Driving in Cornwall can be daunting if it’s your first time. The road etiquette is quite different to other parts of the UK, and it’s easy to get stuck on those narrow winding rural lanes if you’re not careful! Here are our top tips on driving in Cornwall to make sure you arrive prepared.
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Tips for driving in Cornwall
I first learned to drive on the Cornish roads, and it was the best driving education that anyone could wish for. If you can navigate the quirks and road etiquette of Cornwall’s mazy towns and villages, you can drive pretty much anywhere.
I now have decades of experience of driving in Cornwall, having visited the county at least once nearly every year of my life. One thing has never changed – there are lots of tourist drivers on the road who don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s especially challenging in summer, when the roads can turn into chaos, especially in small coastal towns like St Ives or Falmouth that are popular tourist destinations.
The good news is that driving in Cornwall is also an incredibly pleasant experience. The rural countryside lanes and coastal roads are some of Britain’s most scenic places to drive.
Want to drive in Cornwall like a pro, and not look like one of those clueless tourists? This guide is essential reading if you’re planning to take a Cornwall road trip. Here are a few things you should know before driving in Cornwall to help make your journeys enjoyable, and avoid getting into any scrapes that might disrupt your trip.
1. Be patient
When driving in Cornwall, you will get stuck behind things. All. The. Time.
The vast majority of Cornwall’s roads are single carriageways, and the rural lanes are notoriously narrow. Add into the mix that Cornwall is one of the UK’s major farming counties, and you have a recipe for meeting tractors. A lot of them.
If it’s not a tractor, it will be a delivery truck, a local bus, or just a slow driver. And you might not be able to overtake them for a long time, if at all.
All you can do is chill and be patient. Put on some good music, a podcast, or indulge in some good conversation with your passengers. There’s absolutely no point in getting riled up and impatient on Cornwall’s roads.
2. Be considerate
If there’s one thing that grinds my gears (excuse the pun) more than anything else when driving in Cornwall, it’s tourists who drive selfishly. I might sound like I’m generalising by blaming this on tourists, but you really never see this behaviour on the road from locals. They know the territory, and they also know that selfishness on the road will only cause you problems.
When driving in Cornwall’s villages you will often find yourself in situations where there isn’t room for two cars to pass. We often stay near Penzance in Mousehole for example, where the back streets can barely fit a single car, let alone two.
Be prepared to be the one who waits and gives way. If you get headstrong and push ahead, you might find yourself stuck in a spot you can’t get out of. Putting others first will end up working in your favour.
3. Give way to cars coming uphill
Road etiquette is a big part of the local driving culture in Cornwall. One scenario where you will see this come into play regularly is when two cars meet on a steep, narrow hill. And Cornwall has plenty of steep narrow hills!
If you find yourself in this situation, the rule is simple: always give way to cars coming uphill.
It can take quite a bit of momentum to get up those hills, especially if you have a car full of luggage and you don’t have a very powerful engine. I remember one time we were driving in the Lake District and a car coming down didn’t give way to us. We had to reverse back to the bottom and start again!
4. Bring change for car parks
Most car parks in Cornwall have finally caught up with the 21st century and give you the option to pay by card or mobile. It’s not always the case though.
Away from the beaten path, in rural, less touristy villages or at secluded Cornish beaches, you will still find some cash-only car parks. You will even sometimes see them in busier spots as well.
We always keep a bit of loose change in the car when driving in Cornwall in case we need it for parking. You never know when it may come in handy.
5. Allow more time than maps or GPS say
When planning road journeys in Cornwall, it’s always a good idea to allow a bit more time than you think you’ll need. As a general rule, if you’re using Google Maps or another sat nav tool, add some extra to the estimated journey time.
Traffic tends to be a little slower on Cornwall’s country roads, and you’re likely to encounter hold-ups (or, as above, get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle).
Folk in Cornwall don’t usually like to get anywhere in a hurry. All you can do is relax, embrace the mellowness, and accept you might arrive a bit later. Or, if you really need to be somewhere by a particular time, then set off a bit earlier.
6. Download a map you can use offline
Once you get out of Cornwall’s towns and villages, the signal is often poor or even non-existent out in the sticks. This can become a problem if you happen to get a bit lost in the countryside and need to stop and re-route.
Whenever we travel, we use maps.me, which lets you download local area maps that can be used offline. It’s sorted us out a couple of times on our Cornwall road trips around the desolate Penwith Peninsula.
7. Use your horn around tight corners
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of a car horn is not to express your annoyance to other drivers on the road. Car horns should only be used to warn of imminent danger or alert other road-users of your presence.
Using your car horn in the wrong way at the wrong time can actually land you with a fine.
I’ve probably used my car horn more times in Cornwall than anywhere else in the world combined. That’s because it’s often a necessity on the notoriously narrow and meandering Cornish country lanes.
