Thursday 15th November 2018
Following the top ten listing in Part 1, welcome to the next twenty most wonderful train journeys around Britain – they’re part of my Hundred Best Train Journeys. Read along for the rides ……
11 Shrewsbury – Llandrindod – Swansea
After the Cambrian Coast line entry in tenth place, we’re still in Wales for number 11 – the scenically spectacular Heart of Wales Line. In addition to the gorgeous Welsh mountain scenery, this journey offers the intrigue of a multitude of request stations, beautifully well kept country stations and the very best station to alight and board right across Wales (yes it even beats that slightly contrived 58 lettered one in Anglesey – which we’ll come to later in the list); it is of course the quirky named Sugar Loaf.
Not only is it well worth getting off at Sugar Loaf to savour its isolation and remoteness but also to enjoy the surprised expression on the train guard/conductor’s face when you ask for the train to stop there. And you simply can’t beat the fun of hailing the next train with a clear signal to the driver from such a rarely used station. When I visited it last year, I was taken aback while exploring the platform to be joined by a man who’d just arrived from the nearby road. I don’t know who was more surprised: him to see me, or me being joined by another potential passenger. In the event it turned out he was from the local community group who look after the floral displays and keep the platform tidy at this and other stations; so we had a lovely chat all about Sugar Loaf and the line.
There are many other wonderful stations along the line – one journey (the 0604 from Swansea to Crewe) serves the most stations in Britain at 41, including 16 request stops. Transport for Wales have plans to increase the number of journeys per day along the line (currently there are only four through journeys with a couple of shorts from either end) but in the meantime careful planning is needed if you want to get off and explore the stations, but some are served by buses, including the main stop at Llandrindod (Wells) right outside the station, making for other great journey opportunities.
12 Sheffield – Manchester
Criss-crossing the Derbyshire Peak District by bus is a particular favourite pastime of mine, and right up there with the best of those bus scenic busters is taking the train along the Hope Valley Line. It’s quite bizarre for such a major strategic route that the line is reduced to a short stretch of single track through Dore and Totley which can sometimes cause delays, especially if an express then gets caught behind a stopper, but if you’re just travelling for the pleasure of the scenery it gives more time to relish the scenic delights as the train passes along the seventeen miles between Totley Tunnel and Cowburn Tunnel – ticking off the delightfully named stations through Crindleford, Bamford, Hope and Edale.
13 Glasgow – Stranraer
Sadly since the ferries left for a new terminal further up the coast, Stranraer is a shadow of its former self; almost a ghost station, but it’s certainly worth the journey down there from Glasgow to enjoy the coastal views through Troon and Prestwick and the gorgeous countryside views particularly on the thirteen mile single line stretch once you leave Ayr. There’s a lovely signal box at the penultimate station, Barhill, where driver and signalman swap tokens. There are now only four direct journeys per day from Glasgow to Stranraer (and two back) with others starting/finishing at Kilmarnock and some only going as far as Girvan, missing out the Barrhill section; which is not to be missed.
If you want time to explore the desolation of Stranraer – it’s worth a nose round to see how things used to be – don’t worry that the train usually turns round quickly and there’s a long wait for the next one, as there’s a lovely ride back along the coast to Ayr on Stagecoach bus routes 360/60.
14 Liskeard – Looe
I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to disclose this early on that all the Devon and Cornwall branch lines appear in my Hundred Best Train Journeys, and it won’t come as a surprise that leading the pack is the delightfully quirky and scenic Looe Valley Line. What other line begins with the train heading in a northerly direction to journey south, travelling in a full 360 degree large circle (clockwise), downhill, for about 5 minutes (passing under the main line) before ending up pointing northwards again; only to top this manoeuvre off on only two of the twelve journeys a day by continuing a short distance further northwards to call at the rarely used station of Coombe Junction Halt. Oh, and then the train guard/conductor jumps down from the train and manually resets the points so the train can head south again. Only in Cornwall; only in Britain!
Not only all that, but the train then follows the course of the lovely East Looe River passing three more delightfully named