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Take the slow train to Cornwall
First Great Western
Member Name: Nozz
First Great Western
Date: 01/07/02, updated on 01/07/02 (4117 review reads)
Advantages: Easy, relaxing, stress-free
Disadvantages: Expensive, can be hard to sleep on train, some customer service issues
Admittedly, the distances in the UK are generally shorter, so you never have to drive quite as far to get to a nice sunny destination as you would if you were going to the South of France, but Cornwall is a long way away, and the prospect of the drive had put me off visiting for many years. (and my other half's little Panda, which is fine for nipping around town, would not be up to the task).
Our plans for a holiday in Cornwall seemed to be dashed, unless we got a hire car, but then we discovered one of the UK rail network's best kept secrets - Great Western trains operate a Motorail service from Paddington to Penzance, in the summer months.
They only take a handful of cars - about 7 or 8, from what I could see, but the service is so little publicised that it is surprisingly easy to book tickets - we booked about a month in advance. I'm sure it gets much more fully booked in the school holiday season though, compared to June when we went.
There is a separate phone line from the normal GW trains enquiries, (details at the end) and I was left hanging on quite a lot while trying to book tickets, but they were apologetic, and said it was because it was so early in the season. They have more people manning the lines now, and subsequent times that I called up, I had no trouble getting through.
Sadly there is only one train a week, leaving Paddington on Fridays at approx. 11.30pm, and one leaving Penzance also on Fridays at about 10pm, so you have to travel by night in both directions. You can book yourself a cabin, first class cabin or simply a seat if you think you can sleep like that! In previous years they have run other trains which leave on Saturday morning/afternoons but
these have been dropped.
There are some restrictions about height/length of cars which are suitable for the Motorail - our Panda was fine but a people carrier or Land Rover might not be.
The cost of the return train tickets was about 150 pounds for the car and driver plus 40 pounds for me as the passenger. This is expensive, but we firmly believe we would have paid as much in petrol and car hire costs (or had to faff around borrowing the other half's dad's car, which is a real gas guzzler), so we think we got a bargain.
We had to arrive at Paddington at about 8pm on the Friday night, and got to sit in the first class lounge while the cars were loaded up. We had complimentary tea, coffee, wine, and soft drinks, not to mention muffins, biscuits and fruit.
There was quite a lot of hanging around and we were very glad to get on board and find our little cabin which was fully equipped with 2 comfy bunk beds, sink, bottles of mineral water, plenty of storage space and a little overnight pack (soap, flannel, toothbrush/paste, even a tiny deoderant bottle).
You can even get 2 cabins side by side with an interconnecting door, which would be great for a family.
There are toilets at each end of the sleeper carriages, but they were a bit hit and miss - either the flush didn't work or the sink didn't, but you can always wash your hands back at your cabin.
The guard came round to check that we were comfortable and arranged our morning wake-up call for 6.30am (ouch!), with tea, coffee or juice if you wanted it. Then as the train pulled out we had to attempt to get to sleep, and I have to admit it was a nightmare - the cabin was far too hot.
Add to that the constant rocking motion, the bizarre sensation of your head being lower than your feet when the train tilts in that direction, and the jerking and noise when the train stops at a station, and you have the recipe for a bad night's sleep.
However by the time we were at Penzance and had gulped down some strong coffee, we were ready to face the world. Our car was off the train surprisingly quickly, but it was still only 8am and we had hours to kill before we could get into our rented accomodation at the usual changeover time of 2pm. This was a bit of an annoyance, but compare it to being stuck in a motorway queue and I know which one I'd choose. We had breakfast, did some shopping and ended up at our accomodation an hour early, listening to the England/Denmark game on the car radio - it was the beginning to a perfect holiday.
On the way back from Penzance to Paddington things weren't quite so smooth - I didn't want to leave, for one thing! We turned up at about 8.30, but there was no sign of the official we were meant to hand the car keys over to, and no waiting room either - not quite the luxury of Paddington!
We had hoped we would be able to drop off the car and go to the pub, as it was a wet evening, but as this guy didn't turn up till the last minute, we had to hang around the station waiting for him, which was not how we had hoped to spend our last evening in Cornwall. Penzance station by that time was completely shut up so we couldn't even use the loo or buy a drink. However, finally we were on the train, and had our nightcap there instead at the buffet car.
The cabin, by contrast, was freezing on the journey back, but I piled up the blankets and had a good nights sleep - after doing the journey in one direction I was much more used to the rocking sensation. We arrived at Paddington at 5am on Saturday, but went back to sleep for an hour while they unloaded the cars, and then we drove home at about 7am through the deserted streets of London.
So apart from a few niggles about the lack of customer service at the Penzance end, and the alternately boiling/freezing cabins, I would recommend this service wholeheartedly. It's a wonder
ful stress-free way to get down to the beautiful oasis of West Cornwall - no motorway queues, no hassle.
I would definitely use this service again - but hopefully one day I will be doing it in the OTHER direction, when Cornwall will be my home and London will be the place I am visiting.
Motorail enquiries: 0845 601 0847
Website: www.great-western-trains.co.uk - click on Services, then Leisure Services, then Motorail.
We stayed with Cornish Home Holidays - www.chh.co.uk or tel. 01736 368 575