Cornish Riviera Express

Cornish Riviera Express

Table of Contents

Morning Departure at Paddington for Cornwall

The ‘Cornish Riviera’ was a long-established premier West Country service dating from early years of 20th century that ran from London Paddington to Penzance. In 2015 a form of the Cornish Riviera is still provided by First Great Western’s HSTs and despite the bland homogenised era of train travel onboard train dining still exists. The Cornish Riviera, with ancestory going back to 1904, became the flagship of the Great Western Railway (GWR) and later British Railways Western Region – BR(W). The Cornish Riviera with its well appointed luxury coaches and restaurant car services was extremely popular with passengers: for much of the 20th century it was ‘the’ way to travel to Cornwall. Apart from a very brief period at the end of the 1920s GWR never required the services of the Pullman Company. The GWR consistently took the view their train services matched or were superior to those of Pullman.

The Early Years

The dedicated London to Penzance service became an evocative named train – the Cornish Riviera Limited – when it was launched as a new all year round train in the summer of 1906. The Cornish Riviera Limited – a name arrived at following a competition in the railway press – introduced to a new travelling generation the delights of train travel with haute cuisine dining provided in the palatial and convivial surroundings of the restaurant car to a not so familiar but romantically perceived far-off place. The Cornish Riviera Limited service was designed for the holiday and tourist market. Once into Cornwall the train would stop at Truro, Gwinear Road and St. Erth as these stations were junctions for important branch lines serving the burgeoning holiday destinations around Falmouth, the Lizard and St. Ives.

Developing an Image

Cornish Riviera Express posterRunning the country’s most well-known premier express train bolstered GWR’s reputation as the original destination marketing organisation. A degree of romance was always associated with the GWR and the company had acquired a reputation for speedy non-stop services to the West Country heartlands. It became the most adept of all railway companies at selling not just itself, but the region it served by promoting resorts in Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Wales and Southern Ireland. However, it was the county of Cornwall that was considered the gem in the crown of destinations with GWR developing small Cornish towns into thriving seaside resorts for a growing middle class. As Alan Bennett in his book ‘Great Western Lines and Landscapes’ comments: “Cornwall was promoted as a unique possession for the GWR”. Not only did the company deliver the main line expresses with awaiting branch line connections, GWR then transported them to destinations providing wholesome holidays at hotels such as the company’s own opulent Treganna Hotel in St. Ives or other hotels it helped develop. But in Edwardian times Cornwall was like a foreign country to the well-to-do travelling classes who were more familiar with Paris than large swathes of Britain. Notwithstanding, the wealthier public became increasingly keen on adopting the well-developed British railway system for travel purposes; GWR was well positioned to maximise traveller interest in the West Country as a destination.

GWR set about developing a positive image of the West Country and the far south west counties. As Matthew Engel notes in his book ‘Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain’, the region was “seen as the most uniformly desirable part of Britain – soft airs, soft climate, soft countryside, soft accents”. The creation of what is now termed as the ‘Cornish Riviera’ destination brand in 1904 helped GWR to deliver an image that Cornwall was an alternative winter resort to its arch destination rival in the south of France. The county became as attractive in winter as the summer months as the company created a steady stream of marketing pamphlets and publications initially under the guidance of publicity officer Felix Pole who was later to become GWR’s General Manager. The idea of ‘Winter in the West’ was further developed by author and journalist S. P. B. Mais in various pamphlets but GWR’s publicity team took this to an extreme with a 1923 poster which suggested the idea of ‘Bathing in February in the Cornish Riviera’! However, it was the yearly editions of a well-known booklet – ‘Holiday Haunts’ – that set the tone for the company’s marketing. So much so the GWR boasted it was the ‘Nation’s Holiday Line’ and by 1939 more than 11 million Britains enjoyed the privilege of some type of paid holiday. The GWR took every opportunity to foster a broader travelling public; over the years Cornwall and the West Country became a destination for all.

The Cornish Riviera Experience

From the outset the Cornish Riviera Limited was promoted as an ‘exclusive service’ combining not just luxury features to sooth travellers in their seven hour sojourn to the far south west but by creating an experience that was built on a distinct cultural heritage. The journey where no aspect of convenience and comfort was left undone was in itself an integral part of the overall destination experience. Departure from Paddington was a carefully orchestrated affair with a 10.30am departure time and always from Platform No: 1. Gleaming chocolate and cream liveried carriages (apart from their brief crimson lake period) with carriage headboards left the traveller in no uncertainty of where they were heading. Suitable reading material was part of the experience. As early as 1908 the corporation of Penzance printed ‘The Official Guide to Penzance’ with a strapline later to be described as ‘A Gem of the Cornish Riviera’. But it was the romantic ideas associated with Cornwall that stirred the public’s imagination.

