Cornwall for Londoners – Fantastic Train Journey to St. Ives
Tempted as I was after listening to countless descriptions of holidays in Cornwall, by photo essays of Cornish landscapes on social media, by Broadchurch and Le Carre novels, in the 14 years that I have lived in the UK the appeal of a West Country holiday failed to supersede the allure of warm, southern destinations. That was until we went to St. Ives at the end of March and returned again in July. Now that I have tired, tasted, tested, lived and breathed Cornwall (and learnt it is actually sunnier than London) I know that if I was never allowed to leave this island again, I would be completely happy …. because there is St. Ives.
Sometime in early spring, it dawned on us that we might have enough left at the end of the month to go somewhere over Easter. My husband fell down the Google rabbit hole uncovering not just good prices for train tickets, but a fantastic deal at a great-looking family-friendly hotel in St. Ives called Tregenna Castle (more on that in a bit). St. Ives exceeded all expectations for a family holiday destination. This was, in great part, due to the relative ease of getting there from London. It was also because we rather enjoy exploring charming ancient fishing towns, hiking great landscapes, playing in the surf, learning to surf and browsing art galleries. Most of all, we very much appreciate exceptional food and drink at fantastic prices. It also helps that there are four distinctly different beaches you can easily walk between, with a fifth beach a further 30 minute gorgeous walk away, and the town is unmolested by irritating fun-fair rides and other typical seaside crowd-pleasers.
We took Great Western Rail from Paddington to St. Ives. Depending on the journey, it takes between 5 and 6 hours; off-peak tickets can be purchased from £50 return. If you book well in advance, tickets can be purchased for as little as £20 return. Riding out on a Sunday, you may be offered an upgrade to first class for £20 per person; we took them up on the offer and enjoyed larger leather seats, free drinks and biscuits and a less crowded car. At the end of the journey, we switched trains in St. Erth and took a 10 minute shunter train to St. Ives.
Starting a holiday on a train is an exquisitely humane and civilised experience compared to going through airline travel. There is no juggling of passports and progeny, worrying about setting off metal detectors or fleeting thoughts of cavity searches. The security threats on trains do not coerce you into accepting limited access to the loo, your belongings, your family members or having travel you have paid for postponed indefinitely while you are stuck in an airport miles from any affordable accommodation or food. I admit trains have their own loo and travel inconveniences but in my experience they are never as bad.
Now that our kids are that much older, the train journey is surprisingly enjoyable for all of us. The kids loved it as they were free to wander around the train, they were perfectly happy drawing pictures, visiting the snack car, reading, playing games, gazing out the window and chatting with us. There is free wifi, it is not strong enough to stream films, but my husband and I could read on our phones and tablets. We packed a bit of cheese, bread and a nice bottle of wine, sipping and snacking while taking in the gorgeous views of the countryside and coast; we were all thoroughly relaxed.
The journey from Dawlish to St. Erth is one of the better British train journeys to enjoy; you feel like Harry smiling out of the window of the train when first going to Hogwarts. The views of the coast, the cliff tunnels, the stone villages and mine shafts … the livestock grazing so close to the trains. Then when you switch at St. Erth on the short journey to St. Ives you see the sprawling beaches of St. Ives Bay, the hedgerows and stone cottages, and the dramatic cliffs surrounding the St. Ives terminus. The best part, you just walk off the train and you are on holiday.
What first struck me on the walk from the train station were the unusual varieties of plants and ferns, but then you gasp and smile when you see the narrow, cobblestone streets, the fishing boat cottages, the whitewashed stone – the town is just so cheerfully postcard picturesque. Every twist and turn of your walk through the town is a visual cornucopia of the perfect holiday vignettes. It is charming, special and far from home, relatively easy to get to and you feel secure giving your kids some space to explore without you.
The St. Ives beaches really are varied and lovely. There is the protected, expansive and sandy cove of Carbis Bay, which is not really in St. Ives, but a gorgeous 30 minute coastal path walk away. This bay is calm, protected and perfect for very small children.
There is the less-protected gentle-surf Porthminster Beach with amazing rock climbs for kids, low-tide exposed coves and sugary sand. There can be some strong surf, but not strong enough to attract surfers.
Next is Harbour Beach which is a working harbour complete with loads of anchored boats you can walk up to and investigate at low tide. There are rocks, nooks, crannies and all kids of fun things to explore on Harbour Beach. Plus there are the proximity of picnic tables of The Sloop pub (I recommend the Mosiac IPA and the oysters).
There is tiny Porthgwidden Beach which is dog-friendly and has huts for hire along with a small refreshment stand. and the roaring surf of Porthmoer Beach. Lastly, there is the roaring surf of Porhmoer Beach.
If it is too cold to swim, just walking across the beaches and climbing the rocks and taking in the fresh air is exceptionally fun, invigorating and great exercise.
If you have older and bolder kids, the St. Ives Surf School offers not just surfing lessons for all ages (tested by 4 adults in their mid to late 40s) and abilities at reasonable prices, they offer sea kayaking, coasteering, stand up paddle boarding lessons alongside wetsuit and surf, kayak, boogie board, SUP hires at really good prices.
We surfed when it was 12 degrees out. We surfed when it was 12 degrees. We actually surfed when it was 12 degrees out. It was cold getting in and out of the wetsuits, but they did keep us warm and all the swimming, sinking, tumbling and dragging the surfboards out kept us distracted from the cold and I would happily do it again (this coming from the lady who didn’t want to go to Cornwall because it was cold).
You could not ask for better teachers, the staff is really kind and their main objective is that the kids and grown-ups love surfing as much as they do. It is great fun and exceptional value.
There is a fantastic apres surf experience at the Porthmeor Cafe Bar. You can reserve a nook (or just get lucky like we did in April and one was free after surfing) with heat lamps and blankets, staring out at the surf from inside a lovely, warm cove.
