weather.

Newlyn, on the other hand, had some purpose and substance about it. Proper trawlers painted black and orange were making for open water beyond the red and white harbour lighthouse, giving the overwhelmingly grey aspect some welcome dabs of colour. The town was home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the country. No surprise then that the air was filled with the salty reek of fresh fish. My nostrils were assaulted as soon as I crossed the stone foot bridge over the racing Newlyn Coombe river. In fact the lively harbour-side market, the source of the rich smell, was already winding down its morning business. The process of buying, decanting and shipping out the fruits of the sea had been completed and oil-skinned workers were flushing down the barrels, counters and floors.

Some of the produce had been distributed no further than the other side of the road. I strolled past fishmongers serving their first customers of the day. Their shops jostled for business alongside port pubs, cafes and trawler equipment suppliers, crowded along a unique piece of the SW Coastal Path through the oldest part of the town.

The working harbour had proved attractive to the famous Newlyn School art colony in the 1880’s. Predating the St Ives movement, over 25 artists had based themselves here for 20 or 30 years seeking to paint in a pure environment that emphasised natural light. Cheap living and the availability of inexpensive models appeared to be other drivers. The tradition lives on. A present-day Newlyn School of Art was formed in 2011 with Arts Council funding providing art courses sited close to the original Newlyn colony school.

I was busting for a pee after all that coffee at The Longboat. The first lavs I passed were closed and up for sale. Someone had scrawled ‘pricks’ in vibrant pink spray paint on the sale sign. I assumed this was those bloody artists serving up both a comment on the public convenience closure policy of Penzance Council as well as a generalised observation about their function.

The murk had lifted somewhat and better still, my bladder held out until arriving in the achingly beautiful Mousehole. Once relieved, I was better able to admire the pleasantly sloping harbour, framed by hills behind and Mount Bay to the front, with stone-built fishermens’ cottages packed tightly from the water’s edge and piled up the escarpment. Whilst quiet when I first arrived, the tourist minibuses and cars soon arrived. I realised that all this beauty has a price. I was stung for £9.35 for a coffee and a pasty in a tiny harbourside café-cum-gallery. The estate agents next door had even smaller one-bedroomed cottages with sea views priced up at £379k. Almost London prices.

How many locals could afford either? Indeed how many locals lived here? I wondered what it would be like on a bleak Tuesday morning in February. And then answered my own question: probably quite similar. Mousehole was no longer the fishing community of a century ago that eked out a frugal living at the mercy of tides, depressions and Spanish raiding parties.  Now, the tourist numbers kept the place buzzing year round, swollen by artists and creatives. And facilities to serve them. The table next to me in the pricey café/gallery was occupied by art students and the village had as many craft shops as there were genuine fishing boats in the harbour.

But plenty of evidence of an indigenous population as well. A plaque on the quayside marked the 100th anniversary of the Mousehole Male Voice Choir and still going strong. Membership is 80-strong, drawn from all over west Cornwall and comprises labourers to head teachers, council employees to painters and decorators.


Back along the coast, Newlyn had been transformed since my early morning traverse from Penzance. On my return trip there was much less activity in the harbour and at the fish market. Instead the shops and restaurants were all brimming with customers. With fish at the heart of it all. I liked Newlyn. An honest and not unlovely town on a great piece of coastline. 

Back at the Longboat Inn, I retrieved my pack, being careful to avert my gaze from the door to the bedrooms, and set out for my next stop in Falmouth. The train meandered inland where the light and low cloud that had cloaked St Michael’s Mount in the Bay had become thick, wet mist. I jumped out at Truro for the connecting service, sniffed the dank air and felt my expectations subside.

The train descended steadily to the coast and Penryn Estuary appeared below the embankment. A long marina had yachts berthed centre-stream, overlooked by low-rise, balconied apartment blocks of student accommodation. Both Falmouth University and Exeter University had freshly-built campuses here, prompting a thriving estuary culture and the creation of a new station on the branch line. One of Daughter No 1’s friends had come here to study design and absolutely loved the experience. I probably shared expensive café space with some of these students this morning.

The afternoon was all about heritage. I took the coast road up from Falmouth Docks station with the hope of a glimpse of the docks themselves on the way up to Pendennis Castle. There they were in full operational glory. Amongst various gantries, cranes, warehouses and workshops, the eye was drawn to a long, black and red flat-topped tanker berthed in Queen Elizabeth No 2 dock that dwarfed every other vessel in view. Good to see the complex busy, given the number of derelict, repurposed or redeveloped docks and wharves I’ve seen up and down the coast on these trips.

The Falmouth Docks do have geography on their side though. Always a good thing. Alongside Sydney and Rio de Janeiro, the Falmouth and Carrick Roads harbour is amongst the five largest natural harbours in the World. So is Poole, just a couple of counties or so further east. Geography also helped establish an early boom for the docks when the Royal Mail chose the site as its packet station, From here, ships could safely carry mail to and from all points of the globe, protected from malevolent westerlies by the Lizard peninsula.

In World War I, the haven was taken over by the Admiralty who built a new dock specifically for repairs to ships damaged by submarine warfare. Repair became a strategically important role which was invested in and expanded after the war. Ship, boat and yacht repairs remain a fundamental part of the docks’ current offer.

The rest of the headland is basically the foundation rock for the enormous Pendennis Castle. Which is a bit ironic as I spent a frustrating and fruitless 45 minutes walking around its circumference in the wrong direction looking for the entrance.

Credit: Visit Cornwall

I made a point of pleading with the reception staff to let me drop off my backpack whilst went exploring, though they were a little reluctant at first. My shoulders were feeling like someone had planted a few nuggets of headland granite in my pack.

In one respect, Pendennis Castle is a pretty straightforward. It was not much more than a gun platform (with a few added bells and whistles) designed to sink shipping in the estuaries beneath it. That was the castle’s job for 400 years, from its original construction in Henry VIII’s reign right up to WWII. A pretty straightforward job description. Previous applicants need not apply.

Castles like this also brought out my war-mongering inner-child, a result of having read far too many copies of Victor (‘for boys’) comics between the ages of 7 and 10. Of course I’m able to keep these heinous feelings in check, but who could resist charging down the underground tunnel to Half Moon Battery right out the front of the promontory and air-pounding the six-inch Mark 24 guns at imaginary German E-Boats caught in the glare of the searchlights on the 17th century keep sneakily slinking up the estuary on a secret mission? Eh? No-one, that’s who.

My last call was outside the castle walls at Crab Quay, scrambling over the remains of the block house trying to get photos that presented something other than grey and murk. 

There were complicated views of the many estuaries that met here. The rivers Fal, Penryn and Percuil all broiled off the rocks beneath me. I could make out St Mawes on the opposite headland. The town’s castle, sitting above the harbour surrendered to the Parliamentarians during the Civil War before Thomas Fairfax’s army had even reached the peninsula. Pendennis chose to hold out and endured a three month siege, before succumbing.

To the south the whitewashed lighthouse of St Anthony Head flashed quite distinctly against the monochrome. In front of me, the concrete bollard on Black Rock, a hazard found right in the middle of the channel, looked particularly treacherous. Grey seals could often be seen basking on the rocks at the foot of the bollard. None that day though, discouraged by the steely waves crashing around their erstwhile perch.

I packed away my camera and walked around the west side of the headland for a view over Falmouth town before heading back to the station. Next stop on the train would be Ivybridge, covered in reverse chronological order by the previous episode. The next chapter in this series picks up the clockwise theme: Cornwall''s Atlantic Highway. (Do keep up!) 

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide



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