The fields ahead are yellow with daffodils and a soft sea breeze smells of seaweed and smoked fish. I’m in an open top bus over Newlyn Harbor near Penzance, where I arrived by train this morning. Through that train window I passed through a frozen wonderland of icy floods and icy trees, but West Cornwall feels like another country: lush ferns, palms and bright pink camellias bloom in seaside gardens . There are ancient crossroads where the green lanes meet, and Cornwall’s tallest standing stones, the Pipers, cast afternoon shadows like a giant sundial. Beyond them is a perfect view from the upper deck of the Merry Maidens stone circle. It may seem counterintuitive to explore by bus in a county known for its winding lanes and summer traffic jams, but it’s reliable, affordable, and sustainable.
One of the many notable things about this spectacular three-hour ride on the Land’s End roller coaster, which runs around the tip of Cornwall to St Ives and then across the country back to Penzance, is that it costs just £2. The bus is part of an ongoing scheme across England, capping many individual fares until March 31. Even when the plan ends, a day ticket in Cornwall will cost just £5 for unlimited travel across the county on buses from any company. The Land’s End Coaster Loop helps reduce traffic at trap sites and, as a year-round service, is useful for local transportation. Several people board and disembark with shopping bags, and three dog walkers climb aboard at the saffron-walled Gurnard’s Head Inn.
Beyond Land’s End, the views are even better, with rugged moorland and leaning trees covered in lichen. This is the Tin Coast: apart from some two million tons of tin, at the end of the 19th century it produced most of the world’s copper and a large proportion of its arsenic, zinc and lead. There are ivy-covered ruined towers and chimneys from old mines, which have earned this area UNESCO World Heritage status. The landscape is also patched with a field system that is thousands of years old and is still cultivated today. The sea air is rich with freshly beaten earth and cow dung.
As the bus heads towards St Ives, there is a psychedelic sunset. The colors are fading, the temperatures are dropping, and I think about getting off the cold upper deck. But as the bus returns to Penzance, I see stars coming out and the milky way trailing faintly overhead like the wake of a ship. West Penwith (Cornwall’s far west peninsula) was designated an international dark sky park in 2021, the seventh UK area to be recognized under the scheme and the second in Cornwall after Bodmin Moor.
The next morning, I pass through Penzance Harbor for a relaxing hour in the geothermally heated saltwater Jubilee Pool (adult £11.75, child £5.50). The elegant 1930s-era lido, the UK’s largest seawater pool, reopened in 2016 after storm damage. While the main pool fills with the tides and isn’t much warmer than the sea, the geothermal section, opened in 2020 and the first of its kind in the UK, is naturally heated by a deep well drilled into the rock below. This morning it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the blue water evaporates in the winter sun. There are only three other bathers, who warn me how cold it will be when I get out. A white-haired man celebrating a birthday joins us for a while, posing on the steps to shake theatrically as his wife snaps photos.
The walls of the warm Penlee Gallery (adults £6, 18-26s £3, under 18s free), a few minutes away, are hung with works by Newlyn School artists depicting local life and landscapes. There’s an oil painting by Stanhope Forbes of Abbey Slip, a cobbled street by the harbor that I walked up this morning, and another by Norman Garstin of the rain-lashed seafront. Above, I gape at a prehistoric gold necklace in the local history section, a pilgrim’s jar, and pine cones from the submerged forest under the nearby sea. Outside, in subtropical Penlee Park, there are birdsong everywhere, a tall crimson rhododendron already in full bloom in January, and yellow mahonia scented with lily-of-the-valley.
From a distance, St Michael’s Mount feels unreal like Gondor or Camelot, like a fantasy movie set.
I pick up a spicy rosemary-flecked vegetable patty from the Cornish Hen deli around the corner and head along the coast path towards St Michael’s Mount, knowing I can catch one of the regular buses back. from nearby Marazion. The castle-topped island has been floating on the horizon since I first saw it from the train window. I’ve photographed it at an orange sunrise, hazy among seagulls, and through fading afternoon with dog walkers in a foreground of shimmering sand. In winter, it is free to visit the port and the town, crossing the causeway at low tide. A new art trail, Gwelen, recreates nearby submerged trees with 85 oak sculptures.
From a distance, St Michael’s Mount feels unreal like Gondor or Camelot, like a fantasy movie set. Walking towards it over soft sand and then damp cobbles with a patina of barnacles and limpets is just as dreamlike, but the souvenir shop and prosaic National Trust exhibits break the spell a bit. In a free gallery of Newlyn School paintings, there is a scene of tulip pickers working bent over in coastal fields.
The next day I head to St Ives again for more art and coastal walks. The 16 bus takes half an hour to get there from Penzance through a wide green landscape with sea views at either end. The arched windows and roofless gables of the old Giew tin mine stand like a ruined castle on Trink Hill. In the sunlit seaside town, it smells like baking. Little red-legged tourniquets are pecking pasty crumbs from the sidewalks near the quiet pier. Tate St Ives (adults £10.50, under 16s free), with works like Ben Nicholson’s abstract seascapes and Barbara Hepworth’s bronze coastal forms stretching through crisp white rooms and curving corridors, offers visitors visitors arriving by bus or train £1 discount on admission.
The beautiful railway between Penzance and St Ives makes it easy to walk the undulating coast path and then catch the train from St Erth back. I’m staying right next to the Penzance bus and train stations in a new Premier Inn in a converted mill. It’s not the most characterful hotel in the city, but it could hardly be cheaper or more convenient (double room only from around £50). Beryl electric bikes can also be hired from the harbor car park opposite (£5 for 100 minutes).
It’s my last day and it’s raining, so I take an hour-long bus across the gray moors to Falmouth and the National Maritime Museum. The U4 bus starts along the coast, passing by St Michaels’s Mount and the nearby golden reed beds. Along the fringes of cabbage fields in Cornwall’s fragmented Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there’s plenty to see: gulls and geese on a lake in Helston, misty views from bus windows of distant rocky shores and towering towers. of granite churches with corner pinnacles sticking out like hare’s ears.
In Cornwall you are never more than 17 miles from the sea, half that in the far west of the county. Falmouth Maritime Museum (£15.50 / £7.75 for one year), purpose built from slate and green oak early 21street century, it was part of a large coastal regeneration plan and is a great refuge from wet weather. A hanging fleet of yachts, kayaks, and boats floats in the three-story-high central hall. In one of Cornwall’s galleries, with its onboard soundtrack, is a silver pig-shaped toothpick that was confiscated from a sea captain. Curiosities of sailors of a 19heThe turn-of-the-century Falmouth shop includes a dried seahorse, a pickled lamprey and a Georgian chamberpot possibly used by Horatio Nelson.
The museum cafe looks out across sailboats and gray water to the forested Roseland Peninsula. Ferries cross the wide River Fal year-round: one for foot passengers (adults £10.80 round trip, children £6.30, 20 minutes) and, further up, the King Henry ferry (round trip £10 per car, 5 minutes) – saving millions of miles of carbon emissions every year. If I had more time I’d go by boat to St Mawes or by bus to one of the great waterside gardens near Falmouth, such as the sub-tropical Trebah with its winter-blooming mimosa and honeysuckle, or the National Trust’s Glendurgan, which is reopening on February 11, with colored camellias and a winding maze of laurels. But it’s already getting dark and my train leaves early tomorrow; I am looking forward to it running east along the dawn estuaries with seabirds on their shores.
Advance GWR train tickets to Penzance start at £5 each way from Plymouth or £40.70 from London Paddington. Penzance is also served by CrossCountry trains