There is no more relaxing form of travel than rail, and no better way to enjoy the beauties and sights of a country than through a carriage window. When it came to seeing landscapes, Robert Louis Stevenson thought “none more vivid… than from a railway train”.
Britain has hundreds of attractive rural railway lines offering scenic delights, and access to great walks or picturesque villages and towns. It has more tourist railways than any other country per capita, attracting millions of passengers every year. On Network Rail there is a large range of day and longer ‘rover’ tickets in all areas of the country to help visitors make the most of the locality and discover the charms of secondary lines. These are some of the best train journeys on offer in the UK.
This hotel on wheels has become a byword for luxury in train travel. The cabins, all en suite, are generously proportioned for a train carriage, but it is the quality of food and the pitch-perfect friendliness of staff that makes a journey on the Belmond Royal Scotsman such a pleasure.
The small galley kitchen produces refined dishes using the country’s produce wherever possible, and there is a good selection of malts to accompany a chat in the lounge car before or after dinner. The varied tours, from three to eight days, are designed to showcase the finest scenery Scotland has to offer, with some tours focusing on history, food and whisky. An open end-balcony on the rear coach helps photographers capture the sights.
The details: From £2,850 for the Taste of the Highlands itinerary (0845 077 2222; belmond.com)
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Britain’s busiest heritage railway runs through 24 miles of glorious countryside, much of it within the North York Moors National Park. Using a section of Network Rail, trains climb along the Esk Valley from the coast at Whitby to reach the North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s own tracks at the junction of Grosmont.
Engineered by George Stephenson himself, the railway traverses wooded country to the moorland village of Goathland, still remembered as the setting for the TV series Heartbeat. Some passengers break the journey here to walk into the village or explore the famous mile-long stretch of road – Roman or even earlier – across Wheeldale Moor. Leaflets suggest walks from the other intermediate stations before journey’s end at the market town of Pickering and its 13th-century castle.
The details: Whitby to Pickering return from £38 for adults; from £19 for children (01751 472508; nymr.co.uk)
The West Highland Railway traverses some of the wildest country crossed by a British railway line, connecting Glasgow with Fort William, though it’s the onward extension to Mallaig that is best known. The famous curving viaduct at Glenfinnan featured in four of the Harry Potter films, and the Jacobite steam trains that run to the fishing port from April to late October draw thousands to the area for its spectacular landscapes.
After a glimpse of the Caledonian Canal at Neptune’s Staircase – a flight of eight locks – the railway skirts Loch Eil and is soon running beside the sea. Cattle can sometimes be seen on the white sands near Morar with views over sea lochs to the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rum. Inland there is a panorama of mountains dotted with the stones of sheep pounds and crofters’ cottages. The new carriages of the Caledonian Sleeper from London, some with en suite showers and even a double bed, are the most romantic and relaxing way to reach Fort William.
The details: Jacobite, from £49 return (0844 850 4685; westcoastrailways.co.uk). Caledonian Sleeper, London to Fort William, from £205 for solo occupancy, £250 for double (0330 060 0500; sleeper.scot)
Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways
Both these narrow-gauge railways terminate at a shared station in Porthmadog and thread Snowdonia. The Welsh Highland Railway to within a stone’s throw of the castle at Caernarfon, and the Ffestiniog Railway to the slate-quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
The Ffestiniog Railway has numerous claims as to why it should go down in railway history – locomotive trials in 1870 attracted delegations from nine countries, including Russia and India – but it is the spectacular scenery that fills trains. These leave Porthmadog across the narrow Cob with the sea on one side and a mountain-backed polder on the other, before climbing to a unique spiral near the summit.
The scenic highlight of the Welsh Highland Railway is the passage through the Aberglaslyn Pass, though there isn’t a single dull moment in its 25 miles. The steep gradients of both lines call for special steam locomotives. The Ffestiniog Railway offers an observation car while the Welsh Highland Railway has two Pullman cars, one of them with an observation end (a supplement applies to all).
The details: Welsh Highland Railway from £70 for two, return; Ffestiniog Railway from £50 for two, return (01766 516000; festrail.co.uk)
Dartmouth Steam Railway
West Country resorts were the destination of hundreds of excursion trains during the summer months when everyone went on holiday by rail. The Dartmouth Steam Railway was once the route of the Torbay Express and now makes an end-on connection with Network Rail before continuing south to a terminus at Kingswear.
The line climbs from Paignton to give a panorama over Torbay before crossing a saddle in the hills to descend along the Dart Estuary to Kingswear, passing Agatha Christie’s holiday home at Greenway, now in the care of the National Trust. Various ticket options allow you to take the return journey by river cruise with a bus connection to complete the circuit between train and boat.
The details: £19 return (01803 555872; dartmouthrailriver.co.uk)
Southern’s trains to East Grinstead provide an easy way for Londoners to reach the Bluebell Railway whose station is a few minutes’ walk from the main-line platform. The 11-mile journey to Sheffield Park weaves through well-wooded Sussex countryside, carpeted with bluebells in spring.
Each of the four stations is restored to evoke a different period in the line’s 137-year history, and the quiet country junction of Horsted Keynes, with its small refreshment room on the island platform, is one of the most atmospheric of all heritage railway stations. Because it was the first standard-gauge heritage railway, opening in 1960, the Bluebell has a fine collection of vintage carriages, adding to the charm of the journey. Take a stroll to the National Trust gardens at Sheffield Park before returning.
The details: From £22 return (01825 720800; bluebell-railway.com)
Shrewsbury to Pwllheli/Aberystwyth
The railway serving the resorts of Cardigan Bay between Aberystwyth in the south and Pwllheli in the north meanders through central Wales and landscapes of rolling hills devoted to livestock farming or woodland. The two lines diverge at lonely Cyffordd Dyfi (Dovey Junction), accessible only by footpath. The southern route heads for the university town and a chance to take the Vale of Rheidol narrow-gauge railway to the well-known eponymous falls.
Gingerly edging along the cliffs above the sea, the northern line also provides connections to narrow-gauge railways – the Talyllyn Railway at Tywyn and the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways at Porthmadog. A highlight is the crossing of the Mawddach Estuary by the 1867 timber bridge near Barmouth, shared with cyclists and pedestrians.
The details: Shrewsbury to Pwllheli, from £24.70 return; Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, from £22.70 return (0333 3211 202; tfw.wales)
Royal Steam Windsor Express
Every Tuesday between May 24 and August 30, 2022, two steam-hauled departures leave London Victoria for Windsor, turning the heads of commuters as the train of Pullman style, first- and standard-class carriages winds through the London suburbs. Passengers enjoy brunch on their way to Windsor & Eton Riverside station. After spending as much time as you wish in the town redolent with royal history, return to London by the regular service to Waterloo (not included in cost).
The details: From £35 (01483 209888; royalwindsorsteamexpress.co.uk)
Cumbrian Coast (Lancaster to Carlisle)
The fastest way between Lancaster and Carlisle is the West Coast main line over Shap summit, but the slow-travel route via Barrow and Whitehaven provides long stretches of railway beside the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea. The West Coast main line is left at Carnforth station where Brief Encounter was filmed in 1945.
Long viaducts carry the railway across estuaries, and the landscapes bear few scars from the mining, steel and shipbuilding industries that once dominated the Furness peninsula. Past the firing range at Eskmeals is Ravenglass and the start of the delightful Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, a 15-inch gauge line used by many walkers as a way to reach the western fells. Beyond Whitehaven, one of England’s first planned towns, the railway turns inland through pleasant farming country to reach the border city of Carlisle.
The details: From £17 return (0800 200 6060; northernrailway.co.uk)