We live in an age of time zone jumping super-speed air travel, where we can zip from one side of the globe to the other in the space of a day at most. But still nothing beats the romance of the trains, yesteryear’s transportation of choice – and all the better if it’s a near extinct route that you’re tracing, or just a particularly scenic section of track. Though the UK’s railway infrastructure was largely dismantled in the 1960s, Britain still has its fair share of less than ordinary journeys.
The Looe Valley Branch Line
The small fishing town of Looe in England, in southeast Cornwall, is connected to the mainline rail network by a small branch line with just one track. After whizzing down from London, past Plymouth and towards Liskeard, the pace of things quickly slows down as trees brush past the windows, sheep appear outside and the single carriage – two in the peak summer season, if you’re lucky – inches its way towards the sea, a nine mile trip that takes around a half hour.
Even those who consider themselves train buffs are in for a surprise on this line, as it uniquely turns back on itself half way. Following one set of track out from Liskeard, the train then pulls in at probably one of the country’s quietest stations, Coombe Junction Halt – as few as 32 passengers use it each year – and the conductor climbs down from the train to change the points on the track. The driver leaves his cab at one end of the carriage and walks to the other, the conductor climbs back on and the train gets on the move again – headed to Looe, but leaving plenty of passengers thinking they’ve missed their stop and are already on their return trip back to Liskeard.
The journey traces the local river through the valley to its mouth at Looe, and there is plenty to see en route in the way of nature and secluded countryside hamlets whose stations – there are more intermediate stops in all – barely see a few visitors a day. For more than a window view, jump off at any of the stations and take a wander between them, hopping back on the train when you’ve done enough walking. Services run at up to roughly hourly intervals, though there can be significant gaps at times – and all of the stations in between Liskeard and Looe are request stops, so be sure to let the conductor know promptly if you want to get off, and likewise put your hand out to flag down the train at a station!
One or two pubs dot the line if some refreshment is in order, and the wishing well and Magnificent Music Machines museum are worth a look and easily accessible from St Keyne station. Duloe Stone Circle, the smallest in Cornwall, is five miles from Looe – signposted from the road, it can be reached from Sandplace station.
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The St Ives Bay Line
Artsy St Ives, set just twenty miles from Britain’s most extreme westerly point at Land’s End, is worth a visit in itself and has been frequently awarded the title of the UK’s best seaside town. As well as independent galleries and museums, it is home to Tate St Ives, linked to the two Tate galleries in London. Cafés, coffee shops and a great food scene sit alongside captivating coastal scenery at one of Cornwall’s most naturally beautiful spots. But arriving by car loses you the chance to appreciate the town’s most stunning view of all – the one you catch as your train approaches its terminal station on the St Ives Bay Line.
Connecting with the mainline at St Erth station, this picturesque line is particularly popular with tourists in the peak summer season, but also provides a lifeline to locals reliant on public transport. With just one track, the St Ives Bay Line has been named as one of the most picturesque routes in England. Running along the Hayle river estuary and the sea coast, the line snakes past Lelant Saltings before climbing onto sand dunes on St Ives Bay – the pedestrian South West Coast Path then crosses the railway track and continues close by for the rest of the journey to St Ives. At Hawkes Point the track climbs onto steep cliffs about one hundred feet above sea level, before turning around the headland and continuing across the viaduct for that killer view across Carbis Bay. As it emerges from the cliffs at Porthminster Point, the train descends to St Ives station, just above Porthminster Beach for access to St Ives town.
In St Ives, a visit to Blas Burgerworks is a must for simply awesome food made with local ingredients. Train experts also give the thumbs up to the buffet café at St Erth station – perhaps one for the return trip. Local enthusiasts looking to take over the running of St Earth station, who have plans to reintroduce steam trains on the lines, also want to add a vintage dining car to the mainline station.
Paddington to Gerrards Cross
A trip from Buckinghamshire into central London may sound like humdrum commuter rather than intrepid adventure territory, but it is the doorway to a fascinating insight into the eccentric operations of the British railway system. While every other train from Gerrards Cross to the capital arrives at Marylebone station after its the twenty-odd-minute journey, one a day pulls in at Paddington, a nod to a bygone era when this was the usual route.
The 10.44 departure from Gerrards Cross, which has only recently replaced the 11.36 departure from Paddington in the opposite direction, takes a rather longer 48 minutes to reach Paddington. These services, run on weekdays with just two members of staff – a driver and a conductor – and often no passengers, are run at deliberately inconvenient times of day and often without a viable return journey to allow travelers to get home afterwards. Instead, these so-called ‘parliamentary’ or ‘ghost’ trains are run to allow railway companies to keep within the letter of the law and maintain the minimum legally required service that saves them from the costly procedure of formally having the line closed down. The likely public reaction to the sensitive issue of governments axing railway services is another disincentive.
