The Night Riviera to Cornwall

For some reason, the idea of a proper bed on a train has always appealed to me. It feels like “real travel”, I suppose.

I’ve been on sleeper services twice before, both abroad; once aboard a navy blue sardine tin – from Gorukpur south to New Delhi – and once inside a four berth tangerine-lined couchette, which filled up with the pink light of the Moroccan sunrise on the way to Marakesh.

This time I had the chance to take the trip on home turf. A rare thing; there are (at time of this journey) only two trains in the UK that offer a sleeper service. One is the Caledonian Sleeper, which runs from London Euston to north Scotland. The other is the slow Night Riviera; from London Paddington down through Devon and Cornwall to Penzance.

The south west of England is one of my “most favourite” places; it’s notoriously difficult to get there in any reasonable amount of time compared to the rest of the country and it’s remoteness appeals to me deeply. It reminds me of childhood holidays, long warm summer nights, trips out on the sea, sunshine. In the last few years my trips has been infrequent - and this scarcity almost certainly makes the trips even sweeter.

I wasn’t really aware of the Cornish sleeper service until the end of last year, however I discovered it at the same time that the whole service had been given an overhaul in very early 2019.

The tickets go on sale three months in advance; and I’d heard they sell out very quickly for the cabins. I checked availability and by chance, that 90 days out, the next available opportunity to snatch an early bird would be for the early May bank holiday. I did a quick search, saw there was limited remaining availability, and snapped up a cabin with twin bunks.

There is of course the option to have a normal train seat for the duration of the journey, but given you would deprive yourself the bed and the buffet cart, I couldn’t see any fun in that.

Because you end up with a hotel room on tracks and the majority of the travel is done while you sleep, the great benefit is you don’t waste time during waking hours when you could be enjoying the destination, and of course you get to enjoy the novelty and excitement of the journey itself.

Johnny and I caught our train from Reading, at around 00:45. The train starts out from Paddington, but this stop made more sense for us, though it did mean we didn’t get the benefit of the GWR lounge in London, yet the fare was effectively the same.

We were the only two people getting on at the station, and the attendant did us a personalised run through of the room. Contactless key-card operated locks, smart cabins, neat bunk beds, crisp bedlinens, many USB ports, power, window blind, a genuinely useful set of lighting options, compact ladder, free bottle of water etc. Cosy and clean.

The attendant explained the bar was open all night, with complimentary hot drinks and snacks served for the duration. If you want too, an optional wake up and breakfast service. I opted for orange juice, tea, croissants, muesli - although due to the times the trains operate, that does mean a wake up call at not much after 6am.

It was already past midnight, but it would also have been rude not to make the most of the empty bar on the train, and so went and enjoyed a quick nightcap.

The train looks magnificent; the deep green GWR livery is a /very nice thing/, and they’ve done a good job on the fitout in the buffet carriage (as with everything else inside the train). Plenty of space, nice mix of seating including sofas, booths and paired seating, a bar with bar stools. It’s a shame other train services don’t benefit from some of this magic, it felt very novel, but I suppose it wouldn’t feel so magical if you encountered it on every train.

Another benefit of travelling so soon after the carriages have been refitted is that nothing is broken or worn-out yet. The whole feel is really smart. If you like the idea of taking this journey, I’d highly recommend doing it sooner rather than later. The comments I’d read about other sleeper services in the British Isles always suggest they suffer from tiredness after many years of hard labour, so a good reason to demonstrate some urgency to enjoy it before the crispness fades a little.

Three small details to be aware of in the cabin. Firstly, there is a proper basin in there, but you might not know if - like when we arrived - the removable table top that covers it is stacked with magazines and other things that you have no other place to move them to. It wasn’t until the morning we realised we’d missed it entirely.

Secondly, the wardrobe is thin - useful for storing a threadbare shirt, or maybe some loose water biscuits. However it’s also the place you can find a couple of bottles of water, so worth opening and poking around for those freebies.

And finally, as you might imagine - the cabin really isn’t very large. Although the idea of breakfast in the room is fun, the reality of the exercise taking into account the movement of the train and two people sharing the space, it all had a gymnastic quality I really hadn’t expected.

That said, the yellow sunrise through the window over the coast and the rising splendour of St Michael’s Mount between the sand dunes and the blue ribbon of the English Channel means it’s worth every second.

This post was first published on Mon Jun 03 2019 originally on justbeyondthebridge.co.uk, my former personal blog

Andy Higgs
The author

My name is Andy Higgs and I am a business founder, design leader, occassional surfer and travel enthusiast based in the UK.

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