Cycling Penzance to Plymouth
This past week I spent three days cycling from Penzance to Plymouth, wild camping along the way. It’s a ride I wanted to do for ages, but kept postponing to go cycling elsewhere in the UK instead. The reason for that’s simple: I know Cornwall reasonably well, but there are large swatches of the UK I’ve never been to before.
This was the easy part. I simply hopped on a train, with my bike, at Plymouth, and two hours later I arrived in Penzance. The forecast promised the skies would open up, but when I pulled into Penzance station, there were still grey skies, and the occasional few drops of rain. For some obscure reason, when I bought my train ticket the day before, the lady at the ticket office said the particular train she booked me on was only £6.50, instead of the usual £11.50, and I didn’t complain. Riding back needed a tad more effort!
I visited Penzance a few times before, and cycled out of it in a few directions. However, this was the first time I cycled towards Marizion. After coffee at a nearby greasy-spoon, I set off. The traffic-free path runs right past the station. For a while it’s sandwiched between the sea and the main train line. The views out over the bay, with St Michael’s Mount getting closer, are stunning. At some point, I passed riders who where playing in the sea with their horses, going up and down the beach. Just as I settled into the bliss of the traffic-free path, it suddenly and rather rudely stops, just before Marizion. At that point, it spits you out on a 40mph, narrow and fairly busy road. I would have liked to cycle over the causeway to St Michael’s Mount, but with the tide in it was underwater.
My planned camping spot was past Falmouth, and the route took me through Helston. Sticking to rural lanes, I had to go deeper inland than I preferred, but that beats riding on the unpleasant A-road. Soon enough I cycled through Gweek, and it wasn’t overly long before I arrived in Falmouth. There’s a reason this post is called Four Ferries & Freedom – at Falmouth I caught the first ferry of the trip. By the time I made it to Falmouth, the tide was well out. After leisurely lunch, I bought my ferry ticket to St Mawes. With the tide so low, I carried my laden touring bike down more steps to the ferry than I would have preferred! Once on the ferry, I could relax and enjoy the stunning views.
At St Mawes, I carried my bike up far too many worn and slippery steps, buy a ticket for the Place ferry (which is far smaller) then carried my bike down yet more steps. The Place ferry takes far less time, and soon enough I was on the other side. At first it seemed getting to the road was simply a matter of pushing my bike along a very bumpy, rocky track. Sadly, all too quickly I was faced with very narrow wooden steps. I got my bike up there, but it wasn’t easy! Once on the road (there’s no village at Place, so no point lingering) I set off for my destination for the day, Portscatho.
Is Cornwall in England?
I’ll admit to never having heard of Portscatho before, but what a wonderful village! Far too many Cornish seaside villages and towns are tatty tourist traps, but Portscatho is an exception. I spent far too long in the Plume of Feathers pub, and in total darkness I set off for my camping spot for the night. To my defence I’ll say this: the barman kindly put my big power bank on charge, and I was waiting for that. Also, before this trip, I used to think of the Black River Inn, in Black Torrington, as England’s best pub, but I’ve since passed that title on to the Plume of Feathers. (Oh, and I was slated on social media by a presumed member of the Cornish National Liberation Army, for daring to suggest Cornwall was part of England. Please spare me a repeat of that?) For the avoidance of any doubt, Cornwall is stunning, filled with lovely people, and provided I can visit whenever I please from neighbouring Devon, I have no qualms with Cornish independence.
An uneventful ride to my camping spot followed, and I pitched my tent just by the light of the moon.
My bike has dynamo lights, with built-in USB charging. My big power bank supports pass-through charging, meaning it can receive charge from an external source, while also delivering charge to something else at the same time. On the first day, I noticed my phone’s battery was being run down, despite being plugged into the power bank almost all the time. GPS usage on a phone hammers the battery, but I’d expect it to remain charged. I solved the mystery later on in the ride: though it does deliver pass-through charging, the moment the power bank starts receiving charge, the charge it delivers to my phone massively drops. The dynamo does a superb job of keeping the power bank charged, and I discovered the way forward is to use two different power banks. One will be charged by the dynamo, while the other will keep my phone charged. I’ll simply rotate them on a daily basis, solving all my charge issues.
My destination for the day was just past Polruan, which is on the far side of Fowey. It meant I wasn’t looking at a long day’s riding, and had no need to rush. I cycled through the village of Veryan, where I stopped for first breakfast at the village store. The storekeeper is a lovely lady, with a soft Irish accent, who made me a cafetiere of coffee, which I enjoyed at a table outside the shop. Near Caerhays Castle, I encountered another touring cyclist. He cycled from Bristol, heading to Land’s End, and warned me that the road at Mevagissey is completely closed. Apparently, he took quite a detour.
I cycled past a hamlet called Tregavarras, which sounds like it ought to be Che Guevara’s spiritual home in Cornwall. The descent into Portmelion was amusing, due to the “Beware of waves” sign. When you see how the road skirts the edge of the water, the sign makes sense though. Having confidently ignored the other cyclist’s warning, I soon arrived in Mevagissey, to be met with scaffolding that completely blocked the road. I’ve no idea what selfish and incompetent builder put that up, as they could easily have left a walkway for pedestrians. I wasn’t going to retrace my steps to take a long detour, which left just one option: carrying my bike down some very steep and narrow stairs. I managed to mke it to the bottom without anything going wrong, and I celebrated with a second breakfast in Mevagissey.
