Why I ditched the car and traveled to Cornwall on the sleeper train

Platform 1 at Paddington Station is not usually a place I find myself at 11pm on a Monday night, but I’m here for good reason. I’m about to catch Great Western Railway’s Night Riviera Sleeper from London to Penzance in Cornwall at the tip of the UK’s south west peninsula.

I have been visiting Cornwall since before I could walk. I’ve taken the regular train, coach and faced summer traffic chaos in the car more times than I can count.

But I never even considered sending a sleep train as an option so far. It turns out this was a big mistake.

Scenic sunrises and excellent service

I’m early so I grab a complimentary drink and some snacks in GWR’s plush first class lounge. After a while, someone comes in to tell us that the train is ready to board.

The train has both standard passenger cars and sleeper cabins.

The train has both standard passenger cars and sleeper cabins. – Rosie Frost/Euronews

I snap a few pictures of the train, the staff check my name off a list and I’m directed to one of the 57 cabins on board. My accommodation for the night is a short drive away. I am shown the call button to summon a staff member at any time for more drinks and snacks on the way.

As I am traveling aloneThe second bunk of my cabin has already been folded to make it a sleeping accommodation only.

There are plenty of charging ports, light, a window to watch the city slide by and, although there is no ensuite, there is a sink under a desk. There are no showers on board but you can reserve one for the morning at the first class lounge in Penzance.

My one bed cabin on the Night Riviera to Penzance.My one bed cabin on the Night Riviera to Penzance.

My one bed cabin on the Night Riviera to Penzance. – Rosie Frost/Euronews

The staff are extremely helpful as they take individual menus and orders for breakfast from each cabin – a range of options from bacon rolls to pastries and of course coffee, tea and orange juice.

Just down the hall, I hear them arranging for one passenger to have his breakfast served in the lounge car early the next morning. He wants to be awake in time to see us cross Kingdom Brunel’s Albert Isambard Royal Bridge in Plymouth. The team figures out the right time to wake him up and do so.

A very good sleep

Finally, we roll out of Paddington at 11:45 pm sharp, making our first tracks towards the south west tip of the UK. As darkness engulfs the bleak industrial landscape on the outskirts of London, I take this as an opportunity to explore the lounge car – exclusively for use sleeping passengers. I get myself something to drink but he’s the busiest I’ve seen all night, so I head back to my cabin.

The bunk is a bit narrow but comfortable: there are no thin blankets or sparse pillows and the mattress is soft. I surprisingly slept well, mesmerized by the gentle movement of the train.

The view as the train pulls out of Paddington and sunrise in Dawlish. The view as the train pulls out of Paddington and sunrise in Dawlish.

The view as the train pulls out of Paddington and sunrise in Dawlish. – Rosie Frost/Euronews

Traveling in June means I wake up to the sunrise at around 5.00am – just as the train passes through Dawlish in Devon. This stretch of the line is famous for running right next to the sea and I enjoy incredible views of the English Channel as we wander towards Penzance.

Sitting in the lounge car drinking coffee as we made our way through Devon into Cornwall a great way to wake up. We pull into Penzance, blessed with the sight of Mount Michael at 7.50am. Much better than driving six hours or trying to catch a domestic flight down to the southwest coast.

How do you book a ticket for the Riviera Sleeper?

The Riviera Sleeper is one of two remaining sleeper services on the UK’s national rail network – the other being the Caledonian Sleeper. It was first established in 1983 and has existed in some form ever since. The cabins and lounge car benefited from a refurbishment just before the pandemic, which made them clean and modern.

It runs six days a week from London to Penzance, taking 8 hours and 5 minutes to complete the journey on weekday services, and 8 hours and 59 minutes on the Sunday service.

Booking a ticket is tricky: you’ll need a regular travel ticket and a sleeping supplement to get the full experience.

The price of both tickets varies depending on the day of the week or time of year. In total for both tickets it costs from £125.40 (€148) one way or £228.40 (€269) return in a single bed or from £114.90 (€136) one way or £207.40 (€245) return per person for two sharing a cabin.

Next to the sleeping car, there are normal train cars with standard seats. This is where you will be, sleeping while sitting up, if the reservation is not OK. these tickets are much cheaperbut it’s well worth spending the extra money to get the British sleeper train experience.

In the end, at Cite’s sustainable travel experts booking the sleeper train and my two night stay at The Beach Club hotel in Penzance took the stress out of trying to figure out the ticket website. I used theirs online booking platform choose exactly what I wanted, then everything was done for me and sent to me by email.

Is it difficult to experience Cornwall without a car?

One of the most frequent questions I get about taking the train to Cornwall is how to get around and see the sights once you’re there.

Penzance itself has some great attractions including St Michael’s Mount and nearby Jubilee Pool. Part of this seawater lido is heated to a glorious 30°C+ with hot water drawn from a 410-metre-deep geothermal well – the first of its kind in the UK.

A sign shows the temperatures at Jubilee Pool in Penzance.A sign shows the temperatures at Jubilee Pool in Penzance.

A sign shows the temperatures at Jubilee Pool in Penzance. – Rosie Frost/Euronews

Penzance also makes a great hub for onward travel by ferry, bus or train to various popular Cornish destinations including St Ives and Sennen Cove or even the Isles of Scilly.

Bus timetables can sometimes be more suggestive but I would highly recommend the route that goes around the edge of the country.

For £7 (€8.27) a day, Land’s End Coaster takes you on a scenic cliff top, down to coves, through old tin mining country and around Zennor to St Ives.

If it’s a rare British day without rain (or if you’re feeling brave in a tight coat) the main seats on the upper deck are open. Jump off where you want to go and jump on again to complete the rest of the loop back to Penzance.

View from the top deck of the Lands End Coaster bus.View from the top deck of the Lands End Coaster bus.

View from the top deck of the Lands End Coaster bus. – Rosie Frost/Euronews

Another option I love if you can is to take speed slow travel and just walking. After dropping off my bags with the wonderful hotel staff at The Beach Club as they prepare my room, I make the 5km journey to Mousehole for a late breakfast.

As I sit eating pancakes and drinking coffee, I watch tourists struggle to park and squeeze through the narrow streets of the fishing village. I’m reminded again why a car isn’t always the best way to experience all that Cornwall has to offer. And I think the sleep train might be my new favorite way to avoid it.

The writer was a guest of Byway on the Night Riviera Sleeper from London to Penzance.

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