The Night Rivera – to Cornwall for a weekend

Published on 14 March 2011 in , , , , ,

Paddington Station on a December evening is not the warmest of places of the world, especially not at 10pm. Its bustling concourse isn’t the warmest place to linger. But I’ve a train to catch. And nearly two hours before its ready to go.

I head to the first class lounge on platform one to huddle in the warmth with my fellow travellers. There’s a tea machine, biscuits and assorted of nuts. Barely have I sat down and Catherine arrives, and helps herself to some tea too.

We don’t have first class tickets. Not that anyone bothered to vet us when we entered. But we are allowed in anyway. Our journey allows it. We’re going to Penzance. And we’re going by First Great Western’s Night Rivera sleeper train.

Six nights a week, the Night Rivera connects Cornwall, a bit of Devon and Taunton with London, transporting people between the east and the west in a mixture of single and twin berth cabins and “seated sleeper” carriages. Leave London on the 2345 and you can be right at the end of the line by 8am the next morning. You can even use it to get to the Isles of Scilly.

It’s a wonderful thing. See, Cornwall’s a nightmare to get to from London. Even if you have a car, driving there takes ages. There are flights to Newquay but getting further west can take about three hours further thanks to the railway connections.

The daytime train from London takes six hours. But the Night Rivera lets you do it all overnight, and makes weekend trips to Cornwall possible. Just head out on Friday night, have all Saturday and Sunday to spend doing what you want, and arrive back in London first thing Monday ready for work. And that was our plan. A spur of the moment decision to spend a December weekend in the beautiful fishing and arts village of St Ives has led us to book some tickets and head off to Cornwall.

It was a plan.

“The sleeper train is boarding now” proclaimed the member of staff and lounge slowly empties as people head off to the train parked up on platform one just outside the lounge. The sleeper attendant asks us if we’ve sorted out our connections for Scilly and seems confused when we say we’re not going there.

“There’s no buffet car I’m afraid. The member of staff is ill. Someone’s getting on to staff it from Exeter”, she says sounding optimistic before adding “although that’s probably not much use for you though…”

No, not really. I intended to be asleep at 5am when we get to that particular station. But thanks all the same.

Having racked up seven trips on the Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland in just under two years, we’re somewhat sleeper train veterans now, so we know the score. The cabins are pretty much identical to their Scottish Cousins, even down to the awful purple wall colourings in the berth (both sleepers are owned by First Group subsidiaries), although more recently refurbished. All the expected things are there – two bunks, lots of lights and a sink hidden underneath

There’s a few subtle differences. The plastic coat hangers on the Caledonian which tend to clatter against the wall as the train moves have been replaced with sturdy metal version which doesn’t. There’s a net on the wall next to the lower bunk, and blankets are used instead of a narrow duvet. Single occupancy berths (of which there seems to be a fair few) also include a TV screen for you to watch programmes on.

Whilst the Caledonian has done away with free toiletries (well unless you ask for them), the Night Rivera still dishes out a toiletries pack including earplugs, eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, razor, moisturiser and other delights.

On the Night Riviera to Cornwall

We head to the closed lounge car to enjoy its large, well proportioned seats. A normal “first class” coach, the forlorn buffet sits at the end, all shuttered up. Further down are the two seated sleeper coaches – again first class seats. We sip some bottles of Black Sheep, play cards and watch as we head off out of Paddington. To make up for the lack of buffet car attendant, the train manager unceremoniously dumps a pile of bottles of water on an empty table and wanders off.

Round about Reading, where the train stops to pick up more passengers, we head off to our cabins and get some much needed sleep. The train driver knows what he’s doing – the journey is smooth and gentle, and I do perhaps my best ever sleeper train sleeping, managing four hours uninterrupted between 2 and 6am. Sometimes I don’t even manage that at home.

By the time we’re woken with a tap on the door and our breakfast at 7:15 I’m feeling rather refreshed.

On boarding we were offered our choice of tea or coffee, orange juice and a croissant with butter and jam – our only food option as there was no one to cook the bacon rolls. Opening the cabin blind, we sip and munch as Cornwall goes by before we pull in to Penzance’s platform 4 just before 8am. Grabbing our stuff we head out on to the platform, ready to enjoy a weekend away.

Sunday evening we leave St Ives and prepare to head off back to London. With over an hour to change at St Erth, we head to the nearby pub only to find it closed. Faced with the prospect of sitting on a cold platform until the Night Riveria picks us up, or heading on a cosy warm train back to Penzance and getting it there, we choose the latter. Explaining our decision, the attendant barely bats an eyelid before telling us due to staff shortages the buffet will be closed.

The train back to London leaves just a little earlier – even more so on a Sunday. It pulls out of the station at 2115, and with the rest of the evening to kill, we head to the lounge car once more. With no Sainsburys to stock up in, we’re supply-less, however as we settle down, our attendant tells us the good news – there will be a buffet as far as Exeter.

Night Riviera Sleeper

Unlike the Caledonian, there’s no table service, not much whisky or hot meals, however two different ales were available, sandwiches and crisps. Those with berths also get complimentary tea, coffee, water and biscuits.

Officially reservations are compulsory, but it’s clear that being the last train of the day in Cornwall, the train gets a bit of local traffic too, although staff almost enthusiastically chuck those without berths out of the lounge car and down to the seated sleeper section, including a group of pillow carrying female students boarding at Redruth, one of whom thinks the journey to London is only three hours.

It’s just a bit longer than that, although the early start means that the train gets back to Paddington rather early too. The driver seems less keen on comfort too, and seems to be in a rush to have his tea break. As we try to sleep, the train bounces around. It eventually pulls in to Paddington for a rest just after 5am (the weekday trains are slightly better timed, arriving in at 5:45), although thankfully it’s not until seven that we have to get off. Even so, my sleep is fractured by the station’s tannoy announcing the early morning trains heading back off to Bristol and Cardiff.

And if there’s a problem with the weekend trip on the Night Riveria, it’s that early arrival back in London. So much better would it be for the train just to park up in a siding somewhere for an extra hour or two, giving the travellers a bit more rest. A bustling platform in a busy London terminus is not the best place to try and get some extra kip. But then perhaps that’s why they supply earplugs…

At 6:15 the compulsory rap at the door awakes me from my uneasy slumber; another breakfast, no bacon roll. We arise and get ready for leave. Our trip is over. Work beckons. The Night Rivera gave us a good start in Cornwall, but perhaps not the best start for London. Still, ridiculously early start or not, six hours on the train is a long time to spend in the day and there’s no way we could have done the trip without the sleeper.