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Getting to Cornwall - Train or car?

I've been following the current thread on an itinerary for the southwest, and there is some great information on there. My mom and I are also looking at visiting Cornwall, but have already seen a lot of the sights around Salisbury, Bath and Winchester. We may try to visit Highclere Castle before heading to Cornwall, so we'd be coming from either Newbury or Winchester (have a friend there and it's an easy drive to Highclere). I'm really just looking for opinions or personal experience on driving to Cornwall vs. taking the train out and then hiring a car. Here are my current ideas - do any of them stand out as particularly good/bad?

1) Visit Highclere from a base in Newbury or Winchester, take train to Exeter and hire car, possibly stay a couple of nights in Fowey or Mevagissey to visit gardens and fishing villages nearby, then on to west Cornwall for a week (probably in self-catering cottage), take train back from Penzance or Exeter for departure from LHR

2) Take train straight from Heathrow to Exeter or Penzance (via Heathrow Connect to Paddington), hire car for our time in Cornwall, train back to Newbury or Winchester to visit Highclere

3) Same as #2, but keep the car and drive back, visit Highclere, then return car at airport

4) Hire car for the whole shooting match and not worry about the train at all.

I'm not asking anyone to decide for me - just looking for insight that will help me decide!

Posted by
8889 posts

It is a long drive to Cornwall, and nearly as long by train. I've done both. I would recomend train, then hire car. You don't want that long drive after landing at Heathrow, but to tour Cornwall (and Devon) you need a car. But since you also want to visit Newbury or Winchester I suggest option 3½:

  • Train from Heathrow to Penzance (as far as you can go, not Exeter, so you are not doubling back). If you are arriving late at Heathrow, there is a night sleeper train from Paddington to Cornwall (click here for details). I've taken this and it is comfortable.
  • Pick up car at Penzance and work your way back east, stopping wherever you want for however long you want.
  • First stop: St Ives (click here for details), but parking is difficult in high season.
  • Last stop on your way east before Newbury / Winchester: Lyme Regis and the Dorset coast. See here: http://www.lymeregis.org/
  • If staying at Newbury / Winchester, consider dropping off car there, and getting a train to Heathrow. Avoids the traffic, and, if coming friom Newbury, you can get a train to Reading and a connecting bus to Heathrow and avoid doubling back at Paddington.
Posted by
3485 posts

One other thing to keep in mind - are you adept at driving a manual transmission and are you reasonably experienced with UK driving ? If you don't drive a stick , this is not the time or place to begin . If you do and are comfortable shifting with your left hand , you will be fine . If you need an automatic , be mindful that the smaller agency locations may not have one to supply , and in that case , picking one up at Heathrow would be a good idea .

Posted by
112 posts

Chris - brilliant idea! Thank you. So simple, and yet I hadn't considered it. No backtracking, easy drive back with nice stops (Lyme Regis looks good), and get rid of the car after Highclere but before heading to the airport. I've looked at Enterprise for car hire (rented from them in 2011 and had no problems), and they've got offices in Penzance, Newbury and Winchester, so that would work just fine.

Looking quickly at this route on the AA travel planner, it seems we could stopover in Mevagissey or Fowey on our return journey, then break again at Lyme Regis. Any thoughts on the A30 vs. the A38 around Dartmoor? Is either more direct or more scenic?

Posted by
112 posts

Steven - we were posting at the same time. I currently drive an automatic, but drove a manual for 25+ years, so could probably adjust quickly. That said, the only other time I drove in England, I rented an automatic for simplicity. However - through Enterprise, it costs twice as much for auto as manual!! So I might be willing to take the chance of stressing a tiny bit more at first until I adjust to left-handed manual. And if I picked up the car in Penzance, they may have only manual anyway. Have to check.

Posted by
8889 posts

Beth, the A30 is the main road into (and out of) Cornwall. It goes over Bodmin Moor, and round the north of Dartmoor.
The A38 has is mostly single carriageway until you pass Plymouth, then you go round the south side of Dartmoor. It is slightly longer than the A30 route.

