A dark, crisp October morning greets the 07.06 Paddington to Paignton express as it rolls out from its buffers and begins its journey westwards. I'm ensconced at a window seat, steaming cup of tea in hand, setting off on a rail journey around the UK.
On the table in front of me is a rail map and, awaiting the arrival of the inspector, my ticket. But this is no ordinary ticket; this is the Rail Rover. It is the only rail ticket in the country with an option that has not increased in price for almost eight years. The 14-day Rail Rover last went up in 2004 (the seven-day version last increased in 2008), and, fantastically, it will allow me to travel on almost every single train in the country.
The National Rail Rover is one of the railway industry's hidden secrets. For £650, or £429 with a railcard (or £429 for a seven-day pass, £284 with a railcard), anyone can walk up and buy a ticket that allows them to travel the length and breadth of the entire country. Given that a walk-up fare from Penzance to Inverness is £215, the Rail Rover can, if used extensively, represent monumental savings. Of course, to buy one, it's not a bad idea to find out first if you like travelling on trains, or at least that you will appreciate the places you can reach on them. And the Great Western line down to Penzance, for this train lover, doesn't disappoint on either score.
It's only the start of a relaxing ride as I pass Reading for Pewsey. There, a soft and bewitching sunrise beams its way through a blanket of mist, lighting up flocks of Canada geese, herds of roe deer and the bright colours of autumn. The soft green tones of the West Country come into view as the train sweeps past the Westbury White Horse and on to Taunton and the Somerset Levels.
My final destination today isn't Paignton but Penzance, and what I consider the starting point of my first main journey. From the western tip of Cornwall I will then head back east and northwards, through Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness, all the way to the northernmost point on the UK rail network, Thurso. But first comes the Dawlish Sea Wall.
The line from Exeter to Newton Abbot is considered to be one of the most spectacular in the entire UK. The gorgeous, clear sunshine drenching the vast estuary of the Exe is only the start as the train heads past Teignmouth and arrives at the famous Dawlish Sea Wall, a four-mile stretch of railway where the line cuts its way through sea cliffs as it hugs the contours of the coast, the English Channel a mere breath away. Today, as my train slips by, the sea is a serene pond, framed by azure skies and rocky outcrops. Never mind late-autumn Devon, I could be on the French Riviera.
A change at Newton Abbot and I am firmly Penzance-bound, the expanse of Dartmoor brooding to the north, while Plymouth brings sightings of the naval docks and the Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar. From there the train twists and rolls its way through Cornwall, passing remnants of abandoned tin mines, until it sweeps its way along the edge of a sandy beach, passing St Michael's Mount and into Penzance.
I have just enough time to grab a Cornish pasty and a cup of tea before I'm back on another train heading eastwards. A few hours later and we pull into Taunton where I'll spend the night with family.
One of the best things about travelling with a National Rail Rover is the sense of freedom it gives you. You can change plans at the drop of a hat, climb off one train and on to another without any restrictions. So, starting my day an hour later than planned is no problem as I climb aboard the 07.51 Glasgow service at Taunton station.
The journey now shifts through the geographical gears of the entire UK as I pass the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol, the Malvern Hills near Cheltenham and the vast sprawl of Birmingham. The accents of the other passengers change from soft burrs to elongated vowels, from West Country to Black Country to Yorkshire and Geordie. Huge cooling towers in the Midlands, the twisted spire at Chesterfield and the forlorn empty industrial wastelands of Sheffield pass by, then Durham Cathedral and the dramatic entrance over the Tyne and into Newcastle. As the train carries on northbound, the track once again hugs the coastline, passing Holy Island and on to dramatic cliffs north of Berwick, the North Sea roaring below. I change at Edinburgh, the castle looming overhead, to head over the mighty Forth and Tay railway bridges, spectacular Victorian engineering, boiling seas and the distant Highlands brought together in one majestic tableau.
There's more mixing of urban grit and cliff-top drama as the train ploughs through Dundee and northwards until I reach Aberdeen and another overnight stop. This time there's no family to lodge with, so I indulge in the luxury of the city's Malmaison Hotel.
