Train Travel: 10 Great Railway Journeys of Britain

snowdon-mountain-railway-great-train-journeys (Image: Bert Kaufmann; breathtaking train travel on the Snowdon Mountain Railway)

There’s a romance to train travel that no other form of transport has. Especially in a country like Britain, with its past so intimately connected to the railways, it can seem almost a national obsession. And with good reason: the UK has some of the most-beautiful lines in existence. Stretching out to all corners of the country, running over heather-covered moorland, through deep water estuaries, and across open fields, Britain’s scenic train journeys are a national treasure. Here are ten of the best:

Riviera Line (Devon, England)

Riviera-Line-great-train-journeys (Image: Phil Wakely; the Riviera Line offers breathtaking rail travel)

Gliding along the south coast of Devon, caught between cliff-wall and sea, winds one of Britain’s greatest railway journeys. The only route connecting Cornwall with the rest of the country, the Riviera Line is prone to flooding, breakdowns and even washing away. But it makes up for all these annoyances through its sheer, heart-stopping beauty.

From Exeter, the line tracks alongside the great estuary that leads into the ocean. On the distant far bank, small towns unroll through the windows; impossibly picturesque. The train journey is only just getting started. At the head of the estuary, it hits Dawlish Warren. After that, there’s almost nothing between the line and the sea. Travelling this route in the depths of winter means seeing heavy clouds scud across tumultuous and storm-lashed seas. In the summer, the light playing on the water is bright and magical enough to look like a Turner painting. The Riviera Line a short one – less than 30 miles – but the views will stay with you for a lifetime.

Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh (Ross and Cromarty, Scotland)

Kyle-of-Lochalsh-Line-great-train-journeys (Image: John Allan; the rugged beauty of the Kyle of Lochalsh Line)

Winding through the cold and desolate Scottish landscape, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line to Dingwall is a tribute to the raw beauty of northern Scotland. A two-carriage train makes its way through barren fields, across sunken reed beds and alongside deserted beaches. In the distance, the Isle of Skye looms through the mist, remote and haunting. In the unlikely event you get a carriage to yourself, it can feel like you’re riding a train through to the end of the world. This is nature at its untamed best.

The final terminal at Kyle of Lochalsh is likewise stunning. Looking out across the water toward the distant Skye, it feels like an invitation to further adventure. The train itself practically hits the water’s edge when it rolls to a stop, as if it too wants to continue the railway journey. Faced with such beauty, who can blame it?

The Settle-Carlisle Line (Yorkshire/Cumbria, England)

settle-carlisle-line-great-railway-journeys (Image: Ultra7; Settle-Carlisle Line’s magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct)

It may not have the near-mythic pull of Scotland, but the landscape of northern England is in its own way equally powerful. Anyone who disagrees should climb onboard the Settle-Carlisle Line immediately, and experience one of the UK’s most charming train journeys. Drifting across the dales and ploughing its way through the northern Pennines, the route is picture perfect. Twenty-one viaducts and 14 tunnels take the train through majestic, haunting landscapes – the sort of landscapes that could turn a navvy into a poet.

Speaking of navvies, the line is also a powerful monument to their history. Built by 6,000 men toiling in unspeakable conditions, it’s a reminder that sheer beauty sometimes comes at a human cost. The remains of a navvy camp can still be seen by Ribblehead Viaduct, just before arguably the great train journey’s most breath-taking point.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway (Gwynedd, Wales)

snowdon-mountain-railway-great-train-journeys-3 (Image: via Wikipedia; the scenic Snowdon Mountain Railway)

You have to hand it to the Victorians. If it was possible to do, then they would do it. Sometimes, they would even do the seemingly-impossible. The Snowdon Mountain Railway, opened in 1895, is one of the latter. Inching up the side of Wales’s highest mountain, it traverses steep ravines and scales heights that seem almost mythical.

snowdon-mountain-railway-great-train-journeys-2 (Image: Denis Egan; Summit Station on the spectacular Snowdon Mountain Railway)

The real miracle of the railway is that it continues to run at all. Now used exclusively for getting tourists up the mountainside, it could so easily have fallen into disuse long ago. Every year, ferocious winds and blizzards assault the line, always threatening to leave it inoperable the following spring. Keeping the Snowdon Mountain Railway open this long has taken dedication and a serious financial commitment. No-one could ever say it wasn’t worth it. As you rise ever-higher into the air and the glorious landscape of Wales unfurls about you, it can seem like you’re on a one-stop train journey to heaven itself.

Tamar Valley Line (Devon/Cornwall, England)

tamar-valley-line-great-railway-journeys (Image: Ben Harris; train travel on the Tamar Valley Line in South West England)

The dividing river between rolling, hilly Devon and the ancient, mystical kingdom of Cornwall, the Tamar is as important as the River Severn (if somewhat smaller). It’s also a place of unimaginable beauty. Fertile valleys, rocky coves, winding streams and old stone fishing villages can all be found along its shores. It also features one of the greatest wonders of Victorian engineering: Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge.

Built in 1859, the Royal Albert Bridge is Brunel’s final work, and one of his greatest. Twenty thousand people came to watch the construction of this iron miracle, towering 100ft above the water. Today, the trains between Devon and Cornwall still run across it. It is this small stretch that elevates the Tamar Valley Line to one of the greatest journeys in Britain.

From Plymouth, the train journey across the Tamar to Saltash takes no more than a minute. For that minute, though, you’re flying. The Tamar unwinds sinuously below, embracing the distant Cornish shores. Boats pass beneath, and on sunny days families still gather on both sides to watch the train make its historic journey. As the border-crossing between two of England’s most-beautiful counties, this can’t be missed.

Looe Valley Line (Cornwall, England)

looe-valley-line-great-railway-journeys (Image: Roger Geach; scenic rail travel on the Looe Valley Line)

The wild, sea-sprayed and fog-bound kingdom of Cornwall is a place of almost unnatural beauty. As such, it’s hard choosing a single line to represent it on our list. The Liskeard to Looe route may just clinch it, though. Winding less than nine miles along the Cornish coast, this great railway journey brings passengers closer to the azure water than any other line.

Running alongside the East Looe River, the train constantly seems on the verge of tipping over and falling in with an almighty splash. This feeling reaches its apotheosis at the estuary. The line detaches from the main bank and edges a few feet out into the water. At low-tide, this is hardly noticeable. At high tide, on the other hand, it feels like you’re driving out into the ocean.

Such dreamlike moments are the railway line’s stock-in-trade. Even when it swings inland, there are still valleys, woods and meadows to admire; showcasing some of the greatest scenery Cornwall has to offer.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway (North Yorkshire, England)

North-Yorkshire-Moors-Railway-great-train-journeys (Image: Julia; A4 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway)

A languid journey across the North Yorkshire moors? Sign us up. The historic Whitby to Pickering line runs through some of Northern England’s most jaw-dropping scenery. The area outside is one of the wildest in the whole of England, complete with the sort of barren, windblown landscapes that you half-expect to see Cathy and Heathcliff running over. At times the train curves through valleys surrounded on all sides by heather of a purple so deep it doesn’t seem real. At others it winds, as if lost, along the edges of tall forests seemingly abandoned by man many centuries ago.

It helps that North Yorkshire is one of the most-captivating places in the entire country. Up here the sky is a vast thing sweeping above you, while human beings seem to pale into insignificance. It’s a hard, poetic landscape. A train journey through this rugged countryside offers British rail travel at its very best.

The Brecon Mountain Railway (South Wales)

Brecon-Mountain-Railway-great-railway-journeys (Image: Pete Chapman; scenic train travel on the Brecon Mountain Railway)

The Brecon Beacons in Wales are a contradiction: rugged and bucolic, peaceful and awe-inspiring. Rising from dizzying highs to drop down into slumbering valleys, they’re grand and soothing all at once, with views that are among some of the best in Wales.

Cutting through the heart of this landscape – itself the heart of Wales – is the Brecon Mountain Railway. A short steam train ride along an old line closed down in the 1980s, the railway takes in some of the best sights the region has to offer. Sweeping through forests and alongside vast and shimmering reservoirs, it’s a splendid introduction to one of the UK’s most memorable landscapes.

The Tarka Line (Devon, England)

tarka-line-great-railway-journeys (Image: Geof Sheppard; scenic railways: the Tarka Line in Devon)

The main artery linking north and south Devon, the Tarka line has been operating since 1854. Originally it was known by a different name, but its route just happened to coincide with the home of one of children’s literature’s greatest characters: Tarka the Otter.

The train journey itself is one of the most-gentle on our list. Instead of grand, rugged landscapes and windswept mountains, it meanders peacefully through two lush valleys and alongside two of Devon’s most picturesque rivers: the Yeo and the Taw. Like a daydream, the railway slips between the mighty hills of Dartmoor and Bodmin without disturbing either. The landscape is green, slow and idyllic. The result is a great railway journey that’s wonderfully serene and peaceful; a perfect outing for a lazy summer’s day.

Fort William to Mallaig (West Highland Line, Scotland)

west-highland-line (Image: Alan Mitchell; the Mallaig train climbs onto Rannoch Moor)

If the Fort William to Mallaig line didn’t already exist, the Scottish tourist board would have to invent it. This is a route that regularly tops lists of the greatest railway journeys in the world. Part of the West Highland Line, the railway passes through countryside so barren and remote it almost seems as if man has yet to set foot there. At one point, the ground drops away and suddenly you’re on top of the Glenfinnan viaduct, careering past silent mountains; possibly the most-romantic moment on any train journey in history. Trust us when we say that last bit is not hyperbole.

glenfinnan-viaduct-great-railway-journeys (Image: Nicolas17; spectacular rail travel across the Glenfinnan Viaduct)

Although it’s the stretch from Fort William to Mallaig that could win prizes for beauty, the actual line carries on much further. The stretches of line coming out of Glasgow are also wonderful, but the opportunities go even further than that. It’s perfectly possible to board the sleeper train at London Euston station and wake up in the wild highlands of Scotland. From Fort William, the line to Mallaig awaits. As great railway journeys go, that one takes some beating.

Related – Travel the World’s Most Dangerous Railways (For Those Who Built Them)


About the author: Morris M




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