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News & Advice

Simon Calder: Don't take the 5.06 for an early Bath

The man who pays his way

As September slides into October, the traveller turns away from European beaches towards the next city break – whether the culinary delights of Lyon (see 48 Hours on pages 10-11) or somewhere closer, such as the fine city of Bath. Accordingly, First Great Western has produced a poster showing a couple in the rooftop pool of Thermae Bath Spa, soaking up the sights as the slowly sinking sun highlights the city skyline.

"I'm drowning in paperwork," puns the strapline. "Until I board the 5.06 to Bath."

Anyone seeking to emulate the couple had better not board the 5.06 to Bath. This early-evening train from Paddington does indeed go to Bath, but why anyone would ever take it to visit the spa city for an indulgent weekend is a mystery. Most trains from London to Bath stop three or four times en route. This departure stops 11 times, starting with a pause at Twyford to drop off commuters heading for Henley via the branch line. Then, after the customary stop at Reading, the 5.06 veers off the fast track to Bath to follow the Exeter line. The Bath-bound passengers who missed the 5pm may curse those six expensive minutes as they pause at Theale and Thatcham, then wend through Wiltshire via Pewsey, Trowbridge and Bradford-on-Avon. Had they cooled their heels at Paddington and caught the 5.30pm they would have overtaken the rustically roaming 5.06, and arrived almost half an hour earlier.

The train operator's bizarre choice of departure made me wonder about other strange UK train services. With the help of the Thomas Cook timetable compilers in their Peterborough office, I have dug out a new top three weird train trips.

The indirect route

In third place, a Cross Country train that lives up to its name, taking in an astonishing amount of ground considering it covers a straight-line distance of only 120 miles. Next time you are awake at 7.10am, spare a moment to visualise the start of a train journey that combines Birmingham University with Cambridge, connects the cathedral cities of Gloucester, Peterborough and Ely, links the Cotswolds with Rutland, and ends at Britain's fourth-busiest airport. All courtesy of the daily Gloucester to Stansted airport service on which the end-to-end fare is a flat £100.

The favourite of the Thomas Cook team is nothing short of a human geography field trip in three and a bit hours. Start in Buxton, the highest town in England, at 3.32pm any weekday, and the only departure on the board is for Barrow-in-Furness. The Northern Rail journey unwinds through the Peak District. It sweeps through the battlefields of the Industrial Revolution – Manchester, Bolton, the Ribble Valley – and doffs its cap at Carnforth, iconic station location for the film Brief Encounter. The finale is most spectacular: it winds around Morecambe Bay, across estuaries that defeat mere roads, with tantalising views of the Cumbrian mountains before ending at what is popularly called the biggest cul-de-sac in the country.

Long gone

For me, Britain's strangest scheduled train trip is also its longest: the 8.20am from Aberdeen to Penzance – again, run by Cross Country – though cross countries would be more accurate. Even National Rail Enquiries suggests that anyone on Deeside seeking a breakfast-time departure for the bitter end of Cornwall should take the Penzance train but change three times – at Edinburgh Haymarket, Wolverhampton and Birmingham – in order to reach Penzance 50 minutes earlier. If you arrive a few minutes late at the station, never mind: you can join the train at Birmingham by taking the 8.42am from Aberdeen to Glasgow Queen Street, then a bus through the city centre, and a train to Birmingham. You can even catch up with it if you fly out of Aberdeen shortly after 2pm, thanks to Flybe's non-stop hop to Birmingham. That's because the 8.20 make good progress to Edinburgh, but then goes off the rails, so to speak. As with the other two candidates, no one is really expected to make the whole trip, but it helps to provide a large number of shorter sectors.

Instead of heading south-west, the Cross Country goes east before turning south, calling at Berwick-upon-Tweed and Burton-on-Trent on its 800-minute journey. Historians will note that it combines the ancient kingdoms of Fife and Wessex while aesthetes will appreciate the chance to cross the Tay, the Forth, the Tyne and the Tamar and see the waves break against the shores of Northumberland and South Devon, all without leaving your seat.