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
|Credit: Visit Cornwall|
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!)