Every issue of British Heritage unravels a travel itinerary in “On the Road” that many readers use in their British travel planning. While he was traveling in Britain this summer, we asked our web editor to “test drive” September’s “The West Country by Train”—to retrace those steps and evaluate our advice on Cornwall.
[caption id="attachment_13697082" align="aligncenter" width="702"] It’s a long climb up from the tiny harbor at St. Michael’s Mount to the ancestral home of the St. Aubyn family that crowns the summit.[/caption]
Day 1: An Afternoon Train to Penzance
My assignment: Tour the West Country by train and report. Until then, my biggest Cornish experience had been the Poldark remake, yet off I went, ready for gorgeous coastal scenery and hardworking, spirited redheads wise beyond their years. I would not be disappointed.
I jumped on a train to Penzance, ignoring the suggestion of a Britrail flex pass—mostly out of sticker shock, but partly due to procrastination. Yes, you must buy it before leaving the U.S. My off-peak seat from London to Penzance: £62. Rest your eyes that first hour as the countryside grows more beautiful the farther you get from the city. Everything, including restaurants, closes early in Penzance, so if you plan an afternoon departure, there might be enough time to tour the V&A Museum and a stroll through Hyde Park as you head toward Paddington Station. But grab that train by 3 p.m.
All tables at The Navy Inn were jammed with tourists, so I supped at the nearby Dolphin Tavern, a nautically themed pub with a reasonable split of locals and visitors, along with some tasty £3 wine served in crystal. “I trust you not to break it!” said the barkeep. I stayed at the charming Lombard House, on quiet Regent Terrace—a block lined with similarly quaint, reasonably-priced B&Bs.
[caption id="attachment_13697085" align="aligncenter" width="2000"] The garden paths at St. Michael's Mount are as fragrant as they are beautiful, so make sure to visit on a day they're open.[/caption]
Day 2: Walking to St. Michael’s Mount
In the misty distance, St. Michael’s Mount looms like a fairy castle. Weather permitting, take the pedestrian/bike path that winds along the beach. At a little under three miles, it’s still less challenging than the steep climb to the castle, though a virile 78-yearold somehow matched me step for step. “I’m Bavarian,” he said, explaining his age-defying calves. The views are stunning; the gardens, naturally perfumed; crossing the half-submerged causeway was cold, but magical. But if it’s raining, forget it. Slippery stones gave one tourist a broken leg. “This never happens! Once a year, maybe,” said a guide as they airlifted him out. Since I almost fell a few times myself, I’m skeptical.
(Sidenote: Everyone who works there agreed the St. Aubyn family members who own St. Michael's Mount are a “good lot.” But when I mentioned their cousin, writer Edward St. Aubyn, and his novels documenting the addictions and abuses of his rotten branch of the family tree, they all scribbled down the titles to order online.)
Day 3: Catch the Land’s End Bus
Running behind schedule, I hustled to catch the Land’s End bus. The open-air top deck provides views of Cornwall's rolling hills and multicolored fields. Ignore the touristy entrance with its “4D film experience.” Just head straight to those windy seaside cliffs and pretend you’re a British Army officer returning home after the American Revolution. On that note, if you’ve got the time, visit nearby Pendeen with the Botallack and West Wheal Owles mines, the Poldark locations for Francis’ Grambler mine and Ross’ Wheal Leisure mine.
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Back in town, the Morab Subtropical Gardens are a great place to reflect and recharge, more a respite than an attraction, but worth an hour. However, skip the Egyptian House. In person, its facade looks slightly cheap, like a chipped porcelain figurine. “There’s really nothing to see inside. I’ve never even bothered to look,” said a shopgirl (who looked like Demelza Poldark!) of the ground-floor store. The Queen's Hotel's sunporch, which Dana suggested, was unpleasantly warm on this sunny day. Instead, I took tea at Adele’s Tea Room where everything’s freshly made. “I’m better than the Queen’s Hotel!” Adele said proudly. “I know they bring stuff in.” A slice of her homemade cake gave me enough blood sugar to catch a £7 train to Truro.
Day 4: “Ride Cornwall” Everywhere
Falling behind, gotta move! A one-day, £10-unlimited “Ride Cornwall” ticket takes me everywhere. (£20 “Family Tickets” cover two adults and up to three children.) Truro Cathedral: Check—good call, Dana. Just for the organ and the stained-glass windows alone! Being built on a parish church from the 1500s—which, an usher tells me, was built on another church from the 1200s—has left a few imperfections. Ask a local to point out the uneven nave. After a quick ride to Falmouth, the National Maritime Museum teaches me how Vikings plundered this land. Rather than sell you a ticket, they make you buy a year’s membership, which is kind of annoying, but you’ll feel better watching the children wonder at the fish.
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At a marine biologist’s urging, I run over to the modest-for-a-castle Pendents Castle, (actually a fort) erected in 1540 by Henry VIII to defend against French and Spanish invasion. Maybe it’s the creepy life-sized models, but the past is almost present here—you can feel the ghosts. As I shot pictures, historical reenactors start moving in with costumes, swords and even ferrets. They’ll soon stage Sir John Killigrew fighting against the Cornish Pirate Mad Dick. “Stay and watch! We use real gunpowder!” But I have to be on a train to St. Austell.
Day 5: Thumbs Up and Down in St. Austell
The teeny-tiny St. Austell Town Museum is a passionate shrine to local history. “It’s really just a hobby,” says volunteer Lee Burgess. The Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project are in opposite directions outside of town—tough to do both in one day. I chose Eden and, true to its name, entering Eden made me feel like Adam, pre-apple. It’s a showcase of ecologies—with giant, carefully-monitored biomes in which the world’s flora grows like, well, weeds. But this was high season and school is out. “I tell my friends not to even come over these six weeks!” a frantic gardener informed me. After a few hours, I couldn’t handle “the squish.” St. Austell itself seems even more economically depressed than its neighbors. Also, avoid Newquay. The beaches are amazing, but the streets were filled with drunken teens on summer break.
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Day 6: Regrouping on Plymouth Hoe
A full day behind schedule, maritime Plymouth was my last stop. It was bombed terribly during WWII—as everyone that lives there will tell you. As a result, walking the town was surreal—like fast forwarding through time. The Barbican’s cobblestone streets, with its prewar buildings, morph into roads thick with traffic.
[caption id="attachment_13697147" align="alignleft" width="300"] "A Britrail pass is only a good choice if you're taking long rides, not if you're jumping from nearby town to town," advised a station agent (who also strongly resembled Demelza Poldark).[/caption]
The National Marine Life Aquarium is impressive, and The Mayflower Steps are right over the harbor footbridge. The pilgrims set off from there in 1620, and now teens slump against them while enjoying ice cream. My favorite commemorative surprise was a plaque to mark the completion of the first Atlantic flight in 1919. There are plenty of sightseeing boat trips to choose from, but the sunshine mostly inspired tourists and natives alike to sprawl on Plymouth Hoe. Though I couldn’t find a statue of Francis Drake, I joined the crowds on the grass, trying to calculate my total train costs vs. that Britrail ticket, and also wondering when I would return to this part of Britain. It seemed unimaginable to never return to those cliffs, that countryside ever again. Whatever the year, though, it’ll be Fall next time, I think. Just after school starts.