The menu is outstanding, the entire dining experience is a wonderful blend of atmosphere, creativity, inspiration and passion. This is a great group eating place as they order small plates.
After surfing we mauled our way through chips, kimchee, slow roast pork belly, lamb tacos, Cornish beer (I suggest the Harbour IPA), the kids savoured their hot chocolates … we nearly fell asleep after we were warm and full.
The St. Ives Water Sports Coasteering experience was equally impressive. My brother, niece, daughter and I all went one afternoon when our kayaking session was cancelled due to poor conditions.
We were kitted out in wet suits, life vests and helmets, we then climbed rocks, jumped off 20 foot cliffs into the sea, swam into blow holes and then had a happy hike along the coastal trail back to Porthminster Beach. This activity is really for older kids who are strong swimmers; some of the climbs are a bit tricky and it would be a bit difficult work around the jumps if a child was not sure they wanted to. But for the hearty and brave (that being said, my brother and I are not completely comfortable with heights and still enjoyed it), it is a great day out.
St. Ives is a true foodie destination (the above mentioned Porthmoer Cafe Bar just received an Michelin rating since I first wrote this post) . We found numerous restaurants with innovative and exciting cuisine at fabulous prices (dinner four adults with drinks £70-£100 at four separate, truly inspired restaurants) on top of the food, they celebrate and promote their local beers and gins. In addition to the above mentioned restaurants, we had an outstanding sampling of really impressive small plates at the Porthminster Kitchen, confusingly it overlooks Harbour Beach.
We had anchovy and sage fritters; chips with truffle, manchego cheese and pink peppercorns; crispy squid rings along with a West Country cheeseboard. Beer and Bird was particularly interesting as it was a very pure, good and delicious rendering on the American fried chicken trend with an outstanding craft beer and a spirits list that surpasses anything we have encountered in recent memory. The local gin, Tarquins, is really worth trying as it is just about the smoothest, nicest flavoured gin I have ever tried; plus, its so secret and special you have so special order it!
We stayed at Tregenna Castle Hotel and liked it so much we came back later with my brother and his family. Tregenna Castle is a self-contained holiday resort that happens to be a a 20 minute walk from a fantastic little town.
The hotel has an indoor and an outdoor pool, 72 acres of lovely gardens and woodlands, a playground, tennis courts, golf and you can easily walk 15 minutes to Porthminster Beach (and all the other beaches in a further 15 minutes) or 30 minutes to Corbis Bay.
Its a fantastic venue for weddings, conferences, retreats or mixed gatherings of friends with or without children. The food and drink are crowd-pleasers, embracing the best of local specialties and traditional Cornish fare. As you would expect with a large resort, the food is not going to be able to take the risks that smaller venues can, but the food is of a high standard and very enjoyable. There are loads of different areas to eat and drink: outdoor terraces, indoor lounges and the restaurant itself. Booking is required for the restaurant as it extremely popular.
The hotel is in an ideal location, just a 15 minute walk from the train station. Be forewarned, it is an arduous uphill walk but you can easily ring a taxi to get your luggage up to the top. Every staff member we encountered at Tregenna was really happy to help, to serve and especially pleased with how much we were enjoying St. Ives.
They suggested St. Ives surf school, local restaurants, pasty shops, grocery stores, they even directed us to the NHS Walk in Clinic when one kid sliced their hand on the pen knife they were using to cut up an abandoned fishing line … They were able to organise drivers to take us to Marazion to St. Michael’s Mount (if you have time, it is a fantastic day-trip) and to the Minack Theatre, another worthy side-trip.
First time we stayed we booked a huge Tregenna Castle Family Room, the kids loved having their very own room cosy room, complete with a table and chairs and we loved having them so far away from where we were sleeping. The shared a bathroom was conveniently accessed through their room. We were all more than comfortable, with lots of space to dry out wet clothing and store hiking boots and rain gear. Our stay included breakfast that offered a wide variety of healthy and nice tasting food, unlimited lattes and not too many sugary options for the kids. We were very impressed with the value and comfort we enjoyed.
We would head out during the day, come back in the evening for a swim and sleep a hearty, worn-out, Cornwall slumber. The indoor pool is situated in a beautiful conservatory with a small paddling pool for infants and toddlers, a larger pool for the family and a jacuzzi in case you get chilled.
At the start of the summer, my brother and his family joined us at Tregenna. Instead of staying in the hotel, we booked a self-catering cottage for 8 and had a great time. The cottages are located in the castle grounds, give you access to all the amenities and just a little bit more space which was perfect for a large, family holiday. The kids had their rooms to sleep in, and the grown ups could stay up later listening to Spotify on the wifi and have a lot of fun not worrying about waking the kids.
We mostly used the cooking facilities in the mornings for leisurely breakfasts and spent the rest of the day at the beach, surfing, enjoying the local food and wandering the alleys and streets of St. Ives. It was nice having the option of bringing the kids back for a sandwiches and a light lunch midday before heading out again.
We did spend a couple mornings playing tennis and croquet and took advantage of the pools. We enjoyed the sunshine one late afternoon on outside pool terrace. One rainy afternoon we gratefully took refuge in the indoor pool and sheltered from the remainder of the wet weather inside the hotel lounge while the kids explored the gardens in their raincoats while we nibbled, sipped and relaxed. Eventually the rains passed and we went to amuse ourselves in town. The cottage gave us the space for a truly relaxing holiday where grown ups had space to be grownups and the kids had a holiday that they will remember for a lifetime.
St. Ives is a reward for an easy train journey from Paddington Station. My immediate and extended families were so impressed and enjoyed their time in St. Ives very much. It is tried and tested on two separate holidays and I highly recommend a family holiday there.