The Inter-War Years

Cornish Riviera Express 'King George V' locomotiveThe Cornish Riviera Limited was so popular with travellers that it ran in two portions on summer Saturdays until WWI when it was suspended. Post-war the train resumed in 1919 and there was a gradual acceleration in passenger services with the West of England Paddington to Penzance train restored to a 10.30am schedule. The service began to resemble the pre-war Cornish Riviera Limited but there was no formal launch of the GWR’s pre-eminent express for the time being but by the early 1920s the Cornish Riviera Limited was firmly established as one of the country’s leading luxury train services. This reputation was further enhanced in 1923 with the gradual introduction of new iconic-looking Castle class locomotives and new 70’ length coaches. GWR was able to maximise revenues as the longer length third-class coach had ten compartments with loos at both ends and safely seating up to 80 passengers. Of all the railway companies, the GWR was the leading exponent of the art of the ‘slipped coach’ which allowed carriages to be dropped without stopping at intermediate points for other destinations en-route to the west. Typically during this period, a thirteen or fourteen coach formation would have three two coach sections at the rear of the train to slip the carriages for Weymouth and the Channel Islands, Ilfracombe and Minehead and Torquay. During the summer months the Cornish Riviera Limited would run as two separate trains to accommodate passenger demand.

The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday of the Cornish Riviera Limited. The introduction of the even larger King class locomotives in 1927 allowed the service to reach Plymouth non-stop in just four hours; speed and exclusivity became the byword. Immaculate and impeccable service was always the norm for GWR staff especially to deliver the magic of onboard dining. Stewards would walk the length of the train, sliding open the compartment doors to advise passengers that a white napkined and silver service lunch experience was awaiting them to be served in the restaurant cars. Timings ensured lunch aboard the world-famous Cornish Riviera Limited would invariably coincide with the additional luxury of the beach and sea vista as the train sped alongside the walls between Dawlish and Teignmouth.

The CornishmanThe GWR always sought to invest in its premier West of England trains and by 1935 had to introduce another named train to cater for the number of travellers. Summer-time usage was so intensive that a sister service unofficially known as ‘Cornishman’ was introduced in 1935 leaving Paddington five minutes after the Limited. Cornishman was, in fact, a reincarnation of another former unofficial premier named train used by GWR in Victorian times. This broad gauge train used to run from Paddington to Penzance via Bristol. On 20 May 1892 Great Western a Rover class 4-2-2 locomotive hauled the very last broad gauge Cornishman service. Ironically, the name ‘The Cornishman’ was only afforded an official title in BR timetables in June 1952 running a service initially from the Midlands (Wolverhampton low level) with the route extended to Sheffield and Bradford in the 1960s. The 1935 GWR Cornishman was therefore an additional relief train designed to cater for the sheer volume of holidaymakers heading west by providing a passenger service heading directly to the company’s intermediate stations at Weymouth (and for the Channel Islands) and Plymouth. Torquay, Paignton and Brixham now had its own individual train which, for a short period of time in 1929 and 1930, was a Pullman service. In Cornwall, the Cornishman stopped at Newquay, St Erth and Helston as these stops served branches to other important holiday destinations before reaching Penzance. Interestingly, visitor interest in south west England was so intense in the 1930s that Southern Railway’s ‘Atlantic Coast Express’ (ACE) suffered from similar problems with increased passenger demands as the company, too, had to run additional relief services by splitting the ACE into distinct destination portions.

In the years before WWII to say the Cornish Riviera Limited (and the Cornishman) were busy services was an understatement. By the 1939 summer season the Limited had grown to eight separate portions: the main part of the train with restaurant car for Penzance and one through coach for destinations to St Ives, Falmouth, Newquay and Kingsbridge. More easterly destinations such as Ilfracombe and Minehead were serviced by the Taunton slip and two Weymouth and Channel Islands carriages were slipped at Westbury. A number of West Country coastal resorts in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset were dependent on both the GWR and Southern Railway. In this period a degree of co-operation and friendly rivalry existed between the two companies as they promoted their respective Cornish Riviera Limited and the Atlantic Coast Express premier services. During the war years there were alterations to the Cornish Riviera Express service as it was initially re-routed via Bristol and Bath. The train later returned to Westbury but for several years the service had an additional Torbay portion. Separate Torquay and Penzance trains were eventually re-established but the Cornish Riviera Limited was often seen hauling a fourteen coach rake to accommodate Plymouth based servicemen.

Post-war there was a gradual resumption to normality and pre-war timings. The Limited continued to be extremely busy with increasing numbers of paid holiday travellers. In addition, although the numbers of private cars and coach companies were increasing, the vast majority of roads remained poor. It was still a very long trek by road to the west of Cornwall so the Limited remained popular aided by BR(W)’s promotional efforts. For a period in 1954 the service was known as the ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ to commemorate the Jubilee of the train but then its name reverted back to the Limited title. The end of steam on the premier service was marked by a rebranding exercise in April 1958. The train became known as the ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ as journey time to the far south west steadily decreased with new motive power. Cornish Riviera Express headboards were attached to sparkling Brunswick green liveried Warship diesel hydraulic locomotives thus creating a new modern era that reconnected to GWR’s heritage as the train was now made up of new Mk1 coach rakes painted in chocolate and cream. The headboard-carrying days on the Cornish Riviera Express service ended around 1962 as new ‘Western’ class diesels began life on BR(W).


Cornish Riviera Express locomotiveIn the early days of the Paddington-Penzance service, large wheeled four coupled Dean 4-4-0 locomotives were standard motive power to Plymouth where they would change for a similar locomotive to continue the route west to Cornwall. When Churchward took over as GWR ‘Locomotive Superintendent’ or better known as ‘Chief Mechanical Engineer’ (CME), he improved boiler designs creating a successful range of 4-4-0s classes such as the ‘Dukes’, ‘Bulldogs’ and ‘Cities’ – the latter class most frequently associated with the Cornish Riviera. Churchward’s designs gave the company the beginnings of a locomotive ‘family’ identity that provided GWR with a fleet of modern standardised locomotives to put the company at the forefront of consistently delivered performance. From 1906 more powerful developed 4-4-2 and prototype 4-6-0 classes took over as motive power on the long West Country runs. Post WWI Churchward’s 4-cylinder ‘Star’ class 4-6-0s had little difficulty in hauling the Cornish Riviera until Collett’s 4-6-0 ‘Castle’ class locomotives arrived on the scene in 1923. The Castles were appreciably more powerful than any of their predecessors but a locomotive of this type was required as the Cornish Riviera became progressively heavier due to passenger and luggage numbers. By 1929 the train was a thirteen or fourteen coach formation with first and third-class dining capacity at 120 covers whereas the service had just 50 dining seats in 1905.

The introduction of the King class in 1927 provided regular work on GWR’s premier services to the West of England. There was huge interest in no: 6000 King George V; its first working on the Cornish Riviera Limited recorded as being 20 July 1927. The combination of locomotive and famous named train provided one of the high points for GWR publicity in the late 1920s. The use of the Kings had reduced the non-stop journey time from London to Plymouth on the Cornish Riviera Limited to exactly four hours and provided much positive needed marketing material for the company to counter the inroads being made by the other railway companies. A quick change of locomotive – from a King to a Castle at Devonport allowed GWR to promote the Limited as an official non-stop service to Truro. From the mid-1920s until the end of steam the image of the Cornish Riviera was forever associated with Castles and Kings. Book photographic examples record a number of locomotives associated with the Cornish Riviera including in GWR times no: 6000 King George V and no: 6015 King Richard III, in BR times with route code 130 no: 6002 King William IV, No: 6017 King Edward IV, no: 6018 King Henry VI and no: 6029 King Edward III. Examples of the Cornishman in BR times included no: 4088 Dartmouth Castle and no: 7029 Clun Castle.

Warship diesel hydraulic locomotives took over motive power in 1958. Many of them were adorned with the Cornish Riviera headboard including no: D600 Active, no: D601 Ark Royal, no: D602 Bulldog, no: D800 Sir Brian Robertson, the first of the Swindon produced Warships, no: 831 Monarch and no: D819 Goliath, a multiple working that produced the first sub six hour run to Penzance and no: D852 Tenacious. During this period the Cornish Riviera Express was frequently double-headed by two Warship diesels. In the early to mid-1960s the Cornish Riviera Express was hauled by the more powerful Western diesels. Under this class by the end of the 1960s journey time to Penzance had been reduced to 5 hours 35 minutes. In the transition period to BR corporate blue and grey, the Cornish Riviera Express would be headed by a mix of Warships, Westerns and later by class 47 and class 50 diesel electrics until the introduction of BR’s high speed train (HST) workings in 1979. The ageing HST stock under private company First Great Western still operates the service of sorts in 2015.

Carriage Stock

In 1904 GWR decided to introduce a new, spacious and luxury coach class for its prestigious Paddington-Penzance route. Prior to the new coach stock coming on stream, the new route, initially a seasonal service for the first two years of life, had to make do with new but existing carriage types – Dean clerestories. These were the last of the coach class as no further clerestories were built by GWR after 1904. The summer service that year was made up of six coaches running all the way between Paddington and Penzance and vice versa. Five of the stock were clerestories plus a dining car which was one of the new massive ‘Dreadnoughts’ – the largest coaches operating in Great Britain at the turn of the century measuring some 70’ in length and 9.5’ in width. With the 1905 season the Paddington-Penzance train was entirely made up of the new Dreadnought type. GWR also introduced for the first time a coach reservation system and did away with the second class designation – this proving extremely popular with passengers.

