Cornwall calling...
May 1, 2016 6:17 AM   Subscribe

My 15 year old anglophile and I will be visiting England this summer. After a couple of days in London we would like to go to Cornwall/Devon for 4 days. This is about all the time we have. Difficulty: I don't want to drive.

The kid is a nerd for England and this should be a historically interesting trip as well as including our being able to walk at the ocean.
I would like to hear recs for how to do this. The 3 ideas are:
1. Professional tour from London. Good sides: Easy. Bad: Don't know if the tour will be too tour-y or rigid; many are not available on the dates we have; and mainly the ones that seem small and worthwhile are TOO EXPENSIVE.
2. Take train to Exeter, walk around for half a day, take another train to Cornwall and find local person/local tour company to take us around. How? I cannot find anything like this on line. When I was younger and traveling without a child I would show up in a remote place and ask around til I could fire a local person to drive to out of the way interesting places they knew about. THis is not an option now, it needs to be organized and vetted in advance.
3. Choose a more easily traversaable region? I hope not but will consider other RURAL regions in England, ie, not going to another interesting city. NYC kid is blase about cities other than London.
Kid does not want Wales or Scotland, only England. Kid also not that interested in Yorkshire despite Downton Abbey and Wuthering Heights. And anyway don't want to spend full days getting back and forth from London as we have only a week.
Any personally vetted recommendations most appreciated but any ideas considered!
posted by flourpot to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (30 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: One more point, sorry: I definitely don't want to drive from London. I might consider renting a car in Cornwall if necessary, but if this is the suggestion, I would like to hear about what it's like driving there for someone who is uneasy about driving on the opposite side that I'm used to/driving in difficult conditions.
posted by flourpot at 6:24 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have things you want to see? Public transport in rural Britain is often not fast, but it does exist (for now...). This very much seems like a thing you could handle yourself unless you know you want to go somewhere not reasonably accessible without a car, but even then you can hire a taxi.
posted by hoyland at 6:24 AM on May 1, 2016

I've visited rural England and Scotland several times and never drove, organised toured or even taxied much. Public buses traverse rural areas in England in a way they don't really here in the US. The mileage in between towns and villages is less than north America, and population density is much higher, even in rural areas. There won't be lots of options for times and it won't be fast, as said above, but it's totally doable.

I'd stay with a Google search of county you will be in + coach and start there. If you're open about exactly which sites you see, you can find which are accessible via bus and plan accordingly.

Another thing to do would be to locate very site-dense areas, to maximize your options. Also, contact the tourist information center for the largest town or county you'll be visiting. Send them an email. My experience with tourist info centers in smallish towns in the UK has always been positive. They've got bus and train timetables and information on organized day trip tours that might get you to 2 or 3 sites a lot faster than public transit but otherwise be pretty light on the "organized tour" cattle call kind of experience.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:35 AM on May 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

For 4 days I'd suggest a couple of places to chose.

If you are into art, St Ives is great. The Tate Museum has an outpost there. There's the Barbara Hepworth Museum. In the summer it's busy with tourists but there's lots to do. Walks, beaches, nightlife, cool shops. It's very easily accessible by train from London and there's enough there that you wouldn't need to travel elsewhere.

Other option for me would be Tintagel/Boscastle/Trebarwith, three town within very close proximity. Tintagel has a very cool medieval castle and lots of Arthurian Legend stuff, Trebarwith is a beautiful beach, and Boscastle has a Witchcraft Museum. Between them there are very beautiful walks. All three places are beautiful and staying there you could cheaply taxi between the 3 locations or walk if that's your thing.

