FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Night sleeper to Cornwall

Posted in England, Penzance by folkestonejack on March 26, 2018

I thought that a long weekend in Penzance in the off-season was a little bit bonkers, given the likelihood of the English weather throwing everything and a little bit more at us, but it turned out to be not too bad at all. Admittedly, there were some bursts of heavy rain and blustery winds but we got away with it. In any case, it turned out to be not quite such a strange idea as I discovered one of my work colleagues waiting to board the same night sleeper (either that, or our work has driven us all mad!).

Our night sleeper to Penzance would be hauled by a GWR class 57 diesel locomotive

The refurbished cabins on the ‘Night Riviera‘ sleeper are rather delightful. Ours contained two bunk beds with wonderfully soft duvets connected by a clever space-saving ladder, a sink that doubles up as a table and a cute GWR branded box of travel essentials from Spezia Organics (organic soap, muslin flannel and skin balm) for the journey. In theory we could have popped down to the buffet carriage for a late night drink, but after partaking of drinks and snacks in the first class lounge at Paddington station we just wanted to settle down to a good night’s sleep.

I slept surprisingly well, waking up to see the sunrise as we crossed the Tamar Bridge into Cornwall. On our arrival into Penzance at 8 o’clock we stored our baggage (a handy service offered by The Longboat Inn which we had arranged in advance) and headed back out by train to St Ives. Unfortunately the return trip was affected by a problem on the track which brought trains in all directions to a halt. After a couple of hours sheltering from the heavy rain it was a relief to be on the move again!

Our home for the next few days would be an apartment in the Egyptian House, a remarkable building from the 1830s built as a museum with an elaborate Egyptian facade. It was acquired by the Landmark Trust in 1968, restored and converted into holiday accommodation. The second floor apartment was just perfect for us – a cosy space with two bedrooms and a roaring fire to keep out the lingering chill.

The Egyptian House in Penzance

Over the next few days we covered a handful of the local attractions by bus, including the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, St Michael’s Mount and Mousehole.

I had no idea of the importance of Porthcurno, which held the distinction of being the largest telegraph station in the world at the time of the Second World War. The need to safeguard this vital communications hub prompted the decision to move the telegraph station underground. Two hundred tin miners from St Just and the West Indies were employed in the construction of two bomb-proof tunnels protected by foot-thick steel blast-proof doors. The work to move the equipment inside was completed in May 1941. It was just in time – 48 hours later enemy bombs fell nearby.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this unlikely site on the Cornish coast and how much we have to thank for their efforts to keep communications flowing 24 hours a day. The museum uses the illustration of a message being transmitted from London being rapidly repeated through Porthcurno, Gibraltar and Malta on its way to military headquarters in North Africa. At one point in the Blitz, when the landline was severed, the messages were transmitted to Porthcurno and then put on trains to London!

The wartime tunnels at the Telegraph Museum

The telegraph station at Porthcurno was sufficiently important that all sorts of extraordinary hidden defences were built into the valley including flamethrowers mounted under the beach that could be switched on at the flick of a switch from a control room in the cliffs. It really is hard to imagine that this quiet green valley could have once been such a heavily fortified and restricted zone.

Inside the Telegraph Museum you can learn about the history of telecommunications and visit the impressive underground telegraph station. You get quite a good sense of how well buried into the clifftop the tunnels are if you take a walk up the emergency escape stairs to a cliff-top platform 30 metres up. This was originally intended for use if the main entrance had become blocked.

A free map of Valley Tales and Trails highlights the history of the parish, the telegraph station and the engineering college. It’s a helpful guide to some sights that would seem a little odd without explanation, such as mini training telegraph poles. Around the beach warning signs highlight the hidden danger still posed by cables just under the water and there are signs of cables coming up through the sand in a few places, especially near to the cable hut.

It’s fair to say that I was absolutely fascinated by Porthcurno and it was certainly the unexpected highlight of our Cornish adventure for me.


St Michael’s Mount and the fishing village of Mousehole made for charming spots to visit on our last full day. The tide was in so we had to make use of the small boats to get across to the mount and then took our time making our way around the castle. One of the most surprising discoveries on our visit to St Michael’s Mount was the cable-operated incline railway that has been used to carry goods from the harbourside to the castle ever since it was constructed in 1901.

We hadn’t planned a visit to Land’s End as the winter bus timetable didn’t offer an easy way to integrate a stop into our schedule without a lengthy stay, but in the end a broken down bus forced our hand! While an engineer was called out out to fix the bus we wandered over to the clifftop. It all looked rather more commercialised than I remembered from my last visit in 1981/82 but it was still good to be able to take a peek.

Our stay in Cornwall was a short one. On the Monday morning we headed back to London on the 10:00 train from Penzance. It’s a journey that continues to retain its appeal, particularly with the stretch along the coast through Teignmouth and Dawlish. Hopefully I’ll be back again before another quarter century passes!