Friday, 27 August 2010

My First Great Western Adventure

zIMG_0576 Penzance and beyond without a car? It’s not as Scilly an idea as it sounds (that pun never gets old).

Pregnant wifey and I recently enjoyed a pleasant and entirely car-free week in deepest-darkest-Cornwall, proving quite merrily that the death of public transport has been announced prematurely (you know, over and over again).

Getting there (and back) was a doddle. From Reading to Penzance there are several direct trains a day, taking about 5 ½ hours. Book far enough in advance (about 3 months, although watch the FGW website for announcements about the early release of tickets, which happens around summer/Christmas time) and it’s easy to bag cheap First Class tickets. For about £30 each way we travelled in (relative to Standard!) luxury. The forward planning more than pays off!

zIMG_0224Penzance has a stack of B&Bs and a good few places to eat, but if you’re on a budget (or just don’t like eating out all the time) booking a cottage can be a cost-effective way to holiday. You’ll typically get more spacious accommodation including a kitchen so you can make dinners and lunches yourself.

IMG_0181We found it was very nice to have a proper base to return to and relax, rather than the more formal and constricted feeling you get in a hotel or B&B. Plus with cute names like Puffin Cottage who can resist?

zIMG_0270How to get around? The 300 bus runs every 2 hours from Penzance bus station (just by the train station) and takes in the delights of Porthcurno (for the telegraph museum, Minack Theatre and a lovely beach), then goes on to the tourist trap at Lands End, or around the bay to Marazion and even up to St Ives. A £6.80 ticket gets you all day travel, with longer tickets available (I think the driver said it was only about £12 for a week!).

zIMG_0253Porthcurno is about 45 minutes away on the bus (make sure you sit upstairs on the left-hand side for a seat-of-the-pants ride, just watch out for low-hanging tree branches lest you want an arboreal bitch-slap), including some pretty hair-raising country roads and an impossible feeling climb from Newlyn up away from the coast. We didn’t have the time to check out the Telegraph Museum and tunnels, but the beach is very pretty and the Minack Theatre is a must-see, even if you don’t manage to take in a performance. It also looks to us like Porthcurno would be a great starting point for some stunning coastal walks, either around towards Lands End and Sennen Cove, or perhaps back towards Mousehole.

IMG_0350 I call Lands End a tourist trap with good reason and even the local tourist publications suggest giving it a miss! We still thought it was a worthwhile visit though, and it’s only 15 minutes on from Porthcurno on the bus. The scenery makes it worth the trip, but don’t fall for the Lands End publicity suggesting you should make a day of it!

IMG_0377You can still walk out to the headland, but the signpost is now fenced off so photos lack that “stood right by the sign” feeling (unless you’re feeling well off enough to pay the official photographer). Otherwise there’s little more there than a handful of tat-merchants and an incongruous mix of ”feature attractions” (Doctor Who?).


St Ives is what (for some reason) I imagined Penzance would look like, very cute, pretty harbour and quite “boutique-y”. Not sure what the bus journey is like, we took the train (about £3.50 return, a steal!) from Penzance to St Erth and then to St Ives. Be sure to grab a seat on the right-hand side facing the direction of travel for wonderful views of St Ives as the line clings to the side of the Hayle estuary.

IMG_0066And in the harbour we saw a seal! Clever Wifey made sure we did the bulk of our souvenir shopping in St Ives and we came away very pleased, if somewhat weighed down and significantly poorer.

Now the big one (and the source of all the puns). A day trip to the Scilly Isles is easily done from Penzance – however with only 4 hours on land you need to plan ahead! The Scillonian III sails from Penzance harbour every weekday during the summer and only costs £25 if you grab a discount voucher from Tourist Information by the station and buy your tickets the day before (ticket office by the harbour).

IMG_0840It’s an early start, but they do serve suitably greasy looking fare if you can stomach the thought of eating a fry-up at sea. 2 ½ hours out, 2 ½ hours back the journey is as much a part of the experience as the time on St Mary’s is, especially if it’s a little choppy!

While we were there we ate and had a nice walk around the Garrison, part of St Mary’s Island with a long military history. IMG_0702The Scillonian’s onboard shop sells a handy tourist guide (£1) for St Mary’s with this and two other walks on it, any of which are doable in the time available (perhaps two if you don’t dawdle like we did).

The braver among you could book trips to one of the ‘off islands’ – the Scillonian won’t wait too long, but does wait for local trips which are scheduled to connect with the afternoon return sailing.


IMG_0957What happens if you miss the boat? Don’t know... Have a go and tell me about it if you’re brave enough.

While you’re in Penzance be sure to check out the local Polgoon farm and vineyard which is about 15 minutes walk from the town centre. They hold tours and tastings on Tuesday-Friday and (most importantly) have a shop selling their yummy wares. The wines and apple juice is available around Cornwall (we had some delicious sparkling Aval Raspberry at The Bakehouse for our anniversary), but this was a souvenir opportunity I wasn’t going to miss.

IMG_1118Speaking of local eateries... The Bakehouse was nice (and handily only a street away from the cottage) although the Monday evening atmosphere was obviously not what we were hoping for on our anniversary. We can also recommend Sophia’s Cafe down on the promenade, which does excellent fish and chips. Captains Fish and Chip takeaway also came highly recommended, though sadly we only discovered that after already having some from the takeaway next to Sophia’s. Unless you’re feeling lucky don’t bother with Gino’s Italian (also on the prom), we did and were underwhelmed.

IMG_1165Our last recommended outing is around the bay from Penzance to Marazion and St Michael’s Mount. Sadly the weather broke for us the day we went, but it had been pretty good up to that point so we’re not going to complain. We walked around, following the coastal path (starts behind the bus station – look out for the signs as it’s not too obvious) and walking down the beachfront alongside the railway, past the heliport (who were probably far happier to see us *not* flying a kite in their flightpath).

IMG_1170When we went the tides meant we weren’t able to walk across, but it is possible at low tide to walk to St Michael’s Mount. If you can’t, don’t let this put you off! The boats (£1.50 each way) are frequent, fast and fun. When you’re across be prepared for a steep climb (and sadly a steep entry fee – it is National Trust) up the Pilgrims Steps to the castle atop the mount. There are also gardens on the island (a joint ticket is available) which would probably be very nice earlier in the season and without the Atlantic gale blowing wind in people’s faces! Buses are available back to Penzance if you’re tired or, like us, soaked.

IMG_0516So that, in a 1300 word nutshell, was our holiday in recommendation form. We’re now, sadly, back at work and trying to come to terms with the fact that was probably our last holiday as free people. Come January our next adventure starts...

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