It seems that the art of slow rail travel in the UK is long lost amongst the pushing and the shoving of the busiest train lines in the country on the morning commutes. But have you ever stopped to think while you’ve been herded into a sweaty tube, just what it would be like to sit and watch? To enjoy the journey as much as the destination, you need to sit back, relax and let the glorious countryside roll out before you.
There’s no need to break the bank whilst embarking on a great rail journey – the Orient Express, Trans Siberian and Switzerland’s breathtaking Glacier Express are all trips of epic proportions and incredible feats of engineering, but the home of the steam engine has some equally beautiful, if understated, rail routes. We’ve put together our shortlist of the UK’s three most romantic, picturesque and grand routes, and all you need to do is buy a train ticket and let the world pass you by.
Leeds – Carlisle
Starting in Leeds, you’ll slowly trundle through Airedale and the towns of Shipley and Saltaire, past the old Salts Mill, museums and rolling hills, on through Keighley and into Skipton. From here, you’ll start a gradual 15 mile climb to Settle, where the magic begins to unfold and you’ll be engulfed by a narrow valley.
Heading into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, where the hills rumble and fields are patchworked and stitched in bright, mismatching colours, you’ll do well if you can bear to prise your eyes away from the landscape and into the sky where paragliders soar and clouds bulge with darkened bellies. You’ll catch glimpses of two of the three peaks – Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough – before reaching this rail routes most famous and magnificent landmark, the 24 arched Ribblehead Viaduct.
From here you’ll go through the Blea Moor Tunnel and across another incredible legacy of human engineering and hard work – the Dent Head Viaduct. After going through the UK’s highest train station at Dent, you leave the Yorkshire Dales National Park, head through Cumbria and plunge into the Eden Valley and onto your final destination of Carlisle.
Exeter – Penzance
At the other end of the country, in the south-west region famous for cider and cream teas, take the slow option to the end of the line. Starting at Exeter, you are at the gateway of one of the most scenic rail-routes in the country – for the best views, sit on the left to feel the full impact of the sparkling Exe Estuary, its mile-wide mud flats and many oystercatchers. Spare a second for the right hand side too, Powderham Castle and its sweeping green space dotted with deer is often missed with the spreading coast on the other side.
It’s not long before you’re dipping in and out of red cliffs, over secluded beaches and brushing the waves of the Dawlish coast, before speeding over the Tamar on one of Brunel’s famous landmarks and being welcomed into Cornwall in the local language; Kernow a’gas dynnergh.
Your journey now passes through woodlands and moors, a time-warp of train stations from the 1940s and sleeping Cornish villages. The spires of Truro Cathedral poking out above the trees signifies a change of scenery to post-industrial mines, stone monuments on top of imposing hills and St Michael’s Mount just off the shore as you crawl to your destination along the South West Coast Path in Penzance.
Darlington – Edinburgh
We’re heading north again to travel along one the UK’s most rugged and weather-beaten routes on the East Coast Mainline. Hop on a train in Darlington and let the wild countryside of the north take over your views. It’s not long before the Romanesque architecture of Durham Cathedral dominates your view from your window before quickly juxtaposing to the Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, bursting over the Tyne and finding yourself hugging a dramatic coastline that shows no mercy.
Passing over the North Sea and its temperamental mood swings, you’ll soon pass by the castle-topped tidal island of Lindisfarne – or Holy Island – known for its spiritual past, religious heritage and striking architecture. As you come up to the gateway town of Berwick, you’ll see the Tweed estuary twinned with an overwhelmingly barren, yet beautiful landscape.
Coming into Edinburgh sees you clinging onto the cliffs once more, with the crashing tides right below you – you’d hardly think you were minutes away from cobbled streets, rowdy pubs with bloody literary pasts and underground vaults teeming with ghosts and strange goings on.
So what are you waiting for? The whole country is a mere click away from a cheap train ticket from CrossCountry – and with castles, crashing coastlines and spectacular countryside awaiting, we don’t know why we’d ever bother with the morning commute again.