‘It feels like another country’: a car-free break in west Cornwall
The fields ahead are yellow with daffodils and a soft ocean breeze smells of seaweed and smoked fish. I’m on an open-topped bus above Newlyn harbour near Penzance, where I arrived by train this morning. Through window of that train, I passed a frozen wonderland of icy floods and frosty trees, but west Cornwall feels like another country: lush ferns, palm trees and bright pink camellias flourish in coastal gardens. There are ancient crosses where green lanes meet, and Cornwall’s tallest still-standing stones, the Pipers, cast afternoon shadows like a giant sundial. Just beyond them, there’s a perfect top-deck view of the Merry Maidens stone circle. It may seem counterintuitive to explore by bus in a county known for twisty lanes and summer traffic jams, but it proves reliable and cheap as well ass sustainable.
One of many remarkable things about this spectacular three-hour journey on the Land’s End Coaster, which runs round 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, capping many single fares until 31 March. Even when the scheme ends, a day ticket in Cornwall will be just £5 for unlimited travel across the county on buses run by any company. The circular Land’s End Coaster route helps cut down on traffic at honeypot sites and – as a year-round service – it’s useful for local transport. Several people get on and off with shopping bags, and three walkers with dogs climb on board at the saffron-walled Gurnard’s Head Inn.
Beyond Land’s End, the views get even better, with rugged moorland and slanted, lichen-crusted trees. This is the Tin Coast: as well as about two million tons of tin, in the late 19th century it produced most of the world’s copper and a large proportion of its arsenic, zinc and lead. 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 is thousands of years old and still farmed today. The sea air is rich with freshly churned earth and cow dung.
As the bus heads towards St Ives, there’s a psychedelic sunset. The colours fade, the temperatures drop and I think about moving off the chilly top deck. But as the bus starts back towards Penzance, I see stars coming out and the milky way trails faintly overhead like the wake of a ship. West Penwith (the far western peninsula of Cornwall) was designated an international dark sky park in 2021, the seventh UK area to be recognised under the scheme and the second in Cornwall after Bodmin Moor.
Next morning, I stroll past Penzance harbour 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 pool, reopened again in 2016 after storm damage. While the main pool is filled by the tides and not much warmer than the sea, the geothermal section, opened in 2020 and the first of its kind in the UK, is naturally heated by a deep well drilled into the rock below. This morning, it’s 31C and the blue water steams in the winter sunshine. There are only three other swimmers, who warn me how cold it will feel when I get out. A white-haired man celebrating a birthday joins us for a while, posing on the steps to shiver theatrically while his wife takes photos.
The walls of the warm Penlee Gallery (adult £6, 18-26 years £3, under-18s free), a few minutes away, are hung with works by Newlyn School artists depicting local lives and landscapes. There’s an oil painting by Stanhope Forbes of Abbey Slip, a cobbled harbourside street I climbed this morning, and another by Norman Garstin of the rain-lashed seafront. Upstairs, I gawp at a prehistoric gold collar in the local history section, a pilgrim flask, and pine cones from the drowned forest under the sea nearby. Outside, in subtropical Penlee Park, there is birdsong everywhere, a tall 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 as Gondor or Camelot, like a fantasy film set
I pick up a rosemary-flecked, peppery veg pasty from the Cornish Hen deli round the corner and set off along the coast path towards St Michael’s Mount, knowing I can get one of the regular buses back from nearby Marazion. The castle-topped island has been hovering on the horizon since I first saw it out of the train window. I’ve snapped it in an orange sunrise, misty among seagulls, and through the fading evening with dog walkers in a shining sandy foreground. In winter, it’s free to visit the harbour and village, crossing the causeway at low tide. A new art trail, Gwelen, recreates the submerged trees nearby with 85 oak sculptures.
From a distance, St Michael’s Mount feels unreal as Gondor or Camelot, like a fantasy film set. Walking towards it over soft sand and then wet cobbles with a patina of barnacles and limpets is equally dreamlike, but the souvenir shop and prosaic National Trust displays break the spell a little. In a free gallery of Newlyn School paintings, there’s a scene of tulip pickers working with backs bent in the coastal fields.
The following day I head to St Ives again for more art and coastal walking. Bus 16 takes half an hour to roll from Penzance through a wide green landscape with sea views at each end. The arched windows and roofless gables of the old Giew tin mine stand like a ruined castle on Trink Hill. In the sunlit seaside town, there’s a smell of baking. Small red-legged turnstones are pecking pasty crumbs from the pavements near the quiet quay. Tate St Ives (adult £10.50, under-16s free), with works such as Ben Nicholson’s abstract seascapes and Barbara Hepworth’s bronze coastal forms ranged through cool white rooms and curving corridors, offers visitors arriving by bus or train £1 off entry.
The beautiful railway line between Penzance and St Ives makes it easy to walk the undulating coast path and then hop on the train from St Erth to return. I’m staying right next to Penzance bus and rail stations at a new Premier Inn in a converted mill. It’s not the most characterful hotel in town, but could hardly be cheaper or handier (room-only doubles from about £50). There are Beryl e-bikes for hire too from the harbour car park opposite (£5 for 100 minutes.
It’s my last day and it’s raining so I take an hour-long bus ride over the grey moors to Falmouth and the National Maritime Museum. Bus U4 starts off along the coast, past St Michaels’s Mount and the golden reedbeds nearby. Along the cabbage-field fringes of the fragmented Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there’s plenty to see: gulls and geese on a lake at Helston, misty bus-window views of distant rocky coasts, and granite church towers with corner pinnacles sticking up like hares’ ears.
In Cornwall you are never more than 17 miles from the sea, half that in the western 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 21st century, was part of a big coastal regeneration scheme and makes a great wet-weather refuge. A hanging fleet of yachts, kayaks and dinghies float in the three-floors-high central hall. In one of the Cornwall galleries, with its shipboard soundtrack, there’s a pig-shaped silver toothpick holder that was confiscated from a sea captain. Sailors’ curios from a 19th-century Falmouth shop include a dried seahorse, a pickled lamprey and a Georgian bedpan possibly used by Horatio Nelson.
The museum cafe looks out across sail boats and grey water to the wooded Roseland peninsula. Ferries cross the wide Fal River throughout the year – one for foot passengers (return trip adult £10.80, child £6.30, 20 mins) and, further up, the King Henry car ferry (return £10 per car, 5 mins) – saving millions of miles’ worth of carbon emissions every year. If I had more time, I’d get the boat over to St Mawes or a bus to one of the great waterside gardens near Falmouth, such as subtropical Trebah with its winter-flowering mimosa and honeysuckle, or the National Trust’s Glendurgan, reopening on 11 February, with colourful camellias and a winding laurel-hedged maze. But it’s getting dark already and my train leaves early tomorrow; I’m looking forward to it racing eastwards along sunrise estuaries with seabirds 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