Adventures by train – walking into Cornwall

Walking across the Tamar Bridge

With its own AONB and SSSI status, the River Tamar deserves some respect but for many visitors it’s merely a marker for the border between the beautiful counties of Devon and Cornwall.

Including the 18 million vehicles crossing each year it via the Tamar Road Bridge.

The journey by car is free on your way into Cornwall but the cash toll for a car travelling back into Devon is £2.00 (likely to increase soon to £2.60).

Walking and cycling in either direction is free.

And really easy to access by train!

The Tamar Bridge walk

Start (and finish) train station: Saltash

Travel time from London: 3 hrs 45 mins

Travel time from Bristol: 2 hrs 30 mins

Author’s adventure tip: Gen up on your bridges before you set off. If you arrived by train, you’ve just crossed Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge but you’ll be walking across the Tamar Road Bridge (unless your name is Bill – see ‘Author’s Adventure’ below).

Don’t be tempted to miss out on the opportunity to explore underneath the bridges on the Saltash (Cornwall) side. There’s a great community cafe at the Quay and some helpful information boards. When you get to the Devon side, the small but excellent (and free) Bridging the Tamar Visitor Centre, has plenty for the whole family.

Practicalities: The Tamar Bridge is exposed so go prepared with water on a hot day and waterproofs on a wet one. It does occasionally close to pedestrians in extremely high winds. Check out the Tamar Crossings website for more information and webcams.

Saltash Station doesn’t have toilets but there are some at the Devon end of the bridge (closed during my visit), at the Bridging the Tamar Visitor Centre (during opening hours) and at the Belle Vue Car Park in Saltash.

Ramped access on or off trains at Saltash Station is not currently available. The contact number for GWR’s passenger assist travel team is 0800 197 1329.

Not all trains into Cornwall stop at Saltash Station. If you’re travelling on the Cornish Riviera Express from London, listen out for coach instructions as this is often a double train (with no access between the two) and Saltash has a short platform. If you’re at the back of the train, you may need to change coaches at Plymouth.

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The bridge walk is flat with designated cyclist and pedestrian zones. There is a steep hill between the Saltash Station and the quay. You can avoid most of the hill by heading directly onto the bridge from the station (see map below).

Your train adventure

If you’ve ever driven across the Tamar Road Bridge, you’ve missed out on some glorious views. Do the trip by train across Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge and you’ll see the sights whilst travelling through history.

Ditch the engines to walk across the Tamar, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.

You definitely won’t need walking boots for this one, or your swimming togs but you will need a head for heights, and you might wish you had a pair of binoculars.

The very best views of Brunel’s famous Tamar Bridge are from the walking lane of its close neighbour.

Your Tamar Bridge walk

Despite being a place most people pass through, your starting point, Saltash has a fascinating history all of its own. This walk takes you past the cottage where Mary Newman (wife of Sir Francis Drake) is thought to once have lived.

It’s down a steep hill.

But you need to get to the bottom of the hill to see where the Tamar-crossing ferry used to be. Today, the two Tamar Bridges dominate the landscape.

But back then it was all about the boats.

As you wander underneath the bridges, try to imagine the commitment and confidence that such feats of engineering required. You’ll find out more when you get to the other side.

If you’re brave enough to make the crossing!

NB: It’s definitely NOT safe to swim anywhere near this section of the River Tamar as the area has strong currents.

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Your Tamar Bridge walking route

Walk description

This route includes a steep walk down to Saltash Quay then back up to bridge level. If you want to miss out most of the hill, turn right towards the shops as you exit the station, then look for the bridge walkway.

As well as extensive river views and a unique experience, expect a walk back through history both above and below the famous bridges.

Planning a walking route using OS Maps 2022

This walk starts in Saltash on the Cornwall side of the river. Although it is possible to continue your walk to either of Plymouth’s St Budeaux Stations once you’ve crossed back into Devon, the views on the return crossing over the Tamar Bridge are far more exciting, and you’ll be able to say you’ve walked into Cornwall.

If you want to continue your exploration of the area, Plymouth City and waterfronts offer exceptional opportunities for train adventurers but are easier to manage from Plymouth Station.

Walk distance: 3.38 kilometres

Total ascent: 147 metres

Your walking route on OS Maps: Walking across the Tamar Bridge.

Route description

This route has it all, stroll under the bridges to marvel at how tall they are then walk over the Tamar Road Bridge, holding off the vertigo as you explore. If you time it right, you’ll spot one of GWR’s green liveried trains crossing the Royal Albert Bridge right next to you.