Cornwall is a tourist area so there will be other people wherever you go in summer. It's never been a problem for me.
posted by merocet at 6:38 AM on May 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You could do quite a lot by rail. There's a nice simple map of the lines here if you scroll down a bit. Some places are also close, so, eg you can walk from Penzance to Mousehole along the coast. This site which also covers buses, might be useful in planning.
posted by Segundus at 6:38 AM on May 1, 2016

Do you know that walking is a thing in England? There are footpaths that crisscross all over the place, you can spend days walking from village to village, through farmers fields, stopping at pubs. It is a really wonderful way to feel the land and the country. You could find a nice place to stay for a few days out in the country and spend the days walking around the area.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:42 AM on May 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

I had a sort of similar question last year when I was going to be stranded in Exeter while my wife attended a conference. I didn't end up doing anything suggested in the answers to the question, but there might be a few suggestions for you to look at in there.
posted by LionIndex at 6:42 AM on May 1, 2016

Best answer: I did the backpacking thing in the UK when younger, and managed to get all the way out to Land's End and to other bits of the countryside without driving. Trains, buses and the occasional taxi were perfectly serviceable - though I did miss out on Tintagel because I didn't check the bus schedules ahead of time, and my busdriver warned me as I was getting off that his was one of the last buses to pick people up there that afternoon. So definitely plan ahead!

You can get from London Paddington to Penzance without changing trains once. National Rail is the site I tend to use most when checking what train options are available. It's probably good to know that the advance fare tickets can be a lot cheaper than ones bought on the day, so do expect prices to change the closer you get to your day of travel.
posted by harujion at 6:43 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We just came back from there. We took the train to Penzance and used that as our base. I highly recommend the Wharf Apartments, steps away from the train and bus stations. Bus out to Land's End, Geevor Tin Mine, St Michaels Mount, Mousehole, etc. You can also grab a bus tour from Penzance that will guide you more, stop by ancient monuments and suchlike. Memail me if you want more deets.
posted by rikschell at 6:44 AM on May 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: As an ex-resident of Cornwall, I can tell you that public transport, apart from the main railway line, is abysmal. Like there'll be two or three buses from town X to town Y each day, and they'll go to every village in-between, taking four times as long as the equivalent car journey. Trains offer a more limited set of options, but they're at least semi-regular.

Something I often recommend to people is stopping at Bodmin Parkway Station and walking from the station car park along the river through Respryn and up to Lanhydrock House. It's a lovely wooded estate, and the house is a perfectly good substitute for Downton Abbey.

Exeter is OK for half a day. Not the UK's most exciting city unless there's something specific you want to see.

merocet's recommendation of St. Ives is a good one. Another thing to see if you can is the Eden Project - it gets massively busy, but it's definitely an experience worth having. The Minack Theatre is breathtaking if you pick the right day (and the right play).

Sorry I don't live there any more - If I did, I'd offer my services as tour guide.
posted by pipeski at 6:46 AM on May 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'd genuinely recommend train from London and hire a car locally. Driving on the other side is mildly scary as first, but you get used to it really quickly - and cities would be far more stressful than somewhere rural and relaxed. I don't think you could hope for an easier in.

There are plenty of places around Cornwall in particular that you would want to see that would take huge lumps out of your holiday if you were to rely on public transport, but which would be reasonably quick in a car (e.g. Falmouth; Looe; Fowey; Eden Project; Lands End; Newquay; Padstow; Tintagel are all some distance apart).

Having said that - I'd definitely avoid driving TO there from London in the Summer. It's a long drive anyway - 6 to 7 hours, and could be substantially more if you're unlucky with traffic.
posted by bifter at 6:50 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

UK version of "abysmal public transit" and US version of same are markedly different. My British friends moan endlessly about it and when I go to visit them I'm like what are you people talking about, this is amazing! Here in 'merica, public transit smacks a bit too much of the dreaded socialism for comfort. We pull ourselves via bootstraps from one location to another.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:57 AM on May 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

Important obligatory European driving question: Can you drive a manual transmission?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:59 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My impression of Cornwall in summer is that it could be pretty crowded. I've been to Tintagel once and unless you're keen on a largely fictional connection with King Arthur (I'm being polite here), I'd avoid it. The village is pretty but massively commercialized and since there's a beach it will be crowded if the weather is good.
Tintagel hotel not recommended unless the owners have changed since 2010 or so (if you want to know why, memail me--I'm not that keen for the reason to show up in anyone's search results). My experience of it wasn't wonderful, although I grant that was a few years ago.
Having said that: given good weather, Cornwall is beautiful.
As to public transport, I'm planning a trip with my daughter from Hay-on-Wye (in Wales) to Wigtown (in Scotland) to Sedbergh (in England) at the beginning of next month. We will travel by train and bus. It will take a good deal longer than driving but we will get there and we will be able to look at what is passing by. I agree with soren_lorensen: public transport in the UK gets an awful lot of non-love, and it tends to be slow and expensive, but it works. Usually.
posted by Logophiliac at 7:08 AM on May 1, 2016

My only contribution to this conversation is to flag up the sleeper train from London to Penzance. It's a very cost- and time-efficient way of making what is (to us Englanders) an epic journey. I've never done it myself, but a friend has and said it was great fun!
posted by HandfulOfDust at 8:18 AM on May 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Aside from the sleeper train option, Flybe can get you from London Stansted to Newquay in just over an hour. It'll probably cost a lot less than the sleeper train too, though won't be quite as exciting.

From Newquay I'd definitely go with the rental car option (yes, we do have automatics too). There are places like the Minack Theatre that you'll want to see that are only served by buses with comedy timetables.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 8:39 AM on May 1, 2016

Just a note to say that I would not recommend driving if you're feeling at all nervous about it -- the country roads may not be too crowded, but they are narrow, and when my husband was driving us around there last fall I was terrified (and very grateful that I wasn't the one doing it! )
posted by cider at 8:57 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you are normally comfortable(ish) driving a different car in a new to you location and if you get on with a satnav Cornwall would not be a bad place to drive. And a car would definitely be the way to go in terms of ease of access to range of places.

On a recent holiday in South Africa I was travelling with an American friend and we hired two different cars for various parts of the trip. My friend had never driven a right hand steered car either although she is a confident driver in general. We picked up the car at the airport and she made me drive out of our arrival city and the first couple of hrs until we stopped at some motorway services. Then she took the wheel and she was soon zooming along as if she'd never driven anywhere else. She drove most of the trip in the end, range of different roads.

If you do not have any varied driving experience it would be more unnerving but not insurmountable. I learned to drive in Germany but drove only a little bit locally and then I went to do my undergraduate and masters degree in the UK and didn't have a car for 4 years. Then I decided to stay in the UK and found myself driving a right hand steered car for the first time. I had only every had very limited driving experience and had not driven at all in 4 years. And whilst the first drive was very unnerving I got the hang of it fairly quickly.

So make of that what you will. If you do decide to hire a car and need an automatic make your reservation early and make sure you reserve an automatic. Because whilst the airport rental places will have a reasonable share of automatic cars in more rural parts they are going to be much less common.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:07 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another vote for sleeper trains and St Ives. I've taken the sleeper from London quite a few times and it's been fine, possibly quite exciting if you're 15 and you've never done it before.

Beware that the Tate St Ives has closed for renovation and will not reopen until March 2017. The Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden is fabulous though (my 4yo loves it), and the St Ives museum is small but a treasure trove - I had great fun reading through invoices for ship's provisions a hundred years ago, looking at the little animated models of tin mines; that sort of thing. The beaches are unbelievably pretty and the whole town manages to be really picturesque without being twee. If you suddenly fancy going surfing or bodyboarding you can hire boards and wetsuits at Porthmeor beach. If you want wild and rural, grab a taxi to the other side of the bay: there are gorgeous walks up along Upton/Gwithian Towans, where the (safe) remains of an old explosives factory are buried under the sands. If you keep going that way you wind up by Godrevy lighthouse, which is supposed to have inspired a Virginia Woolf novel.

The Porthminster Kitchen in St Ives served possibly the best cooked breakfast I have eaten, ever.

There are loads of little self-catered cottages you can rent out.

Disclaimer: I am in St Ives right now, in a little self-catered cottage I have rented out. Also I took the sleeper train here.
posted by doop at 9:37 AM on May 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Buses from Penzance seemed to be scheduled every hour around the coast. The Lands End peninsula is small enough that walking between towns is reasonable, though you may have to walk on a busy road for a ways.
posted by rikschell at 10:40 AM on May 1, 2016

A different option would be to go to Bath and use that as your home base for a few days. There are tours of ancient sites (including Stonehenge) and Cotswald villages in small buses that are fun. It's beautiful countryside and Bath itself has the Roman baths and other sites and shops. Plus it's closer to London.
posted by Sukey Says at 1:53 PM on May 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Exeter is a boring city. Some of the little seaside town resorts in Devon MIGHT be more interesting - the train goes along the coast from Exeter to Newton Abbott, with the sea on one side and red cliffs on the other. They are quiet dull little towns unless you like swimming, scenery, fish-and-chips and penny arcades. Beaches will be super crowded in summer.

Kneehigh Theatre are based in Cornwall. They are quite unlike anything I could think of comparing them to, so there is the link.

Yeah, I can't imagine what you'd do in Exeter that's very interesting. Apart from pass through it. Seconding the suggestion to research a bit about Bath. Plus, you could visit the spa, take the waters, have a sauna etc.
posted by glasseyes at 4:00 PM on May 1, 2016

Best answer: Your child will probably love St. Michaels Mount. It's an old house on an island. You take a boat or walk the causeway (only accessible when the tide is out) to the island, and then there's a climb up to the house. All quite spooky.

I love Agatha Christie's house Greenway. (It is featured in several of her stories.) It's in Devon, but on the way to Cornwall. I think if you go to Torquay you can get a bus or a ferry boat out there. It's on the River Dart. It's a National Trust site, and preserved as it was when she lived there and wrote her books. The garden is beautiful too.
posted by rasley at 4:09 PM on May 1, 2016

Another vote for Bath. It's an outstanding town with visible history everywhere you look, from Roman to Edwardian. You'll love it.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:18 PM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can't drive and still want to do Cornwall and Devon, I can't think of a better option that this. I have not taken this exact tour (ran out of time unfortunately!), but I have done the Isle of Skye 3-day tour and Cotswolds 2-day tour with this company, and I can recommend them without reservation. In my case I decided on a tour rather reluctantly, because I *wanted* to drive but couldn't due to license issues.

I generally dislike tours, but these particular ones are great because a) they are quite small - 16 max can fit into the minibus b) very relaxed and non-hurried - we got plenty of time to walk around the countryside c) they take you to small, out-of-the-way places which as a tourist I would never have found on my own.

The only caveat is that the Cornwall & Devon tour is for 5-days, so not sure if it will fit in your schedule. They do have other tours departing from London including a 3-day tour of the Southern coastline though which might work better. The Cotswold one was also great, my only complaint being that I could have done with a longer stay in Bath.
posted by imon at 10:35 PM on May 1, 2016

Best answer: If you're not comfortable driving on the other side of the road, then don't, and plan your trip around that. It's easy to say "oh, but you get the hang of it so easily!", and yeah, you probably would if all you're doing is driving on freeways or the equivalent - but that's not the reality of most driving in Devon and Cornwall (e.g. when you're driving on a one lane road with hedgerows either side, it's tempting to think "oh, I could just swerve into the hedge if I come across a car - or tractor - from the other direction. No. Those hedgerows tend to obscure old-school rock walls. One of you will need to reverse to the nearest passing point.) So yeah, you could do the driving thing, but it sounds like it would be super stressful for you, which negates the whole point of a vacation!

Public transit in summer in the area is pretty reasonable, but check the timetables in advance and make sure you know the return times, if you need them. Or look at tours. Or day trips from a central base.

Enjoy! Devon & Cornwall are some of my favorite places in the world. Have a Devon Tea and a Cornish Pasty for me...
posted by finding.perdita at 2:48 AM on May 2, 2016

Best answer: We recently stayed for two weeks in Penzance, without a car, doing trips by regular bus and train and had no trouble reaching everything we wanted to see. For journey planning, Traveline worked quite well. There's also a £10/day "Ride Cornwall" ticket (train + bus) that provides good value for getting to the slightly more distant attractions. We were quite happy not having to drive and just enjoying the bus drivers navigating the stunningly narrow roads and corners.

Among others, we liked St Ives (Hepworth museum especially), Geevor Tin Mine, the Eden project and the Lost Gardens of Haligan and just enjoying the coastal walks (around Penwith and Lizard). In Porthcurno, the Telegraph Museum was excellent, if you are at all interested in technology and its history. This can be combined for a day trip with a visit to the Minack theatre.

