Ted and I set off for Penzance to begin a ten-day visit to Devon and Cornwall in September 2018, and this account is the result. We were heading for the bits of Devon and Cornwall that we hadn’t visited before, mainly the south of the counties. Steve had visited Plymouth and Exeter for work, we spent a week in a cottage near Lands End in 1991 and many, many years ago Steve hitchhiked along the north coast. We didn’t focus on the major tourist sights or the beaches – as usual the idea was to travel around the area by public transport, visit a pub or two and have the occasional beer. A day-by- day, blow-by-blow account would be tedious so this account is area based, organised from west to east, which was our general direction of travel. For those who are interested there is the usual railway buffery at the end, and some practical notes for any person or wishing to visit the area.
Penzance and St Ives
Penzance is the end of the line and it definitely feels that you have arrived at the edge of the world as the train approaches the buffers, after a long journey from Durham via London. On our arrival it was a dull, dreich evening, the tide was in and the waves were crashing on the shore. The railway enters the town along the seafront and comes to a stop near the harbour. The centre of town is on a hill leading up from the sea. The oddly named Market Jew Street leads to the market place where a left turn into Chapel Street leads back down the hill to the far end of the harbour. It turns out that Market Jew comes from marghas yow, Cornish for Thursday market. We’re staying in the Union Hotel (below) in Chapel Street, parts of which date from the sixteenth century. It was set on fire by Spanish invaders in 1595 and was the first place in the UK to hear of Nelson’s victory and death at Trafalgar in October 1805, after local fishermen spoke to sailors on the Navy vessel carrying the news back to the UK.
After the grey evening the weather brightened and stayed sunny for the remainder of the trip. We liked Penzance. Though plenty of tourists pass through on their way to and from Lands End and the Isles of Scilly, it is a working town and the shopping area for the surrounding area – it has had a market since the fifteenth century and been a borough since the seventeenth. Despite the inevitable row of superstores on the outskirts the town centre is still well used – we didn’t see many empty shops. It is small enough for people to live in or close to the centre, which meant that there were people around, even on a Sunday morning.
Pub-wise the Union Hotel has a busy bar which attracts an older crowd of local people. There was a live band on the Saturday night. They may be good but we were too tired to stay and watch – all we heard was the never-ending sound check. We were impressed by the Dock Inn near the South Pier (below), where the Scillonian ferry had just arrived from the Scilly Isles (they are on the list – maybe one of these days). It looks like an old fishermen’s pub. It has been pleasantly renovated and does a good meal trade though still feels like a locals pub. Best of all is the beer – it sells beer from the Blue Anchor in Helston and the Penzance Brewery in Crowlas. The Crown, behind the main street, had a couple of interesting beers from the Cornish Crown brewery. Though quiet when we visited we gained the impression that it could attract an interesting bunch of people. The photo above is the Egyptian House in Chapel St. Penzance.
St Ives is only ten miles from Penzance by train though it almost always involves a change of train at St Erth. So we started the day by returning along the Cornish main line for a few minutes. The frequent branch line train service tries to attract people bound for St Ives out of their cars and the four-coach ancient diesel became busy. The line is only 4¼ miles long but attracts visitors for the great views over the Hayle Estuary. For more about the Cornish main line see Railway Buffery 1 & the St Ives branch see Railway Buffery 2.
Formerly a fishing port, St Ives is a seaside resort and a tourist magnet. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the town was packed with daytrippers. We explored the town on foot, through the crowds around the harbour to Smeaton’s Pier and on to the lookout station on St Ives Head. People with telescopes and cameras with huge zoom lenses looked out to sea, possibly for sharks which had been spotted recently. Porthmeor beach, by the St Ives branch of the Tate Gallery, was quieter apart from a few people attempting to surf the three-inch waves. St Ives has long been a centre for artists attracted by the landscape and the light and there are galleries and workshops in addition to the Tate. We returned to the town centre and its crowds along Fore Street and its collection of gift, pasty and chip shops, then called in to the Castle Inn, which was quiet and civilised, for a pint and a read of the newspaper.
St Ives Harbour and Porthmeor Beach
Already we’ve discovered that in Cornwall each town has its Fore Street, the equivalent of Front Street in Northeast England or High Street elsewhere. We regularly saw road signs pointing to a place called Outgoing, though never found the place itself. We spotted the occasional black and white Cornish flag and one or two signs in Cornish. We never heard anyone speak the language, though we did hear people refer to England as a separate country over the border from Cornwall. See Note (1) at the end of this section.
We returned to Penzance by bus – the small bus station is up a steep hill from the town centre. My poor old knees are already discovering that visiting Cornwall and Devon involves plenty of climbing. The bus station is chained off except when a bus arrives and it looks as though it is about to collapse into the town below. En route there is a Good Beer Guide pub – the Star Inn in Crowlas (above) – and Ted insisted that we stop. So we diced with death crossing the road as traffic sped through the village and the crossing lights refused to change. The pub is the home of Penzance Brewery – I enjoyed their Crowlas session bitter and Potion No 9 golden ale. It is a very pleasant place to pass an hour or two waiting for and missing buses.
We managed a brief visit to Mousehole (above) before the bus service gave up on a Sunday evening. The journey passes the harbour in Newlyn (the largest fishing port in England) before reaching the terminus by Mousehole harbour. Mousehole, and Mazarion to the east of Penzance, were the main ports in the area before the rise of Penzance and all three towns were destroyed in The Spanish raid of 1595. The Penlee lifeboat (now based in Newlyn) was based in Mousehole when its entire crew of eight were lost in a storm in 1981. After a wander round the harbour there was time for a pint in the Ship Inn, which dates from the eighteenth century. There are many nautical photographs, including the Penlee lifeboat – the crew were locals in the pub.
(1) Cornish is a Brittonic Celtic language from the same root as Welsh and, in particular, Breton. It became extinct as a first language in the late eighteenth century – the last speakers were from the Penzance area. It was revived in the twentieth century, and in 2015 Cornwall Council estimated there were 3-400 fluent speakers (other estimates are up to 625), with a further 5000 people having a basic conversational ability.
St. Michaels Mount, from Penzance
Helston and the Lizard
The Lizard is the southernmost village of Great Britain and Lizard Point the most southerly point, reason enough for the bear to pay a visit. Another reason is that Helston is on the way. We reached Helston by bus from Penzance via Mazarion and Porthleven. The small island of St Michael’s Mount, with its castle and chapel sits just offshore from Mazarion, and most of the tourists on the bus alight there. Helston was a stannary town at the centre of the Cornish tin industry, where tin ingots were weighed in the Coinage Hall to determine the amount of tin coinage to be paid to the Duke of Cornwall, in return for having minerals beneath his land. Wikipedia tells us that Helston is best known for the annual Furry Dance, which must have passed me by. There used to be a railway line to Helston but the station closed in 1962 (see note 2).