The morning brings a huge breakfast and the train to Inverness – the Scottish scenery becoming more spectacular with each click of the rails. But it is north of Inverness on the last leg of my Thurso-bound journey where the grand theatre of the British landscape reaches its apogee. First come the giant oil rigs of the Cromarty Firth, lit up like sci-fi Christmas trees, then mammoth sweeping hills that rise into sold granite mountains before the track settles once again along a coastal stretch. There is none of the gentle splendour of the Dawlish Sea Wall here, just a raw blast of pebbled beach and jagged rock, huge foaming waves crashing mere feet away. Then swinging back inland, the railway covers a vast empty space, remote and desolate, before trundling into a tiny shed of a station at Thurso.
I grab a quick lunch, leave Thurso on the next Inverness-bound train, and arrive into the warm embrace of the Royal Highland Hotel, located just outside Inverness station. I'm only on day three of my UK-wide travels, and already I've covered toe to tip of the British Isles, absorbing the urban and rural terrains of our diverse and complex little island, all from the comfort of a railway carriage. I'm also not sure exactly where I'm headed the next day, and only know it will be southbound. My only decision come morning will be which route to take.
The Carlisle and Settle line is thought by many to be England's finest, running through the untamed countryside and hills of the Yorkshire Dales and Northern Pennines. The Ribblehead railway viaduct, cast beneath brooding hills, is a particular highlight. A ride on the Virgin Pendolino as it sweeps its way north through valleys and past the hills of the Lake District on the West Coast Mainline north of Lancaster is an unforgettable experience.The Hope Valley line, which runs from Sheffield to Manchester, passes through some of the most spectacular landscapes of the Peak District. While the Esk Valley line, running from gritty Middlesbrough to breezy Whitby, passes over the North Yorkshire Moors.
The East Coast route from Berwick to Aberdeen through Edinburgh is a spectacular journey, with coastal runs and the dramatic crossings of the Tay and Forth railway bridges. The Northern Highlands' routes out of Inverness to Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh are spectacular, with the latter perhaps just shading it in terms of delivering sublime Highland beauty – though it lacks the raw, wild feel of the Thurso line. The West Highland Railway from Glasgow to Mallaig is considered by some aficianados to be one of the most scenic railway routes on Earth. It certainly passes through some particularly spellbinding scenery, skirting Loch Lomond, before heading off through the western Highlands over Rannoch Moor, passing under Ben Nevis, and on to Mallaig with views of the Isle of Skye.
The Heart of Wales line runs through the remotest areas of central Wales, from Swansea to Shrewsbury, taking in forests and majestic hills. Head from Shrewsbury to Pwllheli on the Cambrian Coast line and you'll travel along the rugged Welsh shoreline, passing Portmeirion – setting for the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner – before arriving on the Llyn Peninsula. Other Welsh highlights include the Conwy line from, Llandudno to Blaenau, which takes you into the heart of Snowdonia, and the South West Wales Railway, from Swansea to Haverfordwest and Fishguard.
Southern and Central England
The Great Western line from London to Penzance is a highlight. But if you have time, the branch lines that run from Exeter to Barnstaple, Par to Newquay, and St Erth to St Ives are also exceptional, giving glimpses into untouched corners of the West Country.
The Marshlink line, from Ashford to Hastings across Romney Marsh, provides swathes of light and space, while the Bitterne line, from Norwich to Cromer and Sheringham, takes travellers through the Norfolk Broads and on to the East Anglia coastline.
How to get there
A National Rail Rover is available from any UK ticket office. A seven-day standard-class fare costs £429, £650 in first class. A 14-day standard class fare costs £650, or £990 in first class. Some restrictions apply on Virgin, East Coast, East Midlands, and Cross Country services before 10am, when alighting at certain stations. See nationalrail.co.uk for full details. Malmaison Aberdeen (01224 327370; malmaison.com) offers double rooms from £99 per night. The Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness, (01463 231926; royalhighlandhotel.co.uk) has doubles from £82 per night.