5 great railways unlocked
With travel hopefully resuming this summer there is a huge appetite out there to explore these islands. Whilst many will take to their cars, it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of keeping your eyes on the road ahead, why not sit back, relax, gaze at gorgeous scenery and let a train take you there. After months of disconnection here are five special rail journeys to help you reconnect.
The Cumbrian Coast Line
Okay, there is a caveat. Make sure you choose a kind weather day for this one. It just isn’t quite the same with Atlantic weather systems lashing the coast, but on a fine day the Cumbria Coast Line is one of England’s most remote and scenic rail journeys. Don’t expect speed either; it’s a local trundler stopping here, there and everywhere. I once joined in Millom in the early morning bright sunshine glow of late spring. Imagine the glistening sea to the left, the fells of the Lake District to the right as the train skirts the Irish Sea coast. At Ravenglass you can join a little steam excursion into the fells on ‘L’aal Ratty’, the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway. Then there’s the curio of Sellafield, with workers hopping on and off, the shock of human meddling interrupting the serene seascape of an otherwise untouched coast. End of the line is Carlisle, a good place to stop over and to maybe plot the following day’s trip on the Hadrian’s Wall Line?
Dartmouth Steam Railway
I would normally advise you to sit on either the left or right hand side of the carriage, but this one is impossible to call. A regular steam excursion, it is a journey of two very different halves. From Paignton the glorious views for the first half of the trip begin immediately on the left, with vast sandy Torbay beaches in view as you trundle above the charming, colourful beach huts of Goodrington Sands. After Greenway Halt things eventually switch from the coastal panoramas of the left to the glistening waters of the River Dart’s estuary on the right, with boats bobbing in the harbours and delightful Dartmouth just across the water. A short foot passenger ferry whisks you from Kingswear to Dartmouth itself for a well-earned cuppa or pint in the sunshine.
Belfast to Derry-Londonderry Line
Linking Northern Ireland’s fascinating big cities, this railway really gets exciting after Coleraine. Operated by Translink, you need to sit to the right of the train when travelling westwards, as the route skirts miles and miles of unspoilt coast. From Coleraine the line runs alongside the River Bann before passing through Castlerock and Downhill tunnels, the longest in Ireland. After the coastal village of Castlerock the track trundles alongside the empty golden sands of Benone Strand, with expansive views of beaches and waves crashing in from the Atlantic Ocean under big Irish skies.
Welsh Highland Railway
Caernarfon Castle is an impressive backdrop to the Welsh Highland Railway’s modern station, complete with a cool café and shop. You can watch the spectacle of the steam loco taking on water before readying itself for the ride. And what a ride! The Snowdonian scenery is so splendid and you can really understand why this steam railway has been described as one of the best in the world. Tunnels engineered through the mountains finally return us to the coast at Porthmadog. Home to the Welsh Highland Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway, Porthmadog’s station is so well equipped that it is pointless venturing far. The onsite pub provides a between trains local beer (you’re not driving, after all!), or a coffee and bara brith as both railways gear up for their next adventure up into the mountains.
The West Highland Line
Last, but not least, my favourite of them all. Everyone raves about the final part of this line, the Glenfinnan Viaduct, Harry Potter and the superb Jacobite Steam Train. But they miss the best bit! The West Highland Line between Glasgow to Fort William has it all. Leaving Queen Street the first section is dominated by water. The Firth of Clyde provides the first sea views, followed by Gareloch and a journey along the eastern shore of Loch Long. Catch glimpses of Loch Lomond’s bonnie northern banks before heading into the wild western Highlands. Rannoch Moor, where the track floats on peat boglands across high heather moorland, is a scene so remote from our existence that no roads lead here. Deer scamper into the distance at the intrusion of human life. The track then follows a vastly different and wilder route to the road. We tick off Corrour, the highest altitude station in the UK before journey’s end at Fort William, nestled beneath Ben Nevis. This is the journey that leaves me dreaming. Dreaming that someone might hook a panoramic carriage onto the train like they do in Switzerland, with windows stretching to the sky, haggis, neeps and tatties served to your table and a wee dram of single malt to finish as Ben Nevis lunges into view. Think ‘Glacier Express’. Then imagine ‘Glenfinnan Express’. How could it be anything other than a roaring success?! Maybe I am just Caledonia Dreaming.......