To be honest, Mevagissey is everything that Portscatho is not: over-commercialised, over-run with tourists and full of tat. It’s set in a stunning location, but in my view isn’t somewhere to linger. I did enjoy the (seemingly) traffic-free path out of Mevagissey, towards the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Most of it isn’t quite traffic-free, but you’d be very unlucky to encounter any motorised vehicles. Though there’s a steep climb, it’s still way better that the B-road out of the village.
I skirted the curiously-named London Apprentice to follow the very pleasant traffic-free trail into St Austell. As I had time on my hands, I lingered over coffee in St Austell, watching people go by. In my previous job, we had a satellite office there, and I often had to visit – almost always taking my bike on the train. The café where I sat was just downhill from that building I sometimes worked in. Though I had time in hand, I still had some distance before getting to Polruan, so set off again. I left St Austell via a quiet, but hilly rural lane, towards St Blazey. In St Blazey, the route includes a very short stretch of cycling on the main road, the A390. Average speed cameras ensure all drivers obey the speed limits, so that was fine. I just love average speed cameras!
Next, I cycled on the Par Beach traffic-free trail. When I left that, my only option was the A3082, up Polmear Hill. It was at the start of rush hour, my legs could feel the distance I’d done over 2 days, on a laden touring bike, and that road is damned unpleasant. There’s a section where there’s a narrow strip of tar on the verge of the road, obviously for pedestrians, and I’m not ashamed to say I cycled on that. However, it didn’t last long, and all too soon I cycled on that A-road. Thankfully, it was just around two miles of that road. It wasn’t long before I descended into Fowey (it’s pronounced “Foy”. I avoided the King Harry ferry, because that takes cars. The road on the other side would be busier as a result. I also didn’t linger on Fowey, but went straight down to catch the Polruan ferry – the third ferry of the trip. Incidentally, it’s possible to catch a ferry from Mevagissey to Fowey.
Polruan has a single pub, the Lugger, and it’s best avoided. The server machine coffee and it’s awful! Also, in the relatively short time I was there, they played the song Lovely Day, by Bill Withers, fourteen times! Fourteen bloody times, sometimes back-to-back! There were two other cyclists in the pub, wearing kit from my old cycling club. They had cycled down that day, and live in the next village over from me! That was quite a coincidence. Polruan has an absolute bastard of a hill to leave the village. I cycled the first stretch, then got off to walk my bike the remaining half of the hill. From there it wasn’t overly far to my next camping spot, and I soon had my tent up.
Unbeknown to me, I pitched my tent on a popular walking route, and heard a few groups go past. Some of them tutting about my tent, which made me quietly chuckle. As my tent was covered in condensation, I packed up quite late, and only set off shortly before 9am. It was my shortest day (i.t.o. distance, not time). I headed for Polperro for second breakfast, having scoffed supplies in my tent already. Polperro means heading up Talland Hill, when heading east, and anyone who knows it will tell you it’s bloody brutal. Needless to say, I pushed my bike up there! I headed to Talland Bay, and that meant more steps to get my bike down.
There are two ways to get to Looe from Taland Bay, and of course I ended up picking the one that’s mostly bridleway. I found it hard going at times, and with relief I finally descended into Looe. Lunch was some garlic break at a café whose sign said “Best coffee in town”. The garlic bread was nice, but the coffee was (at best) nondescript. Leaving Looe took me up Barbican Hill (damned steep!) then onto the coastal path towards Millendreath. That coast path is to be avoided on a bike! It ends in a very long, steep staircase, and it took effort to stay upright as I walked my bike down there. On the other side, there’s another very steep hill, which becomes an unpleasant bridleway. With relief I eventually made it back onto a road. I now rode on roads I’ve cycled before, and descended into Seaton before long. After more nondescript coffee and a packet of crisps, I set off again.
Allow me a bit of a rant here: Cornwall, why do you find it SO hard to make a decent cup of coffee? Coffee isn’t dishwater! You shouldn’t rush it. You don’t simply semi-burn milk and splash some coffee into it! If your staff aren’t trained to make good coffee, send them for proper training. And never brag about how good your coffee is, unless it’s actually really good.
I have a favourite cycle route that’s a 70-odd mile loop to Seaton, then up the big climb out of Downderry. That’s fun on a road bike, but a bit harder on a laden touring bike. Still, I plodded on and after a while reached the top of the climb. On the home-stretch of my adventure now, I soon cycled through Crafthole, then turned tight by Tregantle, to ride along Whitsand Bay. It’s a very scenic, mildly undulating road and almost in no time, I descended into Cawsand. From Cawsand, I caught the fourth and final ferry to Plymouth.
I could have planned the timings better, so the tide was out at Penzance and in at Falmouth, but that would have meant delaying the ride for quite some time. The bridleways I included were not good options and I since removed them from the route. The route also bypasses Millendreath, and the Staircase Of Doom altogether. I cannot avoid all steps along the route, especially at ferries, so this route will always remain challenging. It’s also very hilly, with several of the hills steep enough that I simply couldn’t cycle a touring bike, with all my kit on, up those hills. If you can, you’re a far stronger rider than me.
Still, it’s a stunning route, and well worth it! I’ll soon enough be making this one available as a GoCycle route guide.