When we decided to spend a few days in Cornwall, we didn’t make a conscious decision to stay in Penzance. We wanted a reasonably priced guest house that had parking on site or nearby, and about four months prior to our departure I found four places that fitted the bill. My son’s partner picked two of them, one in St Ives and one in Penzance, but when I returned to their websites the St Ives guest house no longer had vacancies. I booked the guest house in Penzance, and as it turned out we were very pleased that we stayed there.
Penzance is a town situated on the south coast of Cornwall; it’s not as trendy or fashionable as St Ives, retaining something of a traditional air. Whether you travel by road or rail, you are likely to approach it from the east and will catch sight of one of the area’s major attractions, St Michael’s Mount, just before you reach Penzance. The road passes through the eastern outskirts of the town where, fortunately, the supermarkets and fast food outlets appear to be situated. Our guest house, like many others, was on Alexandra Road, and to get to it we had to pass through the town centre with its imposing domed building that houses Lloyd’s bank and its nucleus filled with small shops and eateries.
The proprietress of the Dunedin Guest House where we stayed explained to us on our arrival that we could take a shortcut through Penlee Gardens to get to the town centre; it was only a few minutes’ walk and proved to be a very pleasant one. Penlee Gardens has tennis courts, a garden of remembrance and even a small outdoor theatre as well as an expanse of grass with plenty of trees and flowers to admire. We then turned away from the shops and in less than five minutes were on the promenade with its screaming seagulls. To the west we could see the fishing port of Newlyn, and to the east we were able to feast our eyes again on St Michael’s Mount. Penzance has an outdoor pool on the beach that seemed to be popular with families, and a notice announced that kayaking was a new attraction there too.
Penzance proved to be an ideal base from which to explore the south-western tip of Cornwall. It is only three miles along the coastal road to Marazion, a small market town from whose beach there is access along a causeway to St Michael’s Mount. We drove there late on our first afternoon and found a large car park by the shore. Unfortunately we were just too late to walk out to the Mount, as the tide was just turning and the causeway would soon be submerged. We went to have a bite to eat on the terrace of the Godolphin Arms, from where there is a superb view of the Mount. On our last morning we toyed with the idea of taking the boat trip out to the Mount as the tide was high, but sadly there was a strong wind and no boats were sailing that day. At low tide, however, Marazion beach is an ideal place for children to build sandcastles and have space to run around on the sand.
Our second day saw us heading off to Porthcurno Bay and the Minack Theatre, which are only about eight miles from Penzance and well worth a visit. From there we continued to Land’s End, and it was only about half an hour’s drive back to our guest house. The third day we set off to St Ives which is on the northern coast but again only about half an hour by road. Seeing how difficult it was to drive around the narrow streets of St Ives and find a place to park made us particularly glad that we were staying in Penzance. After visiting Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum, I wandered down to the harbour and considered going for a drink in a cafe, but it was so crowded everywhere that I made a beeline back to Penzance. The two major galleries in St Ives left a lasting impression on me, but I also spent a delightful hour one afternoon at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance, which had an exhibition of Dame Laura Knight’s paintings at the time. After returning home I was disappointed to discover that there is another gallery in Penzance, the Exchange on Princes Street, that I hadn’t found during my stay. It exhibits contemporary art and is linked to Newlyn Art Gallery. Entry to the Exchange is free, and it is free to Penlee House on Saturdays.
The proprietress of our guest house recommended two restaurants in Penzance to us, and one of these was the Navy Inn. This is actually a pub that serves food and is just off the promenade on Queen Street. We went there on our last evening in Penzance, and we all agreed that the fish we had was the best we had ever tasted, unsurprisingly perhaps as it was fresh fish from Newlyn. The desserts were wonderful too. The other recommendation was for the Meadery; we thought of going there for lunch on our final day but discovered that the restaurant didn’t open until 6pm. We had lunch at the Duke Street Cafe in Newlyn instead and had no regrets about our choice. On our first day we wanted something light for a late lunch and ventured into the tiny deli called The Cornish Hen in the centre of Penzance. I enjoyed my first taste of homity pie there, and their coffee is to be recommended too. Less successful was our visit to the Lavender Delicatessen, where the genuine Cornish pasties left a lot to be desired. On my return from St Ives I came across the Cappuccino Express where I resisted the temptation of a cream tea but had a delectable blueberry muffin with my cappuccino. Their sandwiches were reasonably priced and looked huge. I remembered that the only Penzance eatery mentioned in Harden’s Guide was the Honeypot Cafe, but unfortunately I didn’t discover its whereabouts until I was heading to catch my train home. It certainly looked to have an interesting menu.
Penzance town centre has an eclectic mix of shops where you can find anything from Tesco Express and the Co-op to pricey art and souvenir shops and tiny antique shops chock full of horse brasses and bric-a-brac. I needed a gift for my brother (as he was looking in on my cat) and found a beautiful ceramic lizard in a shop that sold handmade soap. There is a sizeable post office, at least two photographic shops, several pharmacies and even a cinema for those rainy days. The most unusual sight is the Egyptian House, which to me should have been called the Pharaonic House, with its spectacular facade.
Penzance has a railway station down by the harbour, and there is a car park nearby. Trains run to Plymouth and London Paddington as well as cities further north, and there is a branch line that runs along the picturesque coast to St Ives. The station has a cafe and a shop adjacent to a decent waiting room. The bus station is right beside it, and there are bus services to local towns and villages such as Marazion, Newlyn, Land’s End and St Ives. Long-distance bus and coach services run to and from Penzance. Several companies run sightseeing and fishing boat trips from Penzance harbour. For a trip with a difference, you could go by helicopter to the Scilly Isles, and there is also a ferry service to the isles.
I would definitely recommend Penzance as a base to stay in to explore the south-western peninsula of Cornwall. If you are looking for a guest house, the Dunedin is a good choice; if you are on a tight budget, Penzance Backpackers is on the same street. Penzance may seem a little old-fashioned compared to St Ives, but it is also relatively unspoilt, less crowded and easier to drive around. With attractions such as St Michael’s Mount, the Minack Theatre and Land’s End just a few miles away, its location is ideal. Newlyn is within walking distance and is well worth a visit if you are looking for unspoilt towns and villages. I would happily return to Penzance if I have another opportunity to visit Cornwall.