My daughter has her nose pressed to the glass and is gazing dreamily out the window at smooth green fields, horses and cows and the occasional clump of trees: gentle, rolling countryside that only England can offer. Suddenly there is a change in pressure, and with a tremendous WHOOSH, everything outside goes black. She turns round, eyes wide, and I reassure her: “we’re only going through a tunnel”.  ZOOM! The outside view reappears and my daughter returns her nose to the glass, eyes sparkling.

My husband and I have brought our children, aged 7 and 2, on the 5-hour train journey from London Paddington to Cornwall, on The Cornish Riviera Express, a rail service that has been taking British holidaymakers to the coast since 1904.

Cornish Riviera Express First Class Family train journey photo by Helen Earley

GWR First Class/ Photo: Helen Earley

The term “English Riviera” was adopted by the county of Devon, in South West England, in Victorian times because of the very French look of some of its towns, notably Torbay and Torquay: clear azure waters, white sand, fancy promenades and palm trees. Later, Cornwall adopted the term “Cornish Riviera” to describe the stretch along its own South Coast, wooing would-be holiday makers with the now famous railway posters, such as the one below, which compares the “natural beauties” of Italy and Cornwall.

We are traveling the easy way, using a BritRail Flexipass. Not available in the UK, Britrail passes can be purchased online from ACP Rail International, so long as you reside in Canada. When we describe the terms of the flexipass (4 days of unlimited travel within a month; young kids travel free) to our British friends and relatives, their jaws drop, since regular train travel in Britain is so expensive, and often restrictive.

Locals would give anything to be able to hop on and off trains as they please, the way we are doing on this vacation. We catch our relatives taking note of our address and practicing their Canadian accents to see if they could fool a ticket inspector.

Family Travel on the Cornish Riviera Express by Helen Earley

Such friendly staff!/Photo: Helen Earley

On this holiday, because of the age of the kids (and the corresponding levels of stress that we feel as parents) we splashed out to travel First Class. The benefits? Bigger seats, more luggage room, substantial snacks, and best of all: access to the GWR lounge at Paddington Station.

FGW Lounge Paddington Family Travel on the Cornish Riviera Express by Helen Earley

GWR First Class Lounge at Paddington Station/Photo: Helen Earley

The lounge is indeed great: free newspapers, magazines, charging stations, juice, coffee, pastries, soft drinks, fresh fruit,  delicious sponge cake, and most importantly, free toilets (In the station, it  costs 30p to “spend a penny”). We used the GWR First Class Lounge several times during our British holiday; it was perfect for keeping the kids contained during those “what next?” moments of our family vacation.

Cornish Riviera Express Family train journey

Passing the time as the world passes by/Photo: Helen Earley

As our journey toward Cornwall continues, we relax and settle into familiar family routines. Since we are traveling mid-week in the middle of the day, this particular carriage is nearly empty, and our family is actually spread across six seats – eight if you include our hand luggage. The kids are well-fed, we’ve played games, and had a couple of stories. Hubby is sufficiently relaxed to put on his headphones and so I am left with the two year-old, who after some coercing, eventually falls asleep, stretched across two seats, leaving my daughter and I to enjoy the scenery again.

Family Travel on the Cornish Riviera Express by Helen Earley

At low tide, the Exe is a wide, shiny mudflat, holding the little boats captive, revealing the occasional skeleton of a shipwreck/Photos: Helen Earley

The Riviera itself begins just after the Cathedral city of Exeter. Here, the scenery changes dramatically to clear skies, fishing boats, and the sparkling waters of the River Exe. At low tide, the Exe is a wide, shiny mudflat, holding the little boats captive, revealing the occasional skeleton of a shipwreck.

A special, fleeting connection - Cornish Riviera Express Family train journey by Helen Earley

A special, fleeting connection/Photo: Helen Earley

Between Exmouth and Dawlish, the train track runs so close to the sea wall, you feel like you’re actually on a high-speed boat, zooming past the breakwaters as seabirds, and ramblers (hikers) fall into the distance. We wave, and a child waves back. A special, fleeting connection.

Cornish Riviera

The Estuary at low tide/Photo: Helen Earley

On stormy winter days, the dark blue waters of The English Channel crash dramatically up over the track, splashing salt onto the train windows.  One year, when I lived in England, I remember the water coming so high, and causing so much damage, they had to close the track for weeks.

Cornish Riviera Express Family train journey - Crossing the Tamar Bridge to Cornwall by train/ Photo: Helen Earley

Crossing the Tamar Bridge/Photo: Helen Earley

And then, as dramatically as it began, the maritime scenery ends at Plymouth. After a change of crew (the buffet and trolley service closes temporarily at this time), The Cornish Riviera Express crosses the Tamar bridge, marking the border between the two counties of Devon and Cornwall.

At a station called Par, we will connect with Atlantic Coast Line, a small local service -one of the few branch lines left over from the heyday of British rail holidays to Cornwall.  Then we will visit family, and do some surfing in Newquay, perhaps taking a day trip to Falmouth or St. Ives.

Cornish Light

Cornish Light/Photo: Helen Earley

We love Cornwall. Lush rolling hills, burial mounds, stones and crosses makes it undeniably Celtic and totally unique. Cornwall is home to the cream tea, the Cornish pasty, and some of the most stunning beaches in the world.

But the thing we love best about the Cornish coast? Getting there, by train.


Helen Earley is a Halifax-based travel writer.
Thank you to ACP Rail International for assistance with the Britrail flexipass.