a car-free holiday in west Cornwall

The fields ahead are yellow with daffodils and a gentle sea breeze smells of seaweed and smoked fish. I’m in an open-top bus above Newlyn harbor near Penzance, where I arrived by train this morning. Through the window of that train I passed a frozen wonderland of icy floods and icy trees, but West Cornwall feels like a different country: lush ferns, palm trees and bright pink camellias bloom in coastal gardens. There are ancient crosses where green avenues meet, and Cornwall’s tallest stones, the Pipers, cast afternoon shadows like a giant sundial. Just beyond them is a perfect view of the upper deck of the Merry Maidens stone circle. It may seem counterintuitive to explore a province known for its winding streets and summer traffic jams by bus, but it turns out to be reliable, cheap and durable.


One of the many remarkable things about this spectacular three-hour journey on the Land’s End Coaster, which loops around the tip of Cornwall to St Ives and then cross-country back to Penzance, is that it costs just £2. The bus is part of an ongoing scheme across England, which will see many one-way journeys capped until March 31. Even when the scheme ends, a day ticket in Cornwall will cost just £5 for unlimited travel across the county on buses from any company. The circular Land’s End Coaster route helps reduce traffic at honeypot sites and – as a year-round service – is convenient for local transportation. Several people get in and out with shopping bags, and three walkers with dogs climb aboard at the saffron-walled Gurnard’s Head Inn.

Beyond Land’s End, the views get even better, with rugged moorland and lichen-streaked slanting trees. This is the Tin Coast: in addition to about two million tons of tin, it produced most of the world’s copper and much of its arsenic, zinc and lead in the late 1800s. There are ruined ivy-covered towers and chimneys from the old mines, which have earned this area UNESCO World Heritage status. The landscape is also patched with a field system that dates back thousands of years and is still worked today. The sea air is rich with freshly churned earth and cow dung.

As the bus heads towards St Ives, there is a psychedelic sunset. The colors are fading, the temperatures are dropping and I’m thinking about leaving the chilly upper deck. But as the bus returns to Penzance, I see stars coming out and the Milky Way running faintly above my head like a ship’s wake. West Penwith (Cornwall’s extreme western peninsula) was designated an international dark sky park in 2021, the seventh UK area to be recognized under the scheme and the second in Cornwall after Bodmin Moor.

The next morning I stroll along Penzance harbor to spend a relaxing hour in geothermally heated salt water at the Jubilee Pool (adult £11.75, child £5.50). The elegant 1930s lido, the UK’s largest seawater swimming pool, reopened in 2016 after storm damage. While the main pool is filled by the tides and is not much warmer than the sea, the geothermal section, opening in 2020 and the first of its kind in the UK, is naturally heated by a deep well dug into the rock below drilled. This morning it is 31C and the blue water is steaming in the winter sun. There are only three other swimmers, warning me how cold it will feel when I get out. A white-haired man celebrating a birthday walks with us for a while, posing on the stairs to shiver theatrically while his wife takes pictures.

Jubilee Pool, Penzance.

Jubilee Pool, Penzance. Photo: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

The walls of the warm Penlee Gallery (adults £6, 18-26 £3, under 18s free), a few minutes away, are hung with works by Newlyn School artists depicting local lives and landscapes. There is an oil painting by Stanhope Forbes of Abbey Slip, a cobbled street along the harbor that I climbed this morning, and another by Norman Garstin of the rain-stricken coast. Upstairs, I marvel at a prehistoric gold collar in the local history section, a pilgrim’s flask, and pinecones from the drowned forest beneath the sea nearby. Outside, in subtropical Penlee Park, birdsong can be heard everywhere, a large crimson rhododendron already in full bloom in January and lily-of-the-valley-scented yellow mahonia.

