Outdoor: A Cornish cream of a train ride

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The Independent Online
This week Matthew Brace begins a series of great short train journeys of Britain by riding the Golden Trail in Cornwall.

The Cornish accents of two fishermen on the 18.33 train from Penzance to St Ives were rich enough to obscure most of their conversation but I was able to pick up key words and piece together their story. The younger one, with red-checked shirt and shaven head, had come off a trawler in Penzance, spent a day off sleeping. He was heading to St Ives to join a smaller fishing-boat for another stint.

The older fisherman had been with friends in Bristol when he was called to join a St Ives boat.

"D'you work the Rose ever?"

"No. Done the Jezebel, and the Tregeseal. You worked on them?"

"Can't remember now; there's been a lot over the years."

They were riding the Golden Trail, so-called because of the fantastic sweeps of sand at either end. Little seems to have changed on this route since the railway first came to St Ives in 1877. Back then it carried fishermen, too, maybe the great-grandfathers of my fellow passengers. The line carried their catches as well as goods from farms and the tin mines. This has always been a line for the working Cornishman. Only from the mid-Thirties was its potential as a tourist route realised, when the Cornish Riviera Express, with its elegant restaurant car, ran to and from St Ives.

Penzance to St Ives is one of the shortest train services in Britain but, like all in this series, it is a scheduled route, not merely a quaint, summer-only railway for day-trippers. It must rank among one of the most picturesque commutes in Britain. A little under 10 miles of track runs from Penzance, the last sizeable town in the South-west, to St Ives, the fishing village that became the haunt of artists and now has its own Tate Gallery. The journey takes just 19 minutes.

At Penzance a raging sea lies just yards from the station; when wild weather hits here it comes straight out of the Atlantic. Spray sheets over the sea wall, lashing the platforms, and the boats in the harbour rock violently in the wind.

Cornwall was the last English county to be linked to the main railway system - by the Great Western Railway (GWR), known more poetically as God's Wonderful Railway.

The St Ives service runs every half hour or so. It chugs along the shore for about a mile, with only the South West Coast Path between it and the surf. On the right is the imposing bulk of St Michael's Mount; sit on the left and you may see the Scilly Islands helicopter take off.

Shortly before the small village of Marazion, the track heads inland across a nature reserve known for its terrifying flocks of starlings that swoop down here of an evening. The train winds through the Cornish interior via a series of embankments cut through the rock, and makes its first stop at St Erth. From here the mainline to London runs east through Cornwall, but the Golden Trail continues north.

At Lelant Saltings station, a park-and-ride has been set up, so people can leave their cars and hop on to the train for St Ives. It is an excellent idea; St Ives on a holiday weekend is teeming with traffic trying to park.

The line curves round the shore by Porth Kidney Sands, where the river Hayle empties into the Bristol Channel, and runs through Carbis Bay and into St Ives, offering arguably the best approach to the town.

After exploring the town, make for the warmth of the 14th-century Sloop Inn, with its snug rooms decorated with the black pastel sketches of local artists and crowded with yet more fishermen, swapping more stories.

On the footplate

When to go: the Golden Trail is open all year; go in spring and winter for ever-changing skies, in summer for day-long sunshine.

What to take: binoculars, maps, bucket and spade

What to see: St Michael's Mount (at low tide, via a causeway), tin mines (now museums)

How much: one-way fares cost pounds l.30 (under-16s), pounds 2.60 adults; round trip (after 9am) pounds l.35 (under-16s), pounds 2.70 adults; under-fives and bicycles (only two bikes per train) free

Details: National Rail Enquiries (0345 484950); Cornwall Tourist Board (0l872 274057)