Life is a journey, not a destination. Perhaps that’s why trains evoke the magic of travel better than any other mode of getting from A to B. And then there’s the views. The 9.23 from Crewe might not have the glamour of the Orient Express, but the scenery out of the window is certainly worthy of the big screen treatment. So where can you lap up the UK’s most beautiful landscapes from the comfort of your carriage?
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The 632km journey from the Big Smoke to Scotland’s Auld Reekie is pure magic. The high-speed service takes 4hrs 20mins, with the landscape transforming almost too quickly for your eyes to process. As you zoom out of the city, concrete tower blocks are replaced by rolling hills before you’ve drained your first cuppa. Hertfordshire quickly becomes Yorkshire, then before you know it you’re glimpsing the Angel of the North as you pass Newcastle. Then you’re hurtling up the Northumbrian coast and reaching the Scottish border just north of Berwick Upon Tweed. Taking the sleeper train means you’ll snooze through those views, but being lulled into the land of nod by the clickety-clack of the tracks scores big on the romance scale. Emerging from Edinburgh Waverly, you’re immediately at the heart of the action, with bustling Princes Street to your right and the castle presiding high over the old town to the left. Edinburgh has so much going for it (not least being the birthplace of Skyscanner!), you’ll be spoilt for choice. But don’t miss a wander along the Royal Mile that leads up to the castle and, on a clear day, hike up Arthur’s Seat for stunning views of the city, the Forth Road Bridge and beyond.
Best deal: Trains depart London from either Euston or Kings Cross and are operated by Virgin Trains. Return tickets cost around £72, but you can find fares for £25 each way depending on dates. Seats on the Caledonian Sleeper start at £45 each way.
Editor’s hotel pick: The Grassmarket is in a lively spot at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. The décor is fun but stylish and magnetic wall maps help plan your sightseeing. Doubles cost from £65 a night.
The Cornish Riviera Express has been whisking holidaymakers from London Paddington to the West Country since 1904, and from Exeter St David’s the views from the train remain much unchanged. As the Exe estuary opens out to the sea, the train hugs the coast so closely, you can almost high-five the dog walkers on the promenade at dinky Dawlish Warren (this part of the line was destroyed by a storm in 2014). The train weaves through tunnels at the foot of red sandstone cliffs past Teignmouth, where you turn inland towards Totnes and Plymouth, crossing Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar to Saltash before alighting at St Erth. Here, you can hop on the speedy shuttle service to St Ives, which crams one of Britain’s most beautiful stretches of coast into just 4km. Your journey is complete as the picture-book harbour of St Ives comes into view. On a fine day you could be in the Med, but the colourful fishing boats of the working harbour remind you this is Cornwall, not Cannes. Still, its turquoise bays, cobbled streets and abundance of galleries – including the reknowned Tate St Ives – have put this impossibly pretty port on the world map.
Best deal: The Cornish Riviera Express is operated by Great Western Railways and an Advance ticket, changing at St Erth, costs from just £18.
Editor’s hotel pick: Now an international holiday resort, St Ives isn’t the cheapest place to stay but you can find some gems off the main drag. The Garrack Hotel feels like a cosy cottage and is only a 20-minute walk from the station. Up on a hill, it has great views of the beach, too. Doubles cost around £100.
This unashamedly showy line regularly tops lists of not only the greatest train journeys in the UK, but the world. It’s best known for the final stretch from Fort William to Mallaig over the Glenfinnan Viaduct – the ‘Harry Potter bridge’ – but the views from Glasgow as you climb above the River Clyde are worth writing home about, too. The five-hour journey along the West Highland Railway weaves through hillsides, with panoramic views of lochs, mountains and moorland along the way. From Fort William, where you can catch a glimpse of Ben Nevis, the train reverses to head west towards Mallaig with the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct providing a final flourish to proceedings. Ardent Potter heads can take the Jacobite steam train, aka the Hogwarts Express, at Fort William, but the views of Loch Shiel 300ft below are just as stunning from a standard carriage. Your last stop Mallaig isn’t the most picturesque of Scottish towns, so you might want to hop on the half-hour ferry to the mystical Isle of Skye, where you’ll find dazzling scenery and cosy pubs.