Among real ale drinkers Helston is famous as the home of the Blue Anchor, one of only four pubs that never stopped brewing its own ale throughout the period of brewery amalgamations when tasteless fizzy keg beer was taking over everywhere (note 3). And a fine boozer it is too. The building dates from the fifteenth century when it was a monks rest house brewing mead, and has been a pub since the dissolution of the monasteries. There’s a thatched roof, slate floors, open fires and a warren of small rooms, a skittle alley and the oldest continuously brewing plant in the country out the back and friendly staff behind the bar. We visited early lunchtime – earlier than planned due to a missed bus connection – and there was a coterie of regulars in the bar. It seems that the opening of a Wetherspoons up the road hasn’t destroyed its trade. The Spingo beers are excellent – we tried the Jubilee IPA (4.5% ABV) and Middle, a slightly sweet bitter (5% ABV). As well as being a little stronger than many they were also cheaper than usual. Not to be missed.
From Helston it is just under an hour by bus to the Lizard. On the outskirts of Helston there is the usual collection of superstores and a deserted theme park – the part of Coinagehall Street by the Blue Anchor had several empty shops as trade has moved to the edge of town. Much of the Lizard Peninsula seems to have been taken over by the military, in particular the extensive Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose – the Wikipedia entry says it is the largest helicopter base in Europe. Today it is primarily a training and maintenance base for helicopters and a Search and Rescue station. Nearer the Lizard is Predannack Airfield, a relief airfield for Culdrose. There were plenty of helicopters buzzing around – maybe a training exercise. After the village of Cury we reached the sea at Poldhu Cove. A short walk away is Poldhu Point where, in 1901, Marconi sent the first transatlantic wireless signal to St John’s Newfoundland (below). The bus spent a while pootling around the streets of Mullion, where the small original village has been swamped by endless bungalows. The final diversion off the main road took us through the small settlements of Ruan Minor and Kuggar.
As we travelled round Cornwall, past the bungalows and park homes that surround the coastal villages, full of elderly occupants, the thought occurred that, for some, their retirement must have become a nightmare. There must be many whose partner has died with no family nearby, some housebound and others no longer able to drive or walk up and down the steep hills to reach the town centre. Cheery thought. I’m not convinced that the bear is going to be much good at looking after me in my dotage.
I hoped that the Lizard would not be as tacky as Lands End, which was a huge disappointment when we visited it in 1991. Fortunately, the Point and adjacent cliffs are owned by the National Trust which limits development. When we walk from the village to the lighthouse and lifeboat station by Lizard Point, there are plenty of tourists about. There are gift shops and cafes in the village and a couple by the Point to keep them occupied – we returned to the village by a path a little to the west which took us away from everybody within a few minutes.
Ted was in his element, posing for a photograph by the point. Among the shops selling expensive ornaments made from the local serpentine stone, we managed to find one selling cheap pebbles for Ted’s tat collection. Of the two pubs in The Lizard village he dragged me into before catching the return bus, we preferred the Top House. It was the locals pub and it was easy to get into conversation as we sat by the coal fire blazing on an unseasonably warm late September day. The Witchball catered more for visitors eating in the large sunny beer garden, though the beer couldn’t be faulted.
(2) Helston was the most southerly station in Great Britain, the terminus of a branch line from Gwinear Road, on the Cornish main line between Hayle and Cambourne. It opened in 1887 and closed to passengers in 1962 and goods in 1964. An account of the closure of the Helston branch forms the introduction to The Country Railway, David St John Thomas, Penguin, 1979. Below is the branch line timetable in July 1922.
(3) The others are: the Olde Swan (Ma Pardoe’s) in Netherton, Dudley, West Midlands; the All Nations, Madeley, Telford, Shropshire; and the Three Tuns, Bishops Castle, also Shropshire. Ted and I still have to visit the Three Tuns – it’s on the To Do list.
Falmouth (and St Mawes)
Falmouth (above) was our base for three nights and it proved to be a good choice. The town has a population of 21000 and is located where the Carrick Roads, the estuary of the River Fal, meets the sea. The town grew up in the seventeenth century following the construction of Pendennis Caste in 1540, which guards the harbour. The Carrick Roads, like the other estuaries in south Cornwall and Devon, is a ria or drowned river valley and is the deepest natural harbour in Western Europe. By the eighteenth century was a Royal Mail Packet Station maintaining the UK’s links with the rest of the world. Today the docks remain important for cargo, ship repairs and calls by cruise liners. It has its share of tourists, retirees and yachties but it is also a working town, big enough to have the full range of shops. It is also lively, due to the population of students from Falmouth University. It isn’t clogged by traffic – at the end of a peninsula there are no through routes and a Park and Ride bus and (even better) a Park and Float ferry from the outskirts reduces traffic further.
Like most Cornish towns it is hilly – the flat areas having been drowned when the ria formed – and I had chosen the Membly Hall Hotel which was a 25-minute up and down walk from the town centre – we ended up in a taxi back two nights running. The plus side of the location on Cliff Road was that it overlooked the beach and the sea (above). While we were there, there were a couple of student parties on the beach and surfing seemed popular. One misty morning revealed a ghostly ship out to sea (below). On a nearby roof someone had left two wetsuits on a sloping roof to dry. It looked like they were the skins of two humans the rest of whose bodies had been abducted by aliens.
The railway branch line to Falmouth runs from Truro, the county town of Cornwall and trains pootle along the branch every half hour. The terminus at Falmouth Docks is in the middle of nowhere – Falmouth Town is more central. If you are there on time the guards are happy to give you a free ride to the Docks and back rather than leave you in the grotty platform shelter. En route to Truro, at Penryn, via an ingenious arrangement the two trains on the otherwise single-track branch can pass and call at opposite ends of the same single platform. See Railway Buffery 3 for more about the history of the line. We also made the journey to and from Truro by bus, which travels through the narrow streets of Penryn village on its way to the university campus (4) – a challenge for the drivers. Penryn was an important town and harbour in its own right and has many handsome old cottages. There is also a house called Dunfacebookin. On our brief visits to Truro (above) it looked like a prosperous town with all the paraphernalia of a county town, busy shops and a Gothic revival cathedral.
We boarded one of the frequent ferries over to St Mawes which provide good views of the yachts in the estuary and the ships in the dockyard. In the port for a two-day visit was MS The World, the largest private residential ship on the planet (5). The dockyard was busy refitting the RFA Argus, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary hospital ship. St Mawes is a small village at the tip of the Roseland Peninsula and almost traffic free. Formerly a fishing village it is now an upmarket resort. The ferry is essential – it is only just over a mile by sea from Falmouth but 30 miles by road. People were enjoying themselves in the sun and trying to catch fish from the harbour walls. We enjoyed ourselves with a pint in the Victory Inn.
Falmouth is well represented in the Good Beer Guide, so we had a look round. The centre of town is The Moor, a former marshland that, once drained, became the only flat area in town apart from the quayside and the site of the municipal buildings and library. It is also the location of the Seven Stars, a classic unspoilt locals pub, in the same family for 165 years, with good beer and an interesting cast of characters. By the Custom House Quay is the ‘Front (sic), which serves a wide range of beers from local breweries. It has attracted a varied clientele and there was plenty of banter. The pub welcomes people bringing in food from neighbouring takeaways, so you can sit outside with a pint and a fish supper and be mauled by seagulls. Up a steep hill (there’s a surprise) from the Custom House Quay is the Oddfellows Arms, a small and friendly locals pub. We didn’t manage to visit Beerwolf Books, a combined pub and bookshop, which sounds like an excellent combination – maybe next time.
