There is no better way to travel across the British Isles than by train. A rail network has existed in some form in the UK since the early 19th century, and is still an enduringly popular way to travel. During the peak of rail travel in the early 20th century, nearly every town in the country had its own station, and although the branches of the country’s service have been scaled back during the past 50 years, there are still a number of small lines which make exceptional journeys.
The Road To The Isles (Glasgow to Fort William to Mallaig)
The West Highlands is regarded as one of the most breathtaking views in the country, and the part-mountain, part-coastal rail route is possibly the most beautiful in Britain. This route is the second part of the famous Highland Sleeper, which runs from Euston to Mallaig overnight. Many points on this journey are iconic in their own right- the grand Glenfinnan Viaduct, near Loch Shiel, is known throughout the world thanks to appearances in various films and television shows. A variety of wildlife can be spotted from train-level on good days, including deer, eagles and numerous seabirds.
Settle to Carlisle
Completed in 1876, the line connecting Yorkshire and Cumbria was constructed with two intentions- to bring resources down into the English industrial heartland, but also to open up tourism to the area that would eventually become the Lake District. It was also the last main railway line to be constructed in the country. Passing through the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the 72-mile Settle-Carlisle track travels over hills and moorland, taking in all manner of unspoiled scenery, before reaching the Lakes. Perfect for those wishing to explore both National Parks within one day.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Another railway nestled within amazing scenery; the Grosmont-Pickering line within the North York Moors is like stepping back in time- fully operational steam engines plough their way from Grosmont to the town of Pickering. Every element of the journey is authentically dated, from Grosmont’s 1950s-style station, to Levisham’s stylised version of the 1910s and 20s. Alternatively, enjoy a cream tea inside Pickering stations traditional tearoom. The area surrounding the route is perfect for walking or cycling.
The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway resembles something from Reverend Awdry’s The Railway Series, but this route, which starts in the market town of Welshpool, before heading up through the mountains, with views of nearby Powis Castle. After the steep Golfa Bank, the train makes its way though woodland, into the beautiful Banwy Valley, wherein all manner of wildlife can be seen from the carriages, such as deer, otters, and a wide variety of birds. At the destination, departures can enjoy traditional cream tea, in the delightful and popular tearoom, which is open to visitors across the year. Two of the engines were given to the railway in 1902, and have remained in use ever since.
Cambrian Line (Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth/Pwllheli)
Passing between England and Wales, the Cambrian rail line is possibly the finest way to travel across Cardigan Bay. Welsh history is all of its glory can be seen from this route- castles, churches and fishing villages, as well as mountains and valleys. The line splits between two halves- the ‘country’ line, which travels to Aberystwyth, and the longer ‘coast’ line which terminates at Pwllheli. Both of these lines offer outstanding scenery and are worth taking the journey, particularly on the ‘coast’ line.
Exeter to Penzance
The line between Exeter and Penzance- part of the main route connecting the south-west with the rest of the country, the Great Western Main Line- is a fairly busy route that partially follows the coast via a series of tunnels, bored through the cliff faces. The line that runs from Exeter to Newton Abbot in particular contains spectacular examples of engineering, alternating between covered-in and sea-facing sections.
Hope Valley Line (Manchester to Sheffield)
Cutting through the Peak District, the line between the industrial powerhouses of Manchester and Sheffield was built in 1894, with the intention of bridging the two together, along with a direct line to London. This line passes through the undulating hills of ‘Britain’s backbone’- the Pennines- with amazing views of the Derbyshire surroundings- and winds its way through one of the country’s most popular National Parks. While still a commuter route, the Hope Valley line enjoys the additional influx of tourism, with stops throughout the route in small, timeless towns and villages located on the boarder with the park.
Isle of Wight railway (Ryde to Shanklin)
The rail service across the Isle of Wight, while relatively small and simple, is one of the smallest lines in the British Isles which uses both electricity and steam power. This line is fairly short- around 5 ½ miles, but passes through some of the prettiest, unspoiled land on the island. Most of the carriages used on the line is ex-London Underground rolling stock, repainted – a true mish-mash of places and times.
A rather odd line- running from Liskeard to Looe in Cornwall, this train route is rather small but complex- a curiosity in the modern times- with changes in direction and start-stop movements. However, the railway itself covers a very picturesque corner of Britain, most notably on the 45m tall Moorswater Viaduct. A rail oddity exists on the line, which is of great interest to enthusiasts- Coombe Junction Halt, one of only two stations bearing the suffix ‘halt’ (both of which are on this line) is unusual in the aspect that trains have to reverse into this station, having hit a junction a little farther up the line.
Edinburgh to Dundee
Similar to the aforementioned West Highland line, the east coast mainline from Edinburgh to Dundee is rather special because of one aspect- the Forth Bridge. This marvel of Victorian engineering is an iconic structure, known across the world, and by far the best way to experience this is aboard the train.
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