It all depends on where you want to visit. If you want a 'fun' drive, try going over the middle of Dartmoor on one of the 'B' roads, for example Tavistock - B3357 - B3212 - Moretonhampstead.
If you are visiting the north Devon coast the decision is taken for you. If you want to visit some of the places on the south Devon coast (Dartmouth, Brixham) then it must be the A38.

About the car: DO NOT hire a big car for Cornwall, choose a small one. Once you get off the main roads, roads in Cornwall can be narrow and windy, and have stone walls with vegetation growing on them that look like soft hedges but are very hard. :-)

Posted by
3485 posts

Beth , the A30 is pretty much a dual carriageway ( like a two lane in each direction US highway ) the A38 is mostly single carriageway each direction ( country road feel ) and will be much slower ( but more scenic ) . If making time isn't an issue , the A38 is a nicer joyride . EDIT , looks like Chris and I were typing together !

Posted by
112 posts

Great - Thanks. I'll look at both options more closely. I'll keep in mind those hedges. That would also be a good reason to get a manual - I think the littlest cars only come in manual. (I'm thinking of trying for a mini!)

Posted by
112 posts

Thanks James - Handy link, and I'd never seen it before. Very helpful! I don't need a real Mini (although that would be nice). Any tiny little car will do! :-)

Posted by
70 posts

If you're thinking of driving back via Mevagissey you'll be on the A390, which can be slow especially in the summer, but once you're past Liskeard on to the A38 it's dual-carriageway. Certainly no slower than the A30 and usually less heavily trafficked so it's easier to keep a good pace. Both go through some nice countryside, but at dual-carriageway speed you wont get to see a whole lot of it.

However, if you can make the time, I'd absolutely second that recommend of going over the moor. Get through Plymouth and take the Tavistock road up to Yelverton, then follow the signs to Princetown. That is a well-used B road; single carriageway 2-lane tarmac, but pretty wide (mostly) so you can clip along if you need to. Just watch out for sheep! Unlike the ponies they haven't 2 brain cells to rub together and invariably think that grass B, being on the opposite verge, must be so much tastier than grass A that they are currently eating. There are lots of safe overtaking stretches for locals who know the road, so you needn't feel guilty about cruising more gently and enjoying the trip. Warren Inn on the top of the moor is a nice stop for a break and cup of tea - I used to ride up there on sunny days if I had enough time, for a pasty and quick half before going back down to Plymouth. The views from the benches outside are great whether sunny or mysterious and sombre. If you give yourself enough time to stop in a few places, the moor has a lot to see even close to the road, like the old clapper-bridge at Postbridge, Dartmoor nick, ponies all over the high moor, the wide open horizons on the high moor and deep tiny wooded vales as you go down to Exeter.

If that seems worth the time and with an early start from Cornwall, you could stop in Plymouth too - lots of interest there. Smeatons tower, the greensward on the Hoe (Drake and his apocryphal game of bowls), Sutton harbour, Plymouth Gin distillery and of course the Mayflower steps. You could see all that in a morning, have a bite at the harbour (or grab a decent pasty at Ivor Dewdney to eat on the go) then head over the moor in the afternoon. Allow a couple of hours driving from Plymouth city centre to get up to Exeter plus say an hour or so stop-and-look time, and it's about another 2, give or take a gnats, to Lyme.

Posted by
5691 posts

Get the train down then hire a car. Tickets for Highclere have sold out for this year and there are only a very limited number of on the day tickets available each day when it is open, so unless you want to spend hours queuing and risk not getting in, pick some other site to visit.

Posted by
112 posts

It appears my post got bumped to the top when there was a little shake-up in the forum a few days ago. I want to thank Aiken and Jennifer for your replies, but I need to report that Mom and I have completely changed our plan and are now going to northern England and Scotland instead of Cornwall. I know - quite a change of plans, but the two regions were top contenders and for various reasons we just decided on the north this time.

Aiken - I truly appreciate the time you took in your thoughtful reply, and I especially enjoyed your description of driving over the moor (and the dotty sheep!). Will keep that in mind when we finally visit Cornwall, which we still hope to do in a couple of years.

Jennifer - I also appreciate your heads-up about Highclere, and will be on alert as to when tickets go on sale should we make that trip in the next few years.

Thanks all - I may well be posting about N. England and Scotland soon.