(4) The university began life in 1902 as the Falmouth School of Art, based in the centre of town. It achieved full university status in 2012, specialises in the creative industries and in 2016/7 had 5385 students. The new campus at Penryn, a few miles from town, opened in 2004 and is shared with the University of Exeter, with a focus on renewable energy, ecology and conservation, the Camborne School of Mines and the Institute of Cornish Studies.
(5) MS The World spends its time cruising the planet. The 165 residences on board are occupied by a mixture of permanent residents and others renting for a period. If you are interested in a life spent permanently cruising, buying a suite on board costs about $13.5M plus an entry fee of $8M and an annual service charge of $300K.
Newquay and Industrial Cornwall
This may seem like a strange heading, but bear with me and the bear.
We visited Newquay by train from the junction with the main line at Par – another new stretch of railway for us. The train was quiet – the single track branch limits flexibility and our service could not wait for a late connection from London. Just outside of Par we stopped at the signalbox by St Blazey engine shed to collect the staff for the branch then headed into deepest rural Cornwall on what appears to be a classic country railway.
Except that it’s not. Two old men sitting across from us, on their first visit to the area for many years, were reminiscing about the appearance of the area when the china clay industry was at its height. There are indications of an industrial past on the map but listening to them and looking out of the window revealed more. A closer look at the rolling hills suggests that they are reclaimed and landscaped waste heaps and there are a couple of conical hills which do not look at all natural. The old men are talking about when the clay pits nearby the railway were working, the spoil heaps were ubiquitous and everything was covered in white dust from the industry. Close to Par station there are works for processing china clay and former docks for export. Two miles out the railway is crossed
by a high old stone viaduct – this turns out to be the Treffry viaduct (above), a combined aqueduct and tramway built in 1844 to reach the copper mines that preceded the china clay industry in the area. There are old clay works and sidings at Goonbarrow Junction and at St Dennis Junction freight lines to nearby china clay pits left the Newquay line. The map indicates many other signs of old pits, chimneys and works. It turns out that a major reason to build the railway was to provide access to Newquay harbour for the export of Cornish minerals to industrial Britain without having to sail round Lands End. For more details on the railway line see Railway Buffery 4.
The railway led to the development of Newquay (above) as a holiday resort, which it remains today, with the population growing five-fold in summer. The town is a strange combination of typical holiday resort with all the kiss-me-quick tat, chip shops and hordes of day trippers, and a surfing resort, which attracts a lot of yahoo kids and surf dudes with terribly posh accents. The beaches looked welcoming as we walked round the harbour on our way to lunch at the Red Lion. Ted’s second souvenir of Cornwall, featured at the beginning of this page, is a miniature cushion disguised as a Cornish pasty, purchased in a tat emporium in Newquay and now gracing the tat shelf at home.
A class 122 bubble car arrives at Par from Newquay in 1988
Back at Par, waiting for a connection, a sign says the station is only manned (maybe they should use the word ‘staffed’ – we are in the twenty-first century) until 1445, after which the waiting room and the toilets are locked out of use. And indeed they look as though they have been closed for five and a half centuries. On the journey from Par to Truro we spotted more artificial looking hills and other signs of the clay industry, so decided to find out a bit more.
China clay (kaolin) was used in China up to 10,000 years ago for making high quality porcelain. China clay, a type of decomposed granite, was discovered in Cornwall by a local chemist, William Cookworthy, who set up the Plymouth Porcelain factory in the late eighteenth century. These were the largest known deposits in the world at the time and multiple other uses for china clay were discovered – in the manufacture of paper, paint and rubber goods, sealants, adhesives, plastics and cosmetics. By the mid nineteenth century 7000 workers were employed in the St Austell area producing 65000 tons. per annum. By 1910 50% of the world total was produced in Cornwall with a peak of 2.5M tonnes per annum in the 1960s. In 1919 English China Clay replaced most of the smaller producers and was in turn were taken over by Imerys, a French multinational, in 1999. Most china clay is now produced in Brazil and the USA but the Cornish industry still produces 1M tonnes per annum and employs 1000 people.
The china clay pits near St Austell in 1980. The Par – Newquay line is at the top right.
Every ton of clay produces at least five tonnes of waste as the clay is separated from sand and other materials, hence the creation of huge spoil heaps. It is then dried in kilns (china clay dries) before being transported to end users. Most of the closed clay pits and heaps have been reclaimed, though the typical white lunar landscape remains where the industry is active. This is largely in the area northwest of St Austell between the Cornish main line and the Newquay branch line. Transport of the clay from pits to dries and then to ports for export was initially by horse and cart, then horse tramways and led to the development of freight railways in Cornwall (see railway buffery 5 for more detail).
The lunar landscape of an active area of the china clay industry
Cornwall also had substantial mining industries for tin, copper and other minerals, all of which have now ceased. The tin industry was concentrated on the Pendeen peninsula towards Lands End. The occasional old tin mine chimney can be seen from the Cornwall main line, and the former mining villages reminded us of pit villages in County Durham. This industrial heritage created working class communities in the areas by-passed by tourism, now with high unemployment and levels of deprivation. Reductions in the fishing industry have affected the coastal areas and even Penzance has some of the most deprived areas of the country, which led to the eligibility of Cornwall for assistance from European Union regional development programmes. The second home and retirement influx means that house prices are high, despite incomes being low.
The real thing…….bear and pasty
On this trip we visited Redruth for a couple of hours which provided a different impression from tourist Cornwall. It felt poor, the high street was full of empty shops and the pub felt like something from the 1970s (though the beer was fine). It was the place where we heard the most strong Cornish accents, and the pasty we had for lunch from a local bakers was the best of the trip. St. Austell also gave the impression of being down on its luck though we only paid a brief visit.
Now you are aware that all is not rosy in Cornwall and Devon and that the area is more than just a playground for incomers and tourists it’s back to our journey.
St Austell to Plymouth
We travelled from Falmouth to Totnes via a coastal route from St Austell to Plymouth. The bus from St Austell to Fowey took forty-five minutes to cover the seven miles as the crow flies. After thirty minutes we reached a junction with a sign pointing to ‘St Austell 2 miles’. We had pootled around several housing estates and called at the Adsa supermarket, Charlestown, a pretty harbour and planned village originally constructed around 1800 for the export of copper and china clay and Carlyon Bay golf course and hotel. The bus passed under a low bridge which stated that it was a few inches lower than the bus. Fortunately, our driver was being shown the route by a colleague who knew exactly where to position the bus to get through.
After we reached the 2 mile sign, we followed a more direct route through Par to Fowey (above). The bus route ended at the top of a steep hill, and my poor knees suffered as we found our way down to the quayside. Fowey is an historic old town which grew around the natural sheltered harbour near the mouth of the River Fowey (6). Transport times meant that we did not have the opportunity to explore – just a quick look around the Town Quay.
A ferry carrying up to 12 passengers (plus a small bear) shuttles back and forward across the Fowey estuary to and from Polruan – needless to say, we were number fourteen in the queue but it returned within fifteen minutes. Polruan is a fishing and tourist village clinging to the steep sides of the ria, guarding the entrance to Fowey harbour. The company who operate the Polruan ferry, C Toms & Son, seem to run most things in the village, including a boatyard on the quay which builds and repairs fishing boats and other small vessels, a chandlery, services for visiting yachts and a car ferry upriver. We had time for a pint in the Lugger Inn by the quay, a St Austell Brewery house which has been a pub since the eighteenth century.
