We are on St Agnes, the westernmost inhabited rock of the Isles of Scilly. Years ago, I worked for a while in Uzbekistan (don’t ask) and once got to my flat in Tashkent in less time than it took my family to reach St Agnes. To get there this week we used a cab, two trains, a minibus, a plane, another minibus, a small boat and golf buggy.
The first train took us to Reading, until recently a quaint red-brick obstruction blocking the way to and from the west, now replaced by a huge concrete and glass palace. When first opened, the enormous gallery which runs across all the platforms was an impressive open space. It was quickly filled, however, with tacky booths flogging tat at inflated prices. Britain’s railways were always driven by profit, but they once had class, in their architecture as well as in their locomotives, carriages and service. Now the whole thing seems a rather vulgar racket stitched up between a rapacious Treasury, unworldly civil servants, and companies whose very names – “First Group”, anything with “Virgin” in it – make you check that you still have your wallet.
The route west from London has recently been electrified, with ugly metal gantries littering what was once a rather attractive line.
That no doubt brings savings and fuel efficiency and must be tolerated. The implication which worries me is that Network Rail, the incompetent, lazy, indifferent outfit responsible for the railway infrastructure, is now also in charge of the source of traction.
Nothing was classier, once, than the Cornish Riviera Express, the name dating from 1904 in the days when railway companies added lustre and romance to your journey by giving names to the grander services. The palm trees in Torquay were planted to reinforce the idea that this was an exotic destination for the well-heeled.
Our train was rather more prosaic than the steam-hauled trains of the past:
It also takes two hours less to Penzance than was the case in the service’s heyday. The Cornish Riviera goes like the clappers to Plymouth and then stops at pretty well every lamp-post through Cornwall where the line curves and winds around the contours.
At Penzance a minibus awaited to take us to the grandly-named Land’s End Airport at St Just. When I was last here, St Just was a grass landing strip with a motley collection of buildings by the road. Thanks in part to a large EU contribution, it now has asphalt runways and a proper control tower.
The planes are bigger, and they no longer have to weigh each passenger to determine who sits where.
The flight to St Mary’s takes 15 minutes, with glimpses of white beaches, rocky outcrops and the occasional ship or boat. We once saw basking sharks below us. The weather was overcast on this trip, but you get the flavour of the place from the poor-quality picture below.
Then it’s all aboard a minibus and down to St Mary’s Harbour and on to a small boat for the next leg. At least you are safe in harbour, aren’t you? At least, that’s what the owner of the yacht below probably thought.
That apart, the harbour is pleasant enough on a sunny day:
There were two cruise ships outside the harbour. This one looked slightly sinister, but soon made off when it saw us coming
I am not sure what this pole marks but its colours warrant a picture anyway:
Once we had landed, a golf buggy took us on the final stretch past the old lighthouse:
Then it was pub time. Off for a pint of Guinness at the Turk’s Head: