Rail Ale Trail
It’s 11.30 a.m. and I’m hunkered in the corner of the cozy Crab & Ale House pub in Truro, southwest England. A six-pack of red-nosed locals are gossiping at the bar, 1960s pop is percolating softly through hidden speakers and an armada of nautical memorabilia – including a broken mast – hangs from the ceiling as if it’s been there forever.
Nowhere on earth does old-school pubs better than the Brits but the ancient inns of Devon and Cornwall make this arguably the country’s finest pilgrimage spot for travellers who like to sup and explore. In fact, you don’t even need a designated driver here if you fancy indulging in your own self-guided pub crawl.
Sipping on a fruity half-pint of Doom Bar bitter – one of several enticing local brews lining the counter – I spread open my map and plan an afternoon of gentle quaffing on the Maritime Line. Trundling from Truro to Falmouth, it’s one of six specially designated Rail Ale Trails, each a picturesque train route studded with recommended pub pit stops.
Clutching my map – it lists six Maritime Line stations and gives walking directions to 15 taverns – I drain my brew, nod to the barman and stroll out towards the station. Purchasing an all-day train pass, I’m soon clattering past rolling, sheep-strewn hills fringed with broccoli-green hedgerows. This is the way to drink and drive.
Within minutes, the half-empty, two-car train rolls into Perranwell Station. The only passenger to alight – locals mostly use this line to commute to work – I follow the gently curving road downhill. Strolling passing verdant farmland bristling with chittering birdlife, I quickly reach a small village of rose-covered stone cottages. First stop: the Royal Oak.
Warm with convivial chatter, it’s the epitome of a great country pub. Several locals greet me at the tiny counter and the barman ambles over to recommend a couple of guest ales, adding that lunch is also available. Sliding into a window table, I find a surprising gourmet menu of meat and seafood delicacies and decide that lining my stomach for the beer ahead might be a good idea.
After a hearty feast of roasted Gressingham duck – decorated with blackberries and served with dishes of steaming vegetables – plus a malty half-pint of mild Betty Stogs bitter, I’m ready for a nap. Instead, I take the sobering uphill stroll back to the station and arrive just as the train is pulling in. The guard recognizes me (the same service rolls up and down the line all day) and he tells me that Rail Ale pub crawls are popular on weekends, when over-indulgers often look sorry for themselves after trying a few too many of the stronger brews.
I’m determined to remain relatively in control as we screech to a halt at Penryn Station. There are three recommended pubs in this town but I stroll purposely down the bustling main street as if I’ve been here a thousands times.
The 550-year-old Kings Arms claims to have hosted the traveling court of Henry VII in 1489. Some of its scuffed tables look like they may have been there at the time, but there’s a warm neighborhood bar feel here that makes this pub well worth a stop. Or maybe it’s the sudden rainfall lashing the windows that makes it so welcoming.
Once seated, a bearded old fella at the adjoining table – the kind of twinkle-eyed character who probably rolls in here like the tide every day – begins telling me about his favorite local beers. It’s like listening to someone describing his colorful, eccentric relatives. He recommends HSD, a dark St. Austell ale that sounds like it puts hairs on your chest, as well as the chests of everyone sitting around you.
Ducking back into the fading rain, I hike the obligatory hill and take the next train to Penmere, where four pubs await. Judging from the photo in my map booklet, the most intriguing is the Seven Stars, a three-storey landmark with an unusual, brass-strewn interior. But when I arrive, it’s closed – a reminder that some UK pubs still shut in the afternoons.
Luckily, across the town square, I spy an unlisted substitute. Heading over to the Wodehouse Arms I nip in for a glass of creamy Tribute Ale. With the sun re-emerging, I join the locals on the street outside and soon strike up a conversation with a father and son team who’ve just packed up their market stall for the day.
Feeling fairly merry by this stage – a second glass of Tribute probably doesn’t help – the cawing of circling seagulls indicates that my seafront destination is not too far down the line. Power walking back up the hill (it feels like the biggest hike yet, but maybe I’m just struggling with my new beer belly), I’m soon on the train and bouncing along the final few miles of track.
No pubs are recommended for the Falmouth Docks stop, so I stay on a couple more minutes until the end of the line at Falmouth Town Station. With centuries of seafaring heritage, this celebrated old port is an atmospheric tangle of cobbled streets and stone-built shops, suffused with the aroma of fish and chips wafting from several homestyle cafés.
There are plenty of pubs to choose from here, but I head (relatively) straight for the pink-painted Quayside Inn and the day’s final sup. An ale fans Aladdin’s Cave, there are almost too many brews to choose from but I opt for a pint of copper-colored Cornish Coaster from Sharp’s Brewery.
The dark, wood-lined bar is empty, so I take my pint outside to the portside patio, where the tables are crowded with locals and the air is thick with animated conversation. With the sun slowly sinking across the waterfront, there’s a warm, orange glow to the early evening proceedings, and I sit back to enjoy the vista of bobbing fishing boats and snack-hunting seagulls. Now comfortably fuzzy-headed, it’s hard to imagine being more relaxed. Just one more for the road, I think.
If you go:
Maritime Line Ranger tickets provide unlimited one-day train travel up and down the line. There are also five additional Rail Ale Trails in the Devon and Cornwall region. For downloadable maps, timetables and further information, visit www.railaletrail.com.