The Lugger Inn, Polruan
A minibus to Polperro and Looe runs several times each day and when we climbed the steps from the pub the driver was across the road having a fag and sandwich, told us just to get on and pay when we reached Polperro. He knew everyone else on the bus by name – he said he had been doing the run for thirty years. It turned out that several of the passengers, including two in their eighties who had been having a coffee in the Lugger, were only going to the top of the village, having been shopping over in Fowey. It is a very steep hill, everyone but us had pensioners passes and the driver dropped people at their gate. Then we took off along the only road out of the village via a series of narrow lanes to the bus stop at Crumplehorn, just outside Polperro.
Lizzie in Polperro
Polperro is tourist central – it was busy with coach parties and day-trippers and it must be absolutely heaving in summer. With narrow lanes and no parking in the village, the bus stop and large car park for visitors is at Crumplehorn. The village centre and harbour are reached by the Polperro Tram – converted milk floats called Lizzie, Dotty and Maud, so we waited a few minutes for the next ‘tram’ (7). I was chatting to a woman when the tram arrived, the conductor obviously thought we were a couple and tried to charge me for two and didn’t understand why I would only pay for one (bears go free). She dissolved in gales of laughter when she found out her mistake. In fact the route into the village was a gentle slope and walking would have been easily practicable. After a walk round the village and harbour (below) we managed to find space in the Blue Peter Inn. A pasty later we were back on the ‘tram’ to the Crumplehorn Inn and beer garden. While we were there the school bus turned up and, judging by the number of kids getting off, there is still a reasonable permanent population in the village – it is not only holiday cottages.
The remainder of the day’s journey was onward by bus to Looe, a train to Liskeard and another into Plymouth. The bus took us past umpteen caravan sites and into the villages of Pelynt and West Looe before reaching East Looe and the station. West and East Looe grew up as two separate towns though they have been linked by bridge since the fifteenth century (below). At one point they were both rotten boroughs with their own MP. Today the main street of East Looe was full of tourists so we escaped to a quiet pub until it was time for the train.
Looe to Liskeard is a lovely journey by train alongside the East Looe River, much of it away from main roads. We pass St Keyne Wishing Well Halt (no-one has stopped to make a wish today) to reach Coombe Junction. The train reverses then heads uphill through a deep cutting, under the Cornish main line and manages to arrive in Liskeard from the north at a platform at right angles to the main line platforms (left). See Railway Buffery 6 for more detail on the history of the line.
The Royal Albert and Tamar bridges from the train as it passes through Saltash
The short journey into Plymouth is hazy – I spent the journey desperate for the loo (shouldn’t have had all these beer breaks) and the one on the train was out of order. However, it is an attractive stretch of the main line, crossing two branches of the St Germans River to Saltash. There are good views of the Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar, built by Brunel and opened in 1859, which marks the border between Devon and Cornwall. After crossing the bridge the line passes the Naval Dockyard at Devonport before pulling into Plymouth station. Fortunately, our connection was standing on the adjoining platform, I could head straight for the loo as soon as we boarded and relax for the journey to Totnes. Ted just tutted at the weak bladders of humans.
(6) Fowey had two railway branches, from Lostwithiel and Par, which closed to passengers in 1965 and 1969, though parts of both routes are used in connection with china clay freight traffic (See Railway Buffery 5).
(7) For more detail see the fascinating (really) website www.milkfloats.org.uk
Gunnislake and Calstock
Back in Plymouth to change trains once again – this time to explore the Tamar Valley line from Plymouth to Gunnislake. It takes time to clear the suburbs of Plymouth as we call at several suburban stations – Devonport, Dockyard (a request stop) and Keyham – on the main line but served mainly by Gunnislake trains. At St Budeaux Victoria Road, the branch leaves the main line and the driver picks up the staff for single train working from the cabinet. As shown on the map the line drops down and crosses beneath the main line twice to the Tamar riverside, with views of the rail and road bridges to Saltash and Cornwall. After passing the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Ernesettle we cross the river Tavy viaduct to the Bere Peninsula and the villages of Bere Ferrers and Bere Alston, where the train reverses – the line originally carried on to Tavistock, Okehampton and Exeter and the Gunnislake line branched off here. We then cross the Tamar into Cornwall on a 120ft (37m) high viaduct into Cornwall, call at Calstock station then climb up to Gunnislake where the line ends, almost a mile from the village and 100m above it. The line used to continue to Callington and only survived the Beeching-era closures due to poor road connections to the Bere Peninsula, Calstock and Gunnislake. See Railway Buffery 7 for more detail on the history of the line.
The train today is well loaded. The line is promoted as a rail ale trail and on a sunny Saturday there are two groups of lads on board. One group gets off at Bere Ferrers and the other remains on the train to Gunnislake, where they head downhill to the Rising Sun Inn by the river. At this time of day everything is very civilised but it has the potential to get messy by the last train back to Plymouth. Other passengers head for Calstock, a pretty village by the river and Gunnislake, which is the railhead for a sizable area.
Throughout the journey the map shows disused mines, shafts and chimneys, though only the occasional ruined pump house is visible. This was another mining and quarrying area from medieval times, peaking in the 1860s when it is estimated that 7000 were employed in the Tamar Valley silver, tin, and copper mines and granite quarries. The industry had closed by the early twentieth century.
We take the opposite direction from the lads and head for a quiet pint at the Queens Head at Albaston. Near the station, we pass the remains of Drakewalls Mine, which produced tin, copper, arsenic and wolframite between about 1850 and 1897. The Queens Head is an unspoilt country pub, quiet at this time of day, though it seems to be the centre of the community and we hope it survives the current spate of pub closures. The landlady says the local pubs have a system for keeping each other informed of the progress of ale trail groups.
We’ve decided to walk back to Calstock – the map shows a route via paths which pass through woods and avoids public roads. There are good views of the River Tamar and the railway viaduct as we approach Calstock. It is downhill all the way to reach the Tamar Arms, a large pub with a beer garden by the river, where we recognise several people from the train. The river is navigable and Calstock was a port for exporting the produce of the local mines, though today it is used only by pleasure craft. After a break we head through the village where there are numerous former shops marked by blue plaques – the last retail shop closed in 2017. We totter uphill to the station (remember the height of the viaduct) and catch the return train to Plymouth. The photos are Ted in the Queens Head, Albaston, the path down to Calstock and another view of Calstock Viaduct.
Totnes is a small market town of 8000 people on the Devon main line between Plymouth and Exeter, built on a hill above the floodplain of the River Dart. The main street (called both High Street and Fore Street) runs uphill from the river beneath the Eastgate arch to the market place and the remains of the Norman castle. At the foot of the hill is the Royal Seven Stars Hotel, a former coaching inn dating from the seventeenth century, which was our base for two nights
Totnes is very attractive, terribly twee, wealthy and alternative – Wikipedia uses ‘alternative’ to describe the town, as well as ‘New Age’ and ‘bohemian’. There are wholefood shops, vegan restaurants, loads of natural health shops and an alternative barbers, whatever that is. There is a flourishing market, a man selling ‘Dump Trump’ tote bags in the main street, obvious signs of plenty of community and voluntary work and it is a long time since I’ve seen such a high proportion of Guardians among the newspapers. It was one of the world’s first Transition Towns, a movement focusing on grassroots community projects that aim to increase self-sufficiency. The town centre is vibrant, without the usual empty shops and the Morrisons supermarket on the edge of the town centre seems to have freed up pace for more alternative stuff. We had a room-only deal at the hotel so bought breakfast in the market and ate it bedside the river, among the dog walkers and Totnes’ small group of street drinkers assembling for a day on the cider. Despite its lefty/liberal appearance, the surrounding rural area means it manages to elect a Tory MP with a thumping majority (8). Wikipedia reminds us of another claim to fame – that ‘Bevis the homicidal barber who sings the Lumberjack song’ (well, one version of it anyway) ‘in a Monty Python sketch had spent five ghastly years at the Hairdressers Training Centre at Totnes’.
