From Dundee to Penzance: Not being someone who can resist a challenge, Brian Jenkins climbed aboard Britain's longest train ride

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The Independent Culture
YOU'VE got to be quite keen to be prepared to spend 12 hours on a train going somewhere you really don't want to go. But that's what we were doing as we left Dundee one grey, wet, spring morning. With any luck, 12 hours, 20 counties, and 689 miles later, we would be in Penzance, which is the furthest you can travel in Britain without changing trains.

No sooner had we left Dundee than we were crossing the river Tay. The stumps of the first bridge still stick up out of the water, a reminder of the disaster in 1879. The replacement, which opened eight years later, is Europe's longest rail bridge. To commemorate its opening William McGonagall wrote:

'. . . as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,

Because thou art the greatest railway bridge of the present day.'

As he wrote these words, the greatest railway bridge of all time was being built 35 miles away, across the Firth of Forth.

'The Cornishman' has the distinction of being the only regularly scheduled passenger train to cross Britain's four most famous railway bridges. While the Tay Bridge reminds travellers of the failings of engineers, the magnificent Forth Bridge, opened in 1890, stands as a monument to Scottish engineers.

The train picked up speed as we left misty Edinburgh behind. We passed through the wooded hills of the Borders, and then suddenly the hills fell away, and we were looking straight down on to a rocky cove and harbour. It was nearly 9am, and as we had already been travelling for two hours, we decided it was time for breakfast.

'The Cornishman' is run by Intercity Cross Country, which provides a special service - Voyager - for people travelling very long distances; they get a special compartment, an unlimited supply of complimentary tea and coffee and two free meals.

Unfortunately, they do not have a proper kitchen on board, so our breakfasts had been microwaved, but they were served on a china plate. We tucked into our breakfast and enjoyed the views of the dramatic coastline.

At Berwick-upon-Tweed we crossed the third great bridge. The Royal Border Bridge with its 28 stone arches, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1850. Despite the name, the border actually lies a couple of miles to the north.

The scenery between Newcastle and Birmingham is not terribly exciting, and the train passes some fairly ugly run-down industrial areas. At Derby, an elderly woman with a walking-stick and two large cases was waiting to board. A female platform-attendant came to her rescue, carried the cases aboard and saw her to her seat. It seems that they have reinvented porters, but given them a new uniform and called them Customer Welcome Hosts.

The dull scenery culminates in Birmingham. We were on time, nearly six and a half hours into the journey, having covered 393 miles. We were bearing up well, considering we were awash with complimentary tea. Would we make the remaining 296 miles without bursting?

Soon we were out of Birmingham and speeding down the Severn Valley and through the Vale of Gloucester, towards Bristol. The countryside was bathed in spring sunshine. After Exeter, we saw the sea for the first time since Northumberland. The weather had changed, a strong easterly wind was blowing and spray spattered the windows as we covered what must be the most photographed stretch of railway in the country. From Dawlish to Teignmouth, the line follows the sea-wall, to one side the beach and the sea, to the other the red cliffs.

Brunel originally built this stretch as an atmospheric railway. There were no locomotives, but there was a long pipe between the rails. The trains were connected to a piston in the pipe and were then sucked along. Brunel saw this as the propulsion system of the future, but he could not make it work properly, and the system was ripped out after less than a year.

We entered Cornwall over another of Brunel's less-than-successful efforts, the Royal Albert Bridge. The two spans of 455ft were built to cross the Tamar high enough to allow the Navy's ships to pass beneath. Unfortunately, the unusual design was so expensive, they built it single-track to save money, and so it became a bottleneck on the main line into Cornwall.

By now there were were few passengers aboard. Progress was slow, the 80 miles from Plymouth to Penzance taking two hours. But the line was breathtaking. One minute we would be passing through a cutting, the next we would seem to be gliding high above a steep-sided wooded valley, as we crossed one of the numerous viaducts.

'The Cornishman' had taken us through a large portion of Scotland, and from the most northerly point in England, to very nearly the most southerly. But it hadn't been a terribly exciting journey.

We had experienced rain, sun, mist and gales. We also seemed to have passed between seasons; in Dundee the daffodils were just blooming, in Cornwall they had already faded.

We knew the journey was coming to an end when we saw St Michael's Mount through the mist. The sea was being whipped up by the strong wind, and great waves were crashing on the shore. Then we arrived at Penzance, two minutes early.

Wearily, we stepped on to the platform, the mild air was filled with spray. The stewards were unloading the remains of the food and drink. They had been on their feet the whole time, but had managed to remain cheerful. Tomorrow they would be working 'The Cornishman' back north. Much as we'd enjoyed taking Britain's longest through-train, it was not an experience we wished to repeat quite so soon.

(Photograph omitted)