Best deal: The West Highland Line is operated by ScotRail and you can bag a direct return ticket on this route from £39.90.
Editor’s hotel pick: A 13-minute drive from Armadale, where the ferry docks on Skye, five-star Hotel Eilean Iarmain has rooms from £60 a night.
This two-hour route along the north Wales coast is a nostalgic chug down memory lane. As you trundle past the caravan parks and amusement arcades of the beach resorts dotted along the Welsh waters, you’re reminded of the heady Hi-de-Hi! days when a week on a drizzly campsite constituted a cracking holiday. Look out for resorts like Prestatyn (most famous for being a punchline of bad pun-based jokes), Rhyl, Llandudno and Bangor. Come rain or shine, the scenery is ‘proper lush’, as the locals would say. Beyond the beautiful historic city of Chester, the line follows the Shropshire Union Canal before crossing the River Dee into Wales. From there, it hugs the estuary’s edge past the huge beached ship at Flint (set to be turned into a zombie attraction), before the sea views unfold as you pass Colwyn Bay and cross the Menai Strait on to the island of Anglesey, and finally reach Holyhead. Here, gorgeous walks await. Don’t miss the hike up Holyhead Mountain (really a hill) for incredible views of South Stack Lighthouse and towering cliffs teeming with seabirds.
Best deal: Trains are operated by Virgin Trains and Arriva and a return ticket costs £41 direct, or £32 if you change at Chester.
Editor’s hotel pick: Witchingham Bed & Breakfast is a great value B&B, four minutes from the beach and just a 15-minute wander from the train station. Doubles cost from £58.
At one hour and 40 minutes, this is the shortest journey on our list but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in grandeur. More than a third of this journey through some of Britain’s most glorious upland countryside is spent crossing the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Weaving through the lush green hills, valleys and open moorland, it’s easy to see why this line is a northern institution. Get your camera at the ready as you cross the mighty Ribblehead Viaduct. Its 24 arches stretch 400 metres across the landscape, with the dark mass of Pen-y-Ghent, one of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks, looming majestically in the distance. Onwards to Dent, the highest station in England, and through the Cumbrian countryside, with the Lake District to the west and the south Pennines to the east, before you reach Carlisle. The capital of Cumbria, it’s a vibrant border town steeped in history – complete with city walls, a formidable cathedral and castle – but also packed with thoroughly modern shops, cafés and bars. Who said it’s grim up north?
Best deal: This line is operated by Northern and a return ticket is yours for the sum of £17.
Editor’s hotel pick: The three-star The County Hotel is a Grade II-listed beauty bang in the middle of the city and opposite the station. Doubles cost from £80.
The advance booking trap
It’s worth knowing that, while you can book tickets for most journeys from 12 and sometimes up to 24 weeks in advance, the earliest available fares (usually Off Peak and Anytime tickets) are often more expensive as they’re unreserved and unlimited. If you don’t see any cheap fares, wait until reservations open and Advance tickets go on sale (‘Advance’ tickets are not the same thing as buying in advance.) These are much cheaper but you must travel on the specified train. For example, fares from London to Edinburgh in March or April 2019 are currently available at £159, but look for the week before Christmas and you can find single Advance tickets for as little as £30. Want more tips? Read our 7 money-saving hacks to slash the cost of UK train tickets.
**Prices are for Advance tickets for return journeys on dates in November, departing on a weekday and returning the following weekday. Weekend tickets may be more expensive. Hotel prices also for weekdays in November, based on two people sharing a double room. Rates may vary depending on weekends and time of year.
All prices are as of date of publication on 23 October 2018 and are subject to change and availability.