The short, 4.25 miles, length of single track of the St Ives Bay Line definitely is well worth taking the train for in its own right. The line was built in 1877 to provide freight services for the pilchard trade and passenger services to the upcoming seaside resort. It connects to the London - Penzance mainline at St Erth and the first stage of the 14 minute journey takes in spectacular views over the Hayle Estuary. It then joins the Atlantic coastline at Carbis Bay before arriving at St Ives and its eponymous bay.
Trains run in each direction every thirty minutes, shuttling back and forth since there are no passing places. and the intermediate stops are Lelant Saltings, Lelant and Carbis Bay. After Carbis Bay the line crosses a pair of viaducts which unfortunately you can't see from the train but you can always get off at Carbis Bay and follow the section of the Southwest Coastal Path which pretty much follows the railway.
Then as an added bonus the line is promoted as a "Rail Ale Trail" by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership which produces a guide to the pubs on the route and where you can get a card stamped to get a freebie souvenir tour shirt - see "other" website.
Parking in St. Ives is a real pain in the height of summer so if you're just visiting for the day do yourself a favour and use the park and ride. Leave the car and catch the train in. This will save money and a load of time and grief. Trains run frequently from the park and ride at Lelant Saltings along the St. Ives Bay Line past Lelant and Carbis Bay.
The journey in itself is enjoyable as it offers good coastal views along the way. The route passes right by Carbis Bay with views of the beech and beyond across St. Ives bay to Hayle.
Take a National Rail train from London Paddington towards Penzance.
Transfer trains to the Wessex Service at St. Erth station to go to St. Ives.
The train is only a couple cars long and only takes 10 mins. to get to St. Ives at the end of the line.
The entire journey should take 5 1/2 hours max and you pass through many interesting towns on the way.
As lovely as St Ives is, and as easy as it is to get around on foot, you might still want to make daytrips and why not then by bus? I have in fact heard tales of people who are terrified when out with rental cars on narrow Cornish lanes where hedges obscure the views, there are sharp bends, steep hills and meetings with double decker buses, not to mention the odd cow. Some have had to get help from one of those bus drivers to actually get their own cars out of the way since they've panicked...so yes, catch the bus.
The bus station in St Ives is only a minute's walk away from the railway station and must have the best view of all England's bus stations (see second pic). It is in fact quite amazing that this plot has been given to buses of all ugly things, and the tarmac platform it consists of is hiddeous, but then you realise that because of St Ives' layout, there isn't a wide choice of places for buses so...
There is a waiting room with all sorts of brochures to inspire you, as well as timetables galore to pick up. Most routes here are served by First Group and when you buy their tickets you can buy day tickets that will let you go all over the Penwith Peninsula or further, so that you can change bus in for instance Penzance and continue if the classic tourist double decker 100 (summer time) does not fit your travel times in the direction it is currently heading. The bus 100 is the tourist favourite since it passes the famous Minack Theatre, Land's End, Sennan Cove beach and Geevor Tin mine amongst an awful lot of other sights out here and with scenery that will make you cry for most of the way.
There is also a local company which does not have the touristy route, but has cheap buses to Penzance and a line across the old Celtic moorland from for instance Pendeen to Penzance.
If you are here for a week or so and want to see more of Cornwall than the Penwith peninsula where the local buses take you, and think that trains and regional buses would involve too many changes to make daytrips viable, then why not go for a tour with Oates coaches. Throughout the year they arrange trips to scenic and historic places like Port Isaac, Padstow and Tintagel at the other end of Cornwall, which would otherwise be hard to reach without a car. They also have package tours to various events such as RAF days at air bases, theatre at Minack and so on where you don't have to think about finding extra tickets or late buses home if you go with Oates. Their office is in 1 High Street and there are leaflets telling you what days different excursions are run if you want to plan your stay or check out the weather before booking.
It takes forever and ever to get to St Ives by train from London on the legendary Great Western line, which is the reason I don't go more often, but it is dead easy. All you have to do is get on the train at Paddington and get off in St Erth just before Penzance several hours later. In St Erth you then find the tiny St Ives line branching off along the bay for the last ten minutes of your journey (trains are frequent throughout the day on this little line). Ten minutes of pure magic as St Ives suddenly appears in front of you glistening in the sun, rain or whatever the weather - such is the light.
I would recommend that you book a train in advance in high season so that you get seat reservations since it is a long journey if you go all the way in one go (the trains tend to stop at Reading, Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and Plymouth along their way, and then some other places too up until Plymouth depending on route. When after Plymouth you pass the river Tamar on the great Brunel bridge and enter Cornwall, it is as time stops and the trains too begin to stop in every little village along the way and St Ives is of course furthest away. Well, it should take a bit of effort when you love something...The station is then right in St Ives, with Porthminster Beach just below you and the town centre a couple of minutes walk away.
When we were in Cornwall, we stayed at Carbis Bay, the lesser known neighboour of St Ives. Less expensive, lovely beach, far less people than St Ives. So we were where we wanted to be, but had to get to and fro St Ives...
We had a car but got a taxi to and fro St Ives as parking is a nightmare, plus the carparks are near the top of the hill, and it's quite a walk down... and what goes down, MUST GO UP!
Public transport is not the greatest, I would highly recommend a car to get around. You are severely hindering yourself sans one. Getting to and fro the little coves just won't be an option in some cases.
There are some trains, but this is limited, and practically non-existant on public/bank holidays (every 2 hours) and on Sundays.
Parking is a bit of a nightmare in St Ives in the summer. In fact, using a car is not a good idea. Once you are there it is best to park up and walk for the rest of the time.
There are various, but small, car parks. I find the most reliable one for a psce, even if you havr tonwait for one, is 'the island' car park, which is at the top of town.
If you are near the 'beginning' of St Ives then the rail station car park is also quite good. Both of these car parks do weekly tickets.
St. Ives isn't built for cars. There is a large carpark above the town, but it's a steep walk up and down (although there is a shuttle bus). A better bet in the summer is to park your car at Lelant Saltings train station and catch the train to St. Ives. It's a *beautiful* journey along the coast for 10 - 15 minutes.