It’s easy enough to buy a ticket for this kind of ticket online, though you’ll need to know what you’re looking for as booking web sites will do their best to point you towards the quicker route from the regular station. Try and book at the station, however, and you may have more trouble – but you generally have the right to buy a ticket for all available routes, so if you’re dead set on taking the track less trodden, persevere and you should get there. Other oddities on the network include a Stockport to Stalybridge service that leaves once a week at 9.22am on Fridays only, again for a one-way trip.
Runcorn station receives only one train a week, from Frodsham on a Saturday – and that’s only in the summer! Other stations are accessible in one direction only, or even none at all, because footbridges have been removed and never replaced. Between Manchester and Brighton, a semi-secret ‘replacement’ bus replaces part of the journey to make believe that a direct train service still exists. And Newhaven Marine station is technically open and served by one daily train, but in reality it is behind a locked fence and passengers are forbidden to get on the train, which is deliberately missing from timetables. The train operator will put any passenger with a ticket into a taxi – but it’s impossible to buy a ticket for this route anyway.
The Far North Line
Scotland’s Far North Line, which runs from Inverness to Wick, takes in both Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland, and one of the UK’s most isolated railway stations at Altnabreac, a small settlement comprising the station, a school and a couple of scattered houses, all of which can be reached only by train or by unsurfaced paths from the main road network many miles away. The Far North Line only survived closure as part of cutbacks in the 1960s due to public pressure; it had been earmarked for withdrawal and, had that gone ahead, there would have been no rail service north of Inverness.
The line, entirely in the Scottish Highlands, connects at Inverness with trains to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, making this picturesque route an easy – if time-consuming – one to combine with a trip around Scotland. A ferry service from Thurso also links the town with the seventy-strong archipelago of Orkney islands some ten miles from the mainland coast, of which twenty islands are inhabited.
Four return trips run daily, each one giving you four and a half hours to take in the scenery. In places the railway, which linked many of the area’s coastal settlements prior to the development of today’s roads, is almost on the shore, where the track runs along the raised beaches left behind after the last ice age. Snaking inland and out again, trains used to divide at Georgemas, the third last station on the route, with one half heading to Thurso and one half to Wick. Nowadays, in a practice like the Looe Valley branch line train in Cornwall, trains run to Georgemas and then reverse back to Thurso before returning through Georgemas a second time on their way to Wick – another trick to confuse first-time travelers!
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The West Highland Line
Often touted as Britain’s most scenic railway journey, or even the best railway journey in the world, this line isn’t the country’s northernmost but it is certainly famous in its own right. It has frequently beaten even the Trans-Siberian and Cuzco to Machu Picchu lines to take the top beauty accolades. Linking the western ports of Mallaig and Oban – the latter known for its whisky production – to the city of Glasgow, this is in fact a journey that can start as centrally as London’s Euston station thanks to the overnight Caledonian Sleeper service. Whiz out at high speed from the capital in the late evening and wake up to the twists and turns of a Scottish branch line the following morning, down a single track as oak trees, brooks and deer pass by the window of your sleeper berth.
From the capital, this makes for an easy way to take a weekend getaway in the highlands without the need to fly. Yet even from within Scotland, it is a fantastically picturesque way to see the landscape in a way not otherwise possible. From the ‘horseshoe curve’ of track maneuvers to navigate around mountains where the money wasn’t available to build a viaduct across a valley at the time of construction, to crossing peat bogs with snow visible on the distant mountaintops, the West Highland Line offers extremities of beauty viewed from the train tracks. The line’s summit is 1,350 feet above sea level at Corrour, but the line continues to trail gorges and lochs all the way to Fort William station, itself just a ten-minute walk from the bottom of the famous track up Ben Nevis.
At Fort William it is easy to continue on further on this stunning line, heading another ninety minutes to the end of the track at Maillig. With views en route of Ben Nevis and the ‘Neptune’s Staircase’ series of locks to raise boats to a higher level on Loch Eil, you can also catch Loch Eilt with its islands of stranded trees. An abandoned church left disused since 1964 and sandy beaches near Britain’s most westerly railway station are also waiting to be glimpsed. The railway journey might end at Maillig, but even there you can catch the ferry further afield to the offshore isles of Skye, Muck, Eigg and Rum.
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- Chris Wotton