  1. Walk downhill past Mary Newman’s Cottage

Leave Saltash Station by the designated path. Turn left away from Saltash Centre then follow the road round to the left down the hill (this road section doesn’t have a pavement). Continue past Mary Newman’s Cottage, turning left then right to reach the quay.

2. Explore the Town Quay

There’s plenty of history to find at the Quay. Admire the mural and Union flag on the side and front of the distinctive Union Inn then look out for the slip where the ferry used to run. The cafe just next door is run by the local community.

3. Head underneath the two bridges

You’ll want to linger underneath first the Royal Albert train bridge and then the Tamar Road Bridge that you’re about to cross. From this angle you’ll get a far better idea of the astonishing feats of engineering they represent. Continue past the WWII landing stages (visible at lower tides) and pause to admire the views from the green.

4. Follow the footpath up to the Cornish Cross 

If you’ve never spotted the Cornish Cross on your road journeys across the Tamar, you’re not alone. Although it’s 20-metres high, at this point many drivers are concentrating on their approach to the Saltash Tunnel. On foot, however, you can take your time, and this stunning Celtic Cross is definitely worth a bit of that.

5. Find the Tamar Bridge footpath

You’re at bridge level now but you’ll need to cross the road to access the walkway, which is on the south side of the bridge. Head towards the Fore Street shops then turn left down Lower Fore Street. On the left look out for the blue signs that mark the cycle and walking routes across the Tamar Bridge.

6. Visit the Bridging the Tamar Visitor Centre 

On your way over the Tamar Bridge into Devon, there’s plenty to see. Watch a train cross the Royal Albert Bridge, and enjoy the views downriver. You might also like to look out for webcams. You’ll be able to enjoy the images from these when you get to the Visitor Centre. Don’t forget to celebrate as you pass the toll-booths. You’ve just sneaked back into Devon for free!

7. Cross the border into Cornwall

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you prefer smuggling yourself into Devon or Cornwall but please be careful if you take a cream scone with you, and don’t utter the words ‘cream first’ once you’ve passed the midway point on your return journey.

8. Back to the station

Once you’ve found your way back to Lower Fore Street, turn right then left down the signposted alley on the opposite side of the road. Work your way down past the Memorial Gardens and the church. There are a few signs but the locals are friendly if you get confused.

Author’s adventure

How to plan your own adventure by train

There’s something rather special about exploring something that feels very familiar from another perspective. My Dad lives in Cornwall so I’d lost count how many times I’d crossed the Tamar bridges by road and train.

But I’d always wanted to walk across.

I’m not sure where my taste for bridge crossings has come from but I enjoyed walking across the Severn Bridge into Wales so much, it made perfect sense to cross another border on foot, and walk over the road bridge into Cornwall.

But my starting point was already in Cornwall.

Saltash is definitely the nearest train station to the Tamar Bridges. It’s so close in fact that I suspect the back half of the double GWR Penzance train was still on the Royal Albert Bridge as I alighted.

This made me smile.

But I wasn’t smiling quite so much when, on leaving the station, I realised I didn’t have a clue how to find my way onto the bridge on foot.

So I decided to head downhill.

Always a good call when you’re confused-on-sea. Once you’re down level with the water, it’s often easier to work out where you are. I was glad I’d made the effort because exploring the quay was fascinating.

Especially when I met Bill.

In truth, I don’t know Bill’s name but he was a local chap who enjoyed telling me the story of how, before it was possible to walk across the road bridge, he and his friends used to make the crossing alongside the track on the railway bridge.

He had a twinkle in his eye as he spoke.

But I believed him. He said they only did it when the ferry wasn’t running. And that, out of respect for the St Budeaux station master, they would always hop off the track into someone’s garden before they reached his station.

We might be safer now but there’s a lesson in respect there.

Since my adventures underneath the new Severn Bridge, I’ve developed a hankering to repeat the experience. I’ve no idea why this has happened but I’ve christened my new hobby ‘under-bridging’. It fits in perfectly with train adventuring. Trains, as it turns out, love bridges.

Please don’t tell me if under-bridging is something rude.

Being underneath the double Tamar bridges didn’t disappoint. And although the footpath back up the hill from the green was slightly underwhelming, it was great to discover community looked-after Elwell Woods and the Cornish Cross.

But luckily not the cross Cornish.

Despite my initial vertigo and my rather weird reaction to being on a designated walkway, next to the separate cycleway, just below a rather busy carriageway, I really enjoyed my walk into Devon and then back again into Cornwall.

It was kind of like smuggling.

Well perhaps not but I did linger for a moment or two to watch the motorists pay their £2 to exit the bridge back into Devon. I didn’t have to pay anything at all.

Which was nice.

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