The Dreadnought coaches had roomy compartments and corridors incorporating new innovations such as electric lighting throughout. They had inset end doors but did not incorporate outside doors to the compartments but these specifications ensured the Dreadnoughts remained within standard loading gauge. When the service was named as the Cornish Riviera Limited for the start of the summer season in 1906 which, for the first time, became a year round service, the train utilised the new Dreadnought stock. However, the coaches with their internal compartment doors did not go down well with the travelling public so their life on the Cornish Riviera was a comparatively short-lived experiment.

GWR carriage design underwent significant change with the company adopting a universally acceptable coach design that fitted with the established standards of other railway companies of the time. This development became known as the ‘Toplight’ coach based on a 57’ length and 9’ width specification. Toplights were introduced to the Cornish Riviera in 1907. These mainline coaches were very distinctive because of upper windows located in the area that would be an eaves panel – these were small ‘lights’ or windows appearing above the main window. They were successful with the public and one of GWR’s most successful ranges of coaches becoming very characteristic of the pre 1923 organisation. Their iconic look and design was considered to be reminiscent of the Edwardian Age. In 1912 Toplight coaches began to be built with an all-metal covering of steel panels with ‘painted wood-style panelling’. The steel-panelled Toplight became the standard GWR coach design until after railway grouping when the company realised that many other railway companies had caught up passing them in design and customer comfort. This would not do for the Cornish Riviera’s image.

The Cornish Riviera Limited was nearly always the first port of call for GWR to showcase new carriage stock. In 1923 the Limited was allocated with new stock to coincide with Big Four grouping and in 1929 the service received new steel-panelled 60’ coaches making the formation GWR’s longest daily non-stop service. The new thirteen vehicle train included specialist through coaches for St. Ives and Falmouth and two dining cars together with a kitchen car. The kitchen car was able to deliver sumptuous, gourmet culinary experiences to first-class passengers whilst third-class passengers could enjoy an excellent, modest priced meal service in the other dining car. For less well-heeled passengers this was undoubtedly part of the holiday treat.

New luxury coaches were introduced in the company’s centenary year. In 1935 the Cornish Riviera Limited was provided with new built carriages that become known as the ‘Centenary’ stock. This newly designed stock replaced the new coaches that had been introduced for the service in 1929. The Centenary stock consisted of two sets of thirteen coach trains. They were characterised by recessed doors at each end but a new feature was one window per compartment which was very well received by passengers eager to take in the West Country views. Due to the war the wide-bodied Centenary (and the Super Saloons used on the Plymouth boat trains) were put into storage in 1942 as usage on other GWR routes became problematic.

Post-war the Centenary stock did not reappear on the Cornish Riviera Limited due to its comparative age and were replaced by a mixture of the best Collett and Hawkesworth coaches – the latter introduced in the 1940s. BR Mk1 stock began to appear on the Cornish Riviera Limited in the early 1950s but in true GWR practice and style, a mixture of Mk1, Collett and Hawkesworth coaches in BR(W) blood and custard could appear on the train until the late 1950s. New Mk1 stock painted in chocolate and cream liveries arrived in 1958 with the new Warship diesel-hydraulic locomotives; this coinciding with the re-naming of the service to the Cornish Riviera Express. Mk1 coaches were later repainted in BR maroon and by the mid-1960s there was the gradual progression to BR corporate blue and grey. By this time the Cornish Riviera Express had lost its locomotive and coach headboards as a result of BR’s modernisation process that required a more frequent useage of coaches over different routes. Mk2 coaches with buffet cars providing refreshment later appeared until fixed train HST stock took over in the late 1970s.

The Cornish Riveira provided many iconic images over the years including the 1925 painting by Stanhope Alexander Forbes of passengers departing from a recently arrived train at Penzance Station. The service had a certain panache that many other named trains simply could not live up to. Andrew Martin in his book ‘Belles and Whistles’ describes the Cornish Riviera Express “as the most romantic train of the most romantic railway’. BR(W) did their best to perpetuate the appeal until the mid-1960s but under the hands of corporatisation the name almost completely disappeared until the 1990s. But the name – the Cornish Riviera Express – still lives on and survives as a sub text in First Great Western’s 21st century timetable.

For further information see the West Country Allure chapter in Luxury Railway Travel: A Social and Business History by Martyn Pring.