The bars in the Royal Seven Stars were busy with a mixed crowd of people, decent beer, and not too dominated by people eating – though the food is recommended. At the top of the hill is the Bay Horse Inn, which had a lively and friendly atmosphere. They sold an excellent pint of Mane Event bitter from the New Lion Brewery, a 3.8% session bitter full of flavour. This new brewery opened in 2014 near Totnes station, the previous Lion Brewery closing in 1926. They run open evenings in the tap room on a Friday and Saturday. The Albert Inn, across the river in Bridgetown was on the list to try – but we were waylaid in the Bay Horse. Sorry. We managed a quick drink in the King William IV, which had less character and a younger crowd, though we couldn’t fault the pint. We liked Totnes, despite the climb up and down the hill to and from the market and the Bay Horse.
(8) To be fair, Dr Sarah Wollaston is not on the mad right-wing fringes of the party. She was the first Conservative MP to be elected via an open primary in 2009. She took the seat in 2010 and had a majority of 13477 in 2017. She has called for the suspension of Universal Credit and changed her position on the EU to vote remain and supports a Peoples Vote.
South Hams and Torbay
Tally Ho! Coaches operate the bus service between Totnes, Kingsbridge and Salcombe. This is one of theirs a few years ago – our bus was a little more modern
A day out by bus from Totnes took us round South Hams, the district of south Devon administered from Totnes. The first stop was Kingsbridge, 13 miles south of Totnes. This was a proper rural bus journey, diverting off the man road to reach out of the way villages such as East Allington. The intention was to visit Torcross, but the bus missed the connection due to heavy traffic in Totnes. We spent the in Kingsbridge sitting by the head of the Kingsbridge Estuary eating a second breakfast, checking bus times and deciding to visit Salcombe instead.
The bus arrives in Salcombe via a convoluted route around the top of the town. By the time the driver tells us where to get off we are convinced we’re heading back out of town. The journey took us round the upmarket avenues and drives of Salcombe – when I check it turns out that the property prices are among the highest in the UK. It was a fishing village and while there are a few boats catching shellfish the harbour aters mainly for the yachting fraternity. It is busy with tourists and we head for the Victoria Inn. We had been advised that it was the best in town and though it has been opened out it still retains some of the feel of a local pub.
Back in Kingsbridge we caught a bus for Dartmouth. We had hoped to travel via Slapton Sands, a narrow sandbar separating the freshwater Slapton Ley from the sea, but a long-term closure of the road along the sandbar means that is not possible. The road is regularly closed after storms – this time it has been closed for six months after a severe storm – and at some point erosion will make it permanently impassable, and destroy the unique habitats around the Ley. Today the bus to Dartmouth takes a winding route via back roads to Strete then follows the main road into Dartmouth.
Dartmouth is a handsome town, overlooked by the naval college where all Royal Navy officers are trained. There is time for a brief look round before catching the passenger ferry across Dartmouth Harbour to Kingswear. Dartmouth had no railway but it did have a railway station which sold tickets for the ferry and onward travel by train from Kingswear – the building is now a restaurant. Somehow I never paid a fare, but it wasn’t deliberate. Close to the passenger ferry is a car ferry. It is a strange looking affair – an unpowered pontoon which is pushed or pulled by a tug boat. In Kingswear, on the way up the inevitable hill to the bus stop, we call in to the Steam Packet and sip a pint looking out at the views of the Dart estuary.
The Dartmouth – Kingswear Ferry and the Steam Packet, Kingswear
Next stop was Paignton which was a marked contrast to the other places we visited. Frankly, Paignton is a dump which has hit hard times. Henrys Bar, last stop on the trip, looked as grotty as the rest of the place – it felt like somewhere in Whitley Bay in the 1980s, with the same drinkers still there, only 35 years older. However, the atmosphere and the banter were good, as was the beer. The view of the outskirts of Paignton from the Totnes bus didn’t improve. On the edge of town there were endless fields of park homes populated by elderly people in failing health who have returned after twenty years on the Costas and realised that this is all they can afford. At least the climate is benign by UK standards. On the route into Totnes we discover that Bridgetown has been the less genteel part of town at one time, though I would be very surprised if many of the houses we pass remain in council hands. Then it was over the bridge into the town centre and the bus stop by the hotel.
The Dartmouth Lower Ferry
We returned to Paignton to travel the railway line from Paignton to Newton Abbot for the first time. Paignton station is in desperate need of some care and attention and at 1100 on a Saturday morning the two-coach train to Exeter departs full and standing. It gets busier at each stop until people are being left behind on station platforms. We had managed to bag a seat and an old bloke sits down next to me and asks if this is the train to Swindon. He pronounced it something like Twynholm (which is near Kirkcudbright), but eventually I understand. Several times he asks what day it is then where he should change. I say change at Exeter but he decides to change at Newton Abbot. We see him on the opposite platform, clutching his bag. The contents of the bag are three bottles of cheap red wine and a half bottle of vodka – he had a decent swig of both on the short journey to Newton Abbot. I hope he made it. For more on the railway to Paignton see Railway Buffery 8.
There are very few railway stations named after pubs where their main function is still to serve the pub. One is Berney Arms in Norfolk, which we visited in 1997, where there is no public road access and the pub could only be reached by rail, on foot or by boat (9). The only other I can think of is Portsmouth Arms, a request stop on the Barnstaple line, 28 miles from Exeter St Davids. So off we went.
Very few trains call at the station and the choice was either a three-hour visit over Sunday lunch or a short forty minute break if the pub didn’t appeal. We asked the guard, who would have liked to join us, to call at the station (it is a request stop) and walked the 100 metres along the road to the pub. The pub was in the 2019 Good Beer Guide and the reviews were good. The car park looked suspiciously empty, particularly for a Sunday lunchtime, and sure enough when we reached the door the pub was closed. There was no notice saying why, all the sources say it is open at lunchtime at weekends, and I couldn’t find anything in the local press online or the pubs own site to explain the closure, which appears to have been temporary. So, we trudged back to the station and caught the same train with the same guard on its return journey from Barnstaple. Every journey has a cock-up.
We enjoyed the railway journey – the line follows the River Yeo via Credition then over the watershed where it then follows a separate River Yeo towards the north coast of Devon – by the time we reach Portsmouth Arms it has become the River Tawe. The train was quite busy and called at most of the request stops, even though some are in the middle of nowhere. At Crediton a separate line follows us for few miles then heads off to Okehampton. It used to reach Plymouth but today is used only on summer Sunday – the season had ended a couple of weeks before our visit. For more about the line see Railway Buffery 9.
