“Would you like to book a shower for when you arrive in Cornwall?” the host onboard the sleeper train to Penzance asked me as I boarded the Night Riviera at London’s Paddington station on a cold Friday evening. I declined the offer, telling him that I was planning a wake-up swim at Penzance’s Jubilee Pool, just a few minutes’ walk from the station where we’d arrive before sunrise.
Early the next morning, as the steam from the geothermally heated outdoor pool enveloped me, I knew I had made the right decision to have this long winter weekend away in Cornwall. I’d slept blissfully on the sleeper train, but plunging into this exquisite Art Deco pool was just the winter wake-up call the doctor ordered.
One of the marvels of taking the sleeper train is the time you gain on your holiday. Instead of spending my first morning listening to tannoy announcements and drinking tepid tea from paper cups, by midday on my first day in Penzance I had swum, steamed and stuffed my face at the pool cafe. I’d even checked into the Chapel House boutique hotel, a beautifully restored Georgian townhouse so handsome you need to book about a year ahead to get a room in summer.
I had three simple hopes for this three-day solo escape: hiking, Hepworth and headspace. Hiking is easy and, unsurprisingly, heavenly from Penzance. The town itself is true, dyed-in-the-wool Cornwall, with a working fishing harbour and bargain shops outnumbering boutiques. I liked it all the better for that. There are some foodie gems starting to twinkle there, too, such as 45 Queen Street, a converted warehouse where the team serves tapas-style food and homemade gin. It feels more like Queens, NY than Queen Street, Penzance, and they treat you like royalty too.
Even better, the South West Coast path stretches out east and west from this little corner of the world. I could see the climax of my first walk towering in the distance from my bedroom window: St Michael’s Mount, the fortressed and fantasy-like tidal island that is managed by the National Trust. Checking the tides, I knew that I could make it out to the cobblestone causeway that gives you access just in time. One advantage of visiting in winter is that access to the harbour, village and cafe is free. The causeway is always free, however, and utterly fantastic – topped only by an ice cream from Copper Spoon on Fore Street in Marazion, the village overlooking the Mount. A much-needed sugar hit before the four-mile walk back.
I didn’t think I needed much of a pick-me-up for my second day of hiking, after the splendid Chapel House breakfast of fresh smoothie, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and homemade bread. My destination was Lamorna Cove, five and a half miles from Penzance, just far enough to enjoy some remote clifftop stretches and a quick dip, followed by the obligatory coffee and cake at the Cove Cafe. But by the time I had walked west out of Penzance to the ridiculously pretty fishing village of Mousehole, the sea air had whetted my appetite once more, practically forcing me into Jessie’s Dairy to tuck a pastie into my rucksack. These towns are swarmed in peak spring and summer, but you’ll find them in a spellbound state of quiet off-season, with no queues to navigate.
This winter hush does mean it can feel quite wild and remote along certain stretches of the path – so much so that I’d let the folks at The Chapel know where I was headed. It was also very muddy in parts, so good boots and a walking pole were a must. However, this walk to Lamorna is one I shall never forget, as I climbed up ancient smuggler paths, traversed gorse-covered headlands, and dipped in under the pines and cypresses of Kemyel Crease Nature Reserve.
My next stop was St Ives. Visiting its peaceful, quirky Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden had long been on my wishlist, and I had high hopes for it. What I didn’t expect, however, was the Riviera-esque train journey from Penzance into St Ives. Make sure you take your nose out of your book for a look out of the window when you get to St Erth – the views after that point, across Carbis Bay and the wild surf and white sands of St Ives, are truly soul soothing.
I braved another plunge in the still-inviting waters just below St Ives station before my midday slot at the Hepworth. My off-season timing meant no queue and hardly anyone in the garden, which really is the best way to see this one-off art museum. The great English sculptor Barbara Hepworth moved here in 1949 and died here tragically in 1975. This is where she wanted her work to be exhibited – she positioned the bronzes in the garden herself, many of them with carved-out sections so that you can see her garden and St Ives’ seascapes framed from different perspectives.
Coming to Cornwall out of season gave me a very different, more positive perspective on life there. From the Cornish cocoon of the sleeper train to the mellow pace of non-summer towns and sights, it was a joy to be there. With no crowds, the paths are peaceful and its rugged nature is perhaps even more showstopping, with the odd glowering sky. I’ll certainly think twice before coming back in summer.
Book the Night Riviera sleeper train, operated by GWR. Solo occupancy cabins from £90, not including train fare. Book as early as possible to get the cheapest fares.
Jubilee Pool, Penzance is open all year round, with a cold seawater and geothermally heated (35C) pool, both outdoors. Booking for the geothermal pool is advised, in all seasons. Main seawater pool entry £6, geothermal pool £12.
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