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Night Riviera: Why I ditched the car and travelled to Cornwall on the sleeper train

The Night Riviera sits at the platform at Paddington Station in London.
The Night Riviera sits at the platform at Paddington Station in London. Copyright Rosie Frost/Euronews
Copyright Rosie Frost/Euronews
By Rosie Frost
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This is one of just two sleeper trains left on the UK rail network.

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Platform 1 at Paddington Station is not usually a place I find myself at 11pm on a Monday night, but I’m here with good reason. I am about to catch Great Western Railway’s Night Riviera Sleeper from London to Penzance in Cornwall at the very tip of the UK’s southwest peninsula.

I’ve been visiting Cornwall since before I could walk. I’ve taken the ordinary train, the coach and braved the summer getaway traffic jam chaos by car more times than I can count.

But I’d never even considered taking a sleeper train as an option until now. Turns out this was a major mistake.

A scenic sunrise and superb service

I’m early so I grab a complimentary drink and some snacks in GWR’s plush first class lounge. After a short while, someone comes in to tell us all that the train is ready to board.

The train has both standard passenger cars and sleeper cabins.
The train has both standard passenger cars and sleeper cabins. Rosie Frost/Euronews

I snap a few pictures of the train, the crew check my name off a list and I am led to one of the 57 cabins on board. There is a brief tour of my accommodation for the night. I am shown the call button to summon a member of staff at any time for more drinks and snacks along the way.

As I am travelling solo, my cabin’s second bunk has already been folded away to make it a single sleeper berth.

There are plenty of charging ports, a light, a window to watch the city slip away and, though there is no ensuite, a sink is tucked under a desk. There are no showers on board but you can book one for the morning at the first class lounge in Penzance.

My single berth cabin on the Night Riviera to Penzance.
My single berth cabin on the Night Riviera to Penzance.Rosie Frost/Euronews

The crew are endlessly helpful as they take individual timings and orders for breakfast from each cabin - choices range from a bacon roll to pastries and of course coffee, tea and orange juice.

Just down the hall, I overhear them arranging for one passenger to be served his breakfast in the lounge car early the next morning. He wants to be awake in time to see us pass over Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge in Plymouth. The crew figure out the right time to wake him up and do just that.

A surprisingly good sleep

Finally, we roll out of Paddington at 11:45 pm on the dot, making our first tracks towards the southwestern tip of the UK. As the darkness swallows the bleak industrial scenery of London’s outskirts, I take this as a chance to explore the lounge car - exclusively for the use of sleeper passengers. I get myself something to drink but it’s the busiest I see it all night, so I retreat back to my cabin.

The bunk is a little narrow but comfortable: there are no thin blankets or lacklustre pillows and the mattress is soft. I sleep surprisingly well, rocked by the gentle motion of the train.

The view as the train pulls out of Paddington and sunrise in Dawlish.
The view as the train pulls out of Paddington and sunrise in Dawlish. Rosie Frost/Euronews

Travelling in June means I wake to the sunrise at around 5.00 am - just as the train is passing through Dawlish in Devon. This stretch of the line is famous for running right next to the sea and I am treated to some incredible views of the Channel as we rumble our way towards Penzance.

Sitting in the lounge car drinking coffee as we make our way through Devon into Cornwall is a great way to wake up. We pull into Penzance, greeted by the sight of St Michael’s Mount, at 7.50 am. Much preferable to a six-hour drive or trying to catch a domestic flight down to the southwest coast.

How do you book a ticket for the Riviera Sleeper?

The Riviera Sleeper is one of just two sleeper services left on the UK’s national rail network - the other is the Caledonian Sleeper. It was first established in 1983 and has existed in some form ever since. The cabins and lounge car benefitted from a refurb just before the pandemic, leaving them feeling clean and modern.

It runs runs six days a week from London to Penzance, taking 8 hours and 5 minutes to complete the journey on weekday services, and 8 hours and 59 minutes on the Sunday service.

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Booking a ticket can be a bit tricky: you’ll need a regular travel ticket and a sleeper supplement to get the full experience.

The price of both tickets varies depending on the day of the week or time of year. In total for the two tickets it costs from £125.40 (€148) one-way or £228.40 (€269) return in a single-bed sleeper or from £114.90 (€136) one-way or £207.40 (€245) return per person for two people sharing a cabin.

Alongside the sleeper car, there are regular train cars with standard seats. This is where you’ll be, sleeping sitting up, if you don’t get the booking quite right. These tickets are much cheaper, but it’s well worth spending the extra cash to get the rare British sleeper train experience.

In the end, having sustainable travel experts Byway book the sleeper train and my two-night stay at The Beach Club hotel in Penzance, took the stress out of trying to figure out the ticketing website. I used their online booking platform to choose exactly what I wanted, then everything was done for me and sent to me via email.

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Is experiencing Cornwall without a car difficult?

One of the most frequent questions I get about taking the train to Cornwall is how to get around and see the sights when you are there.

Penzance itself has some great attractions including nearby St Michael’s Mount and the Jubilee Pool. This seawater lido has a section heated to a glorious 30°C+ by warm water extracted from a 410-metre deep geothermal well - the first of its kind in the UK.

A sign shows the temperatures at the Jubilee Pool in Penzance.
A sign shows the temperatures at the Jubilee Pool in Penzance.Rosie Frost/Euronews

Penzance also makes a great hub for onward travel via ferry, bus or train to several different popular Cornish spots including St Ives and Sennen Cove or even the Scilly Isles.

Timetables for buses can sometimes be more of a suggestion but I’d highly recommend the route that winds its way around the tip of the country.

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For £7 (€8.27) a day, the Land’s End Coaster takes you on a scenic trip atop cliffs, down into coves, through old tin mining country and round Zennor head into St Ives.

If it’s a rare British day without rain (or you are feeling brave with a sturdy coat) the prime seats are on the open-top upper deck. Hop off where you want to go and hop back on again to take the rest of the loop back to Penzance.

A view from the top deck of the Lands End Coaster bus.
A view from the top deck of the Lands End Coaster bus.Rosie Frost/Euronews

Another option I love if you are able is embracing the pace of slow travel and just walking. After dropping my bags with the wonderful hotel staff at The Beach Club while they prepare my room, I make the 5km trek to Mousehole for some late breakfast.

As I sit eating pancakes and drinking coffee, I watch tourists struggle to park and squeeze through the narrow fishing village streets. I’m once again reminded why a car isn’t always the best way to experience everything Cornwall has to offer. And I think the sleeper train might be my new favourite way to avoid it.

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The writer was a guest of Byway on the Night Riviera Sleeper from London to Penzance.

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