Eggesford Station on the Tarka Line
Needless to say the bear and I fancied a pint and we stopped off at Crediton on the return journey, which looked a big enough place to have more than one pub. It is an old town which grew up with the woollen industry, though today it is principally a commuter town for Exeter. We climbed the main road into town and found the Mitre – a basic boozer with a decent beer garden and an equally decent pint. From there we caught a bus into Exeter and treated ourselves to a very late lunch in a Wetherspoons – we know how to live (10).
(9) The Berney Arms closed in 2015. There is a campaign to reopen the pub and planning permission to convert it to a dwelling has been refused. Info from www.berneyarms.co.uk .
(10) Check current opening hours for the Portsmouth Arms, Burrington at www.whatpub.com . Alternatives are to continue into Barnstaple where there are a selection of pubs. The Beer Engine next to Newton St Cyres station also looks excellent. Train times may not allow a short visit but there are plenty of buses on the Exeter – Crediton route, which stop in the village about ten minutes walk form the pub.-
Before the Railway Buffery and the practicalities a brief summing up. All in all we enjoyed the trip greatly. Plenty of interesting journeys by rail and bus through pleasant countryside and no shortage of good pubs and beer. It is not the place to get away from the crowds – it was still busy in late September. We accomplished most of what we set out to do. We’ll treat it as recce – it would be good to return and take things at a slower pace, as we were knackered by the end, though we managed the occasional relaxing hour over a pint. It would be worthwhile to build in time to visit some of the tourist sights such as the Eden Project, some of the famous gardens, the Tate in St Ives and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth, plus a couple of days doing nothing. We also wish to catch the train to Okehampton, fully reopened since our visit.
1 Devon and Cornwall main line: Exeter St Davids – Plymouth – Penzance
This is what an atmospheric railway line would have looked like
The line from Exeter opened to Newton Abbot in 1846, reached Plymouth by 1849 and Truro by 1859. The Exeter – Plymouth stretch was constructed by the South Devon Railway Company and the section from Plymouth to Truro by the Cornwall Railway Company following the completion of the Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar at Saltash. Both were seven foot gauge lines and the Devon section was operated for a short time until 1848 by the atmospheric system, with trains drawn by a piston in a tube between the rails. The original destination was Falmouth for Royal Mail steamer connections across the world. As the railway was being built, Southampton replaced Falmouth as the main steam packet port and Penzance became the destination for the main line.
In 1852 the West Cornwall Railway Company opened a line from Penzance to Truro. This was a standard gauge line and, initially, through passengers and goods had to change trains at Truro. By 1866 the line to Penzance was relaid as mixed gauge which allowed the first through train to London Paddington, 305¼ miles by rail, to commence in 1867. The photo below shows one of its successors arriving at Penzance.
The companies became part of the Great Western Railway and in 1892 the main line and all branches were converted to standard gauge over a single weekend. The lines soon became congested – they were originally built as single track lines. It was not until 1908 that the line was double track throughout, with the exception of the Royal Albert Bridge. Other improvements included the replacement of timber trestle bridges by masonry bridges. More recently a 7.5 mile section of line between St Austell and Truro, which had been singled in 1986, was redoubled in 2004 and, in 2018, signalling improvements were completed that will permit the introduction of a train service every 30 minutes on the line through Cornwall in 2019.
The line along the Dawlish sea wall on a good day
The winding and hilly nature of much of the line restricts speeds and, despite the use of trains capable of 125mph, services currently take around three hours to cover the 131½ miles between Exeter and Penzance. In Devon the stretch of line along the shoreline and at the foot of cliffs in the Dawlish area is subject to closure whenever there are storms – the coastal erosion is increasing due to climate change. In Feb 2014 severe storms closed the line for several months when the seawall collapsed, cutting off West Devon and Cornwall from the rest of the network. The line has been rebuilt and sea defences strengthened and various proposals have been made for a diversionary inland route as the only long term solution (see Railway Buffery 9).
2 St Erth to St Ives – The St Ives Bay Line
The line opened in 1877 and was the final 7ft gauge line to be built in the UK. The main traffic was fish from St Ives but it led to the rapid development of St Ives as a resort. Goods traffic ceased by 1966 and today there is a half-hourly passenger service. With a journey time of 11-14 mins this means a tight turn around for the single train on the branch. Passenger traffic at St Ives has tripled over the last 15 years, and grew dramatically at the park and ride station of Lelant Saltings, which has been replaced by extensive park and ride facilities at St Erth since our visit.
The line, and the other Devon and Cornwall branch lines are community rail lines. The Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, founded in 1991, was the first of its kind and the concept has been replicated by community rail partnerships across the country and their work recognised by Government. The Partnership is a voluntary organisation supported by local authorities, railway companies and user groups to support and develop the use of the line.
3 Truro to Falmouth – The Maritime Line
The Cornwall Railway opened the broad gauge line from Truro to Falmouth in 1863, to serve the docks, the packet steamers and the new hotels built to serve the port. It became part of the Great Western Railway in 1889 and was converted to standard gauge in 1892. Due to the decline of the port for passenger use as it was being constructed the line has been operated as a branch line off the Cornish main line.
End of the line – Falmouth Docks station
The original Falmouth station, much reduced in size to a single platform and shelter, is now Falmouth Docks station. It closed in 1970, was reopened in 1975 and was renamed Falmouth Docks in 1989. The present Falmouth Town station, closer to the centre of town, opened in 1975 as The Dell and was renamed Falmouth Town in 1989. The third Falmouth station, Penmere, opened in 1925. All three are basic unstaffed single platform stations.
Falmouth Docks station in the early 1900s
Penryn station was the original passing place on the line but was singled during British Rail rationalisation, allowing only one train on the branch. A new passing loop was installed at the north end of the station in 2009 where, unusually for the UK, trains run on the right. As the Truro-bound train calls at the north end of the platform the Falmouth-bound train passes and calls at the south end of the same platform.
The line is marketed and promoted by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership as the Maritime Line. Between 2002 and 2017 passenger numbers have tripled and at Penryn, close to the university campus, have grown five-fold. The new passing loop has enabled an increase in the number of trains in each direction daily (weekdays) from 13 in 2008 to 29 today.
4 Par to Newquay – the Atlantic Coast Line
The line is a 20.75 mile branch from the Cornish Main Line at Par near the south coast, across Cornwall to the resort of Newquay. It has its roots in the Treffry Tramways – horse tramways constructed for the transport of minerals from the copper mines and clay pits to the harbours at Fowey, Par and Newquay. The horse tramways were taken over by the Cornwall Minerals Railway in 1862, converted to railways and a passenger service between Fowey and Newquay commenced in 1876. In 1892 the curve from St Blazey to Par station on the Cornish main line was opened allowing through services.
Goonbarrow Junction on the Newquay branch
Today the line is promoted by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership as the Atlantic Coast Line and patronage at each of the stations has been increasing. Frequency on the line is limited by the lack of passing places – the closest to Newquay is at Goonbarrow Junction fifteen miles away. On summer Saturdays through services are operated to and from London, Manchester and Dundee and local services on the branch are suspended.
5 The China Clay Industry and freight railways in Cornwall
A network of tramways developed around the mines and clay pits of Cornwall for internal transport, to take waste to the tips, china clay to be dried in the kilns and from the china clay dries for distribution and export. For example, by 1842 a horse tramway ran from Bugle, today a station on the Newquay line, to Par Harbour.