From a distance, St Michael’s Mount feels unreal like Gondor or Camelot, like a fantasy movie set

Picking up a rosemary-flecked peppered vegetable patty from the Cornish Hen deli around the corner, I head along the coastal path to St Michael’s Mount, knowing I can catch one of the regular buses back from nearby Marazion. The island with the top of the castle has floated on the horizon since I first saw it from the train window. I photographed it in an orange sunrise, misty among seagulls, and through the fading evening with dog walkers in a shiny sandy foreground. In winter it is free to visit the harbor and village and cross the causeway at low tide. A new art trail, Gwelen, recreates the sunken trees nearby with 85 oak sculptures.

From a distance, St Michael’s Mount feels unreal like Gondor or Camelot, like a fantasy movie set. Walking there on soft sand and then wet cobblestones with a patina of barnacles and limpets is equally dreamy, but the souvenir shop and prosaic National Trust displays break the spell a bit. A free gallery of Newlyn School paintings depicts a scene of tulip pickers working stooped in the coastal fields.

The next day I head back to St Ives for more art and coastal walks. The 16 bus takes half an hour to travel from Penzance through wide green countryside with sea views at both ends. The arched windows and roofless gables of the old Giew tin mine stand like a ruined castle on Trink Hill. The sun-drenched seaside town smells like baking. Little red-legged turnstones peck pasty crumbs from the sidewalks by the quiet wharf. Tate St Ives (adults £10.50, under 16s free), featuring works such as Ben Nicholson’s abstract seascapes and Barbara Hepworth’s bronze coastal forms stretching through cool white rooms and curving corridors, offers visitors arriving by bus or train £ 1 discount.

The beautiful railway line between Penzance and St Ives makes it easy to walk the undulating coastal path and then hop on the train from St Erth to return. I’m staying right next to Penzance bus and train stations in a new Premier Inn in a converted mill. It’s not the most characterful hotel in town, but it could hardly be cheaper or more convenient (room only double from around £50). There are also Beryl e-bikes available to hire from the car park across the road (£5 for 100 minutes.

It’s my last day and it’s raining, so I take an hour’s bus ride across the gray moors to Falmouth and the National Maritime Museum. The U4 bus runs along the coast, past St Michaels’ Mount and the golden reed beds nearby. There’s plenty to see along the cabbagefield edges of the fragmented Cornwall Area of ​​Outstanding Natural Beauty: gulls and geese on a lake at Helston, misty views from bus windows of distant rocky shores and granite church spiers with hare-eared corner towers.

In Cornwall you are never more than 17 miles from the sea, half of that in the west end of the county. Falmouth’s Maritime Museum (£15.50/£7.75 for a year), purpose-built from slate and green oak in the early 1900sst century, was part of a major coastal renewal scheme and is a great wet weather retreat. Floating in the three-storey central hall is a suspended fleet of yachts, kayaks and dinghies. In one of the galleries in Cornwall, with the soundtrack on board, is a silver toothpick holder in the shape of a pig that has been seized by a sea captain. Sailor curiosities from a 19ecentury shop in Falmouth include a dried seahorse, a pickled lamprey and a Georgian bedpan that may have been used by Horatio Nelson.

The museum cafe looks out over sailboats and gray water to the forested Roseland Peninsula. Ferries cross the wide Fal River all year round – one for foot passengers (adult £10.80 return, child £6.30, 20 minutes) and further on the King Henry car ferry (£10 per car return, 5 minutes) – savings millions of kilometers of CO2 emissions per year. If I had more time I’d take a boat to St Mawes or a bus to one of Falmouth’s great waterside gardens, such as sub-tropical Trebah with its winter-blooming mimosa and honeysuckle, or the National Trust’s Glendurgan, which is on February 11, with colorful camellias and a winding labyrinth of laurel hedges. But it’s getting dark and my train leaves early tomorrow; I look forward to racing east along estuaries at dawn with seabirds perched on their banks.

Advance GWR train tickets to Penzance start at £5 each way from Plymouth or £40.70 from London Paddington. Penzance is also served by CrossCountry trains

Leave a Comment