The Porthminster Kitchen in St Ives served possibly the best cooked breakfast I have eaten, ever.

Seconded, it's really excellent. Thanks, doop, for the tip! We also tried the similar breakfast at the sister restaurant, the Porthminster Café at Porthminster beach at the south end of St Ives. It was still good, but we preferred the one at the Kitchen. The Tearoom in St Ives was nice as well, best scones of our trip.
posted by ltl at 10:23 AM on May 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another thought - a bit late, perhaps, but here it is: if you stay in or near Falmouth, you can get the 'Mussel Card', a travel ticket that's valid on any number of local buses and ferries. The number of different places that will give you access to, by land or river, is quite impressive. Falmouth is also an excellent choice in terms of having a lot of really good walks, both along the coastal path, and in nearby parks and gardens (such as Trelissick).

I spent last week at Maen Porth, near Falmouth. We barely used our car.
posted by pipeski at 1:22 PM on June 6, 2016

Best answer: I live in Falmouth, Cornwall and don't drive. You can get here with one change of train, at Truro. BOOK AHEAD, it will save you a decent amount compared to buying at the station, don't forget reservations for the London-Truro stretch its 4.5-5 hours, they are free. There is a quiet carriage if you want that, no headphones or mobile phones (carriage A, at the front usually).

You could most likely fill up 4 days with things going on here and trips from here on public transport but you would also miss things. Things you could do:

Walk up the coast to Durgan (and maybe visit Glendurgan gardens). The coast path stretch is gorgeous. I think there are occasional buses to their or to Mawnan Smith which would be a good place to walk back to Falmouth from.

Visit Pendennis castle, this is 450 years old, built by Henry VIII and picturesquely located at one side of the harbour entrance. You can also get a ferry from the Pier in Falmouth that goes across the harbour to St Mawes where there is another Tudor castle to guard the other side of the harbour entrance. Both are accessible with a fee. From St Mawes there is another short ferry to St Anthony's head, from which there are some beautiful coast and inland walks. There is also a working C19th lighthouse, and if you want history I can tell you it is where the UK version of Fraggle Rock was set.

There are a number of boat trips available up the Fal river, across the harbour and into the bay. You can also hire boats to mess around in the harbour (which is quite big) or take fishing trips.

The main beach for the town is Gyllyngvase and is easily accessible, some possibility of hiring surfboards, paddleboards, canoes etc. and a nice cafe, which is rammed on any sunny day. This is within a mile of the castle.You can also get to Swanpool beach with a 10-15 minute walk down the coastpath, more hireable stuff, good for fishing off rocks, nice restaurant, one of the few around with a good seaview. Maenporth is another mile or so walk, again nice café and hirables plus ropey mini golf.

You can get a boat to Trelissick, as pipeski mentions, from Falmouth to explore the gardens, I would suggest you then take the King Harry ferry over the water and walk back via St Mawes and the ferry back to Falmouth, the views if you walk along the top of the Roseland peninsula are gorgeous, if its your thing there is a very pretty graveyard at St just in Roseland.

Day trips from Falmouth: Back up to Truro, regular trains and buses all day for a few pounds. Train journey is about 20 mins, buy ticket on the train. Truro has a cathedral and is ok for shops but not super exciting, but Truro also opens up using the main line to visit other towns. Penzance and others on the main line, with patience some of the nicer places on the other branch lines. St Ives, maybe Looe.

I would suggest staying somewhere like Truro is worth considering if you want to do more getting about on public transport. It is (ahem) the capital of the county and as well as being on the mainline a lot of bus services use it as a hub. While it is technically a city its small enough to be basically in the country in about 15mins walk.

Not having a car in Cornwall leaves you with plenty to do, but it will cut off some pretty nice stuff too. Really nice beaches, starting points for many lovely walks, historical houses like Lanhydrock and others, the Minack theatre (which is a cool place to see a production) and little towns and villages off the beaten track.
posted by biffa at 1:07 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. We used rail, local bus and local driver and had a wonderful time in The Lizard and St. Ives. :)
posted by flourpot at 6:42 AM on July 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

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