The rail network in the china clay country, 2009. (private sidings not shown).
Today a network of lines remains for freight. A freight line joins the Cornish main line at Burngullow, west of St Austell, where there are two former clay dries. Clay is transported on the branch from drying works at Porkandillock and Treviscoe. Sand and aggregates, a by-product of the china clay industry, are loaded at Burngullow for transport to London. A short line from clay dries at Rocks joins the Newquay branch at Goonbarrow Junction (where there are also derelict works). There is a service from Cornwall to the Potteries, but most china clay is exported. There are large derelict clay dries and loading facilities at Par Harbour, which is no longer used. The docks used for export today are at Carne Point, near Fowey, on a branch line from Lostwithiel. Another branch line ran from Par to Fowey, which has been converted into a private road for china clay lorries between Par and Carne Point.
6 Liskeard to Looe – the Looe Valley Line
The line was opened for goods between Looe and Moorswater, just west of Liskeard, in 1860 by the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal Company, alongside their canal which then fell into disuse, The canal was built to haul sea sand and lime upriver to improve local agriculture and, later, for the export of copper, tin and granite from quarries on Bodmin Moor. These were transported by the Liskeard and Caradon Railway, opened in 1844, to Moorswater for transhipment. The two companies combined and through goods trains operated from 1862.
Passenger traffic from Looe to Moorswater commenced in 1879 and passengers had to climb the 205 feet from Moorswater to reach Liskeard town and the main line station. This problem was overcome by the construction of the Liskeard and Looe Extension Railway from Coombe Junction to Liskeard in 1902. The reversal at Coombe Junction near Moorswater required locomotives to run round their train and the steep incline to Liskeard meant that the line was difficult to operate.
Moorswater station closed to passengers in 1901 and the freight lines north closed in 1917, though the freight yard remained in operation for china clay export (today it is a cement distribution depot with a weekly freight train from Aberthaw cement works in South Wales). A goods line to the quayside at East Looe closed in 1954 and the station moved slightly further from the town centre following the replacement of steam trains by diesels.
The line was reprieved slightly before its planned closure in 1966 and it is now marketed as a community rail line branded the Looe Valley line. Passenger numbers have increased by about 40% in the last 15 years, Today most trains reverse slightly before Coombe Junction station, the crew changing the junction points. Two trains a day call at Coombe Junction station, which usually sees fewer than 50 passengers per year, though for some reason there was a vast increase to 212 in 2016-17.
7 The Gunnislake branch – the Tamar Valley Line
The first railway line in the area was the East Cornwall Mineral Railway, opened in 1872 to export produce of the local mines. It was a 3ft 6in narrow gauge line from Callington via Gunnislake to the River Tamar at Calstock, the final section to the riverside being a cable-worked incline. In 1890 the Plymouth Devonport and South West Junction railway opened a line from Plymouth via St Budeaux and Bere Alston to Tavistiock and Lydford, where it met the London and South Western Railway. This became a main line with through trains from Plymouth to London Waterloo via Okehampton, Exeter and Salisbury. The branch from Bere Alston via the new Calstock Viaduct to Gunnislake and Callington was opened in 1908, at which time the incline was closed and the remainder of the mineral railway converted to standard gauge,
The Gunnislake to Callington section was closed in 1966, though the remainder survived due to the poor road access to the Bere Peninsula and Gunnislake. Today the line is a community rail line, supported by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership and marketed as the Tamar Valley line. Passenger numbers have increased by 40% in the last fifteen years, though there is no passing place on the line which limits the frequency of the service. There have been proposals to reopen the line from Bere Alston to the growing town Tavistock which have come to nothing, but it is possible that the line will reopen as a diversionary route to between Plymouth and Exeter.
8 Newton Abbot to Paignton
From a junction with the Devon main line at Newton Abbot, the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway Company opened the line to the original Torquay station (now Torre) in 1848. It reached Paignton in 1859, Brixham Road in 1861 and Kingswear (for the ferry to Dartmouth) in 1864. It was absorbed by the Great Western Railway in 1876 and converted from 7 foot to standard gauge along with the rest of the GWR network in 1892. The line beyond Paignton was closed by British Rail in December 1972, sold to the Dart Valley Railway Co and converted to a heritage line, now the Dartmouth Steam Railway. Today the Paignton – Torquay – Newton Abbot line is double track with regular trains to Exeter and Exmouth and occasional services to London and Manchester.
9 Exeter to Barnstaple – The Tarka Line – and the Okehampton branch
The Exeter and Crediton railway opened in 1851 and the North Devon Railway from Crediton to Barnstaple in 1854. The lines were broad (7 foot) gauge, converted a few years later to standard gauge. There was a netwok of lines beyond Barnstaple to Lynton, Ilfracombe and Bideford, all of which have since closed. Today it is a single track line with passing places at Crediton and Eggesford. It is a community rail line marketed as the Tarka Line and passenger numbers have increased by about 70% in the last 15 years. Portsmouth Arms is the least used station in Devon, with a total of 518 passengers arriving or departing in the 2016-17 year – hopefully they found the pub open.
A line towards Okehampton branches off at Crediton and it parallels the Barnstaple line to Coleford Junction beyond Yeoford, the original junction. This was the London and South Western Railway main line between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock. After closure to passengers in 1972 it remained open for freight trains from the then British Rail ballast quarry at Meldon until its closure in 2011. At the time of our visit the line from Crediton to Okehampton was used in high summer by Sunday trains sponsored by Devon County Council, and the section from Okehampton to the quarry was in operation as the Dartmoor Railway heritage line. The line to Okehampton was reopened to regular passenger services in November 2021. The line forms part of a possible future diversionary route between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton, Tavistock and Bere Alston, to provide a route to and from Cornwall when the line along the seawall at Dawlish is closed.
The Dawlish sea wall after a (very) bad day….and closures due to bad weather are becoming more frequent
As mentioned in the text the Union Hotel in Penzance has a long history and the public rooms retain many historic features. Our single room was tiny, faded and expensive. The breakfast was ample as was the evening bar meal. We had a beer in the Dock Inn and discovered it also has a few rooms – if they are as good as the beer and the food it would be a good alternative.
Fawlty Towers…..no, sorry, the Membly Hall Hotel
The Membly Hall Hotel in Falmouth is superbly situated above the beach but it is a long trek from the town centre. While the room was large and comfortable, the breakfasts were made to order and the staff were friendly, it seemed expensive to me. It caters for coach parties and I am sure they would be paying much less than we were. As with many hotels (the Union Hotel was the same) the advertised free wifi throughout is a bit of an exaggeration if you are more than a couple of feet from the router. There is a row of what seem like fairly upmarket guesthouses in Grove Place by Custom House Quay close to the town centre which may have been a better bet. Across the estuary St Mawes has several options. It would make a good base though booking.com suggests most are expensive and the last ferry from Falmouth is just after 1700 (1615 in winter).
The Royal Seven Stars in Totnes was our favourite of the trip. Both the bedrooms and public areas were pleasant, the staff were friendly, the bar was popular locally and while we didn’t have the breakfast the meals in the bar were excellent. It is central and, while it is a bit of a walk from the station, the main bus stops are directly outside.