Cornwall’s country lanes are often flanked by high hedges, which restricts your view when going around corners. Whenever you are unsighted like this, a little pip on your horn will warn any drivers coming the other way that you’re there.
The last thing you want is to get into a little prang in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall – you might end up stuck there for hours.
8. You’ll need more petrol than you think
Driving in Cornwall often involves a lot of stop-start, sitting in traffic, or navigating steep and winding hills. You’ll probably find that you get through your petrol tank quite a bit quicker than you do back at home.
So, it’s best to double check you have enough petrol in your tank before setting off anywhere. In particular, if you’re driving in the more rural areas like the Penwith Peninsula, the Lizard Peninsula or around Bodmin Moor, it’s sometimes quite a while before you come across the next petrol station.
9. The weather is unpredictable
Cornwall has volatile weather patterns, with diverse microclimates all along the coastline. This makes it hard to know what the weather will bring from one hour to the next, let alone day to day.
It’s useful to check weather forecasts before setting off on a journey, but they’re not always reliable. The Cornish weather is full of surprises.
So, be ready to drive in any conditions when you set off on a journey in Cornwall. It’s not unusual to experience all four seasons in a day.
If you are visiting Cornwall in winter, make sure you have a scraper in the car, and that you’re not short on screenwash.
10. Use lower gears when driving on hills
When you’ve spend a lot of time on the road in Cornwall, you become a master of hill driving. But if it’s your first time driving in the county, the hilly roads can take a bit of getting used to. Especially if you’re used to driving somewhere flat, like we are around our home in Lincolnshire.
Using a lower gear helps keep you in control whether you are driving uphill or downhill. For uphill drives, a lower gear will put less stress on the engine. And when driving down steep hills, a lower gear will give you greater control and braking power if you meet an unexpected obstacle.
11. Look out for animals on the road
More than 70% of the land in Cornwall is used for farming, and the county has one of the highest populations of livestock in the UK. This means you’ll encounter a lot of cattle around the country roads.
Then there’s the abundance of wild fauna that inhabit the Cornish countryside. Deer, wild horses and foxes are some of the bigger animals you can expect to see roaming around the untrodden landscape.
For drivers, this means danger. As an example, Cornwall’s county town Truro is one of the worst places in the UK for crashes involving animals.
You will often see wildlife warning signs on Cornwall’s roads. But even when you don’t, it’s wise to be vigilant for animals on the road, especially in low light. Deer like to come out around dawn and dusk, when visibility is limited.
If you do see a deer or another wild creature crossing the road, it’s likely there are more coming as well. Stay vigilant, slow down, but avoid swerving. Dip your headlights if you can, as deer may freeze in the face of them.
Read the UK government’s advice on avoiding deer collisions for some more tips.
12. Be wary of parking in mud!
I’ll finish with a little story. A cautionary tale, if you like.
The seaside town of St Ives is a notoriously difficult place to find a car parking space. It’s a popular destination that gets crowded in summer, and with few street parking options, the car parks overflow quickly.
On a sunny October day we arrived a bit later than usual for a day out in St Ives. Trenwith Car Park, which is one of the bigger car parks at the top of the hill and a spot where we can usually count on spaces, was in overspill. Excess cars were being directed onto a grassy area.
The problem, however, was that overnight rain had turned the grass into slushy mud. We watched on as holiday-makers desperate for a parking space struggled to maneouvre, skidding and sliding all over the place, sometimes colliding uncontrollably with other vehicles as their own became further stuck.
We thought twice about parking, as we knew it would be a nightmare to find somewhere else if we chose not to. After circling the car park, we eventually decided to park up on a grass patch right at the back that looked ok. It wasn’t.
Luckily, we still managed to get into a space without losing control, but we quickly realised it had been a bad idea to park. The real drama came when we returned at the end of the day to find several tow trucks hauling cars out of inescapable ruts.
A few paces away from us, a couple were trying to force their car out of a divet, but could only generate futile wheel-spins. We lent our hands, offered our towels to steady the wheels on the ground, and joined some other helpful onlookers to successfully push them out.
Thankfully, we were able to get our own car out of the pickle, but it was a close-run thing. Phew.
The moral of the story is to think twice about parking in car parks that aren’t concrete. There are a lot in Cornwall. Not just overspill car parks, but many smaller villages and remote beaches have parking areas on grassy verges and village greens.
If you do go ahead and park, then take care. And always keep some towels or cardboard boxes in the boot – they might just save your trip!
Car hire in Cornwall
If you’re not taking your own car to Cornwall, most of the main towns have rentals available. We always use RentalCars.com to find and book the best deals for car hire.
Do you have any of your own tips for driving in Cornwall? Let us know in the comments below.
Thinking of a remote working trip to Cornwall? Check out our guide to taking a workation in Cornwall for inspiration.