We also stayed in the Premier Inn at Exeter St Davids which is like any other Premier Inn – perfectly comfortable and reasonably priced. It is directly opposite the railway station, which was ideal for us. Like the station it is a fair distance from the city centre, though there are reasonable bus links or an uphill walk.
For train travel I used (the bear goes free as usual) a Freedom of Devon and Cornwall Rover, available from staffed stations or online at the Great Western Railway site www.gwr.com . It is valid on all trains for any eight out of fifteen days (except before 0900 on Monday to Friday). In 2022 it costs £60.70 with a railcard, £92 full price. Note that the ticket will not operate the barriers installed at several stations – show it to staff.
Further information about the ticket and other rail rovers available in the region is available at www.railrover.org and www.gwr.com . The Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership site www.greatscenicrailways.co.uk has copious information about the Cornwall and Devon branch lines.
Travelling by bus and ferry
First Kernow buses parked at Penzance bus station
In Cornwall most buses are operated by First Kernow – of our twelve bus journeys in Cornwall only two were with other companies. I used a 7 day ticket which costs £28 (the price had not increased by 2022). They produce a comprehensive timetable booklet which was easily available at bus stations and tourist information centres. Information is also available at www.firstgroup.com/cornwall . Cornwall County Council produce an online public transport guide including maps and timetables for bus, ferry and rail services – google Cornwall Public Transport Guide or visit www.transportforcornwall.co.uk
Falmouth makes a useful base for an attractive area of Cornwall. Information about buses, ferries and river cruises in the area is at www.falriver.co.uk . The Fal Mussel Card gives a number of days travel in the area.
In Devon bus services are provided by a range of companies with a heavy Stagecoach presence in much of the county. A Devon Day bus ticket can be used on virtually all bus services and costs £9.60 (May 2021 price) – I used this for the day travelling round South Hams. Devon County Council produce bus timetables for each area of the county, available at bus stations, tourist information centres and in some hotels. Maps and timetables are also available online at www.traveldevon.info .
Travel Cornwall operate the Polruan to Polperro and Looe service
Be aware that evening and Sunday bus services may be limited or non-existent, particularly in Devon. Timekeeping was poorer than expected – three times we missed connections when we thought ten minutes would be sufficient time to allow. Traffic can get held up in narrow lanes and we tended to set off at the same time of day as every pensioner queues for the first bus on which their passes are valid. It was also the first few days of term at Falmouth University and Truro College – the time of year when every student turns up on time. It was not difficult to come up with a Plan B on each occasion, but allowance should be made for delays.
Links between bus and train services vary – in some towns, for example Penzance, St Austell and Redruth, the train and bus stations are adjacent, in others they can be some distance apart, for example Newquay and Truro.
The Old Ale House, Truro
As usual we spent much of the time seeking out and trying decent beer. It was notable that it was easy to get bitter from both the smaller and larger breweries, rather than the plethora of over hopped, light, citrus beers that are hard to avoid elsewhere. Sharps, based in Rock, Cornwall is now owned by Molson Coors and, while their Doom Bar is well known across the country in their home territory they sell a range of bitters. The St Austell Brewery, founded in 1851 and still independent, own quite a number of pubs in the area and where choice is limited due to the tie, their Tribute is always a fine pint. In addition to beers from the Blue Anchor, Cornish Crown, Penzance and New Lion breweries we tried and enjoyed beers (usually bitters) from Cornish Chough, Keltek, Skinners and Salcombe and no doubt a few others.
Each of the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership supported community rail lines has a rail ale trail, featuring the pubs along the route. For details see the rail ale trails page at www.greatscenicrailways.co.uk .
The National Rail, railway and bus company sites and Cornwall and Devon County Council public transport sites helped to plan the journey and www.booking.com to book the hotels. The Rough Guide to Devon & Cornwall, Robert Andrews, 6th edn, 2017 helped with the background. Michelin Map 503, Wales and South West England, 1:400,000 scale helped to develop the overall route and Google Maps and the Ordnance Survey OS Maps app provided the detail when necessary.
www.en.wikipedia.org was the first port of call to provide the background information for this account. Other sites that helped to flesh out the details were www.cornwallinfocus.co.uk , www.visitsouthdevon.co.uk , www.cornwalls.co.uk , www.cornwall-calling.co.uk , www.information-britain.co.uk and www.cornwalllive.com . For the Falmouth area www.falmouth.co.uk provided information and details of MS The World came from www.cruisemapper.com .
For the railway buffery the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership sites www.greatscenicrailways.co.uk and www.dcrp.org.uk were the starting point, together with Wikipedia which is good on railway history. Some of the more arcane stuff was sourced via www.railforums.co.uk and www.cornwallrailwaysociety.org.uk . The magazine Modern Railways (Dec 2018) provided an update on Cornish freight traffic and signalling.
Choosing the pubs to visit relied on CAMRAs Good Beer Guide 2019 book and app and their What Pub app www.whatpub.com , plus local entries in Great British Pubs, Adrian Tierney-Jones, CAMRA, 2011 and The Pub, Pete Brown, jacqui small, 2016. Brewery sites www.spingoales.com and www.newlionbrewery.co.uk provided details of their beers. The best pubs we visited will be included in the 2019 edition of our UK pub guide – see the Go drinking with Ted page.
The photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following: Penzance & St Ives: The Union Hotel photo is from Trip Advisor; Helston & the Lizard: The Spingo Ales taps are from Trip Advisor, Poldhu is from @MS_Poldhu on Twitter, the Helston timetable is from Bradshaw’s July 1922 Railway Guide Guild Publishing 1985 reprint; Falmouth & St Mawes: The aerial view of Falmouth is from http://www.bbc.co.uk, MS The World is from http://www.cruisemapper.com ; Newquay & Industrial Cornwall: the DMU on the line is from http://www.greatscenicrailways.co.uk, the Treffry Viaduct is from http://www.cornwallheritagetrust.org, the class 122 at Par station is from http://www.rmweb.co.uk, the map extract is from Ordnance Survey Landranger map 200 Newquay Bodmin and surrounding area 1988 edition, the clay district photo is by Imerys ; St Austell to Plymouth: the view of Looe is by Looe Harbour Commissioners, the map of the Liskeard line is from the Ordnance Survey OS Maps app ; Gunnislake & Calstock: the map is from the Ordnance Survey OS Maps app ; South Hams & Torbay: The bus picture is by Tally Ho! Coaches, the Dartmouth Lower Ferry is from By The Dart ; Portsmouth Arms: Eggesford station is from the ABC Railway Guide ; Railway Buffery: the atmospheric railway is from http://www.ikbrunel.org.uk, the Dawlish sea wall is from http://www.railwaymagazine.co.uk, the St Ives Line train is from http://www.greatscenicrailways.co.uk, the old Falmouth photo is from http://www.mediastorehouse.com, Goonbarrow Junc is from wikipedia commons, the clay area map is from the Track Atlas of Mainland Britain, Trackmaps, 2009 edn, Coombe Junc is from wikipedia commons, the Looe branch photo is from http://www.gov.uk, and the washed-away Dawlish seawall picture is by Network Rail Media Centre ; Practicalities: Membly Hall Hotel is by Visit Falmouth.
Copyright: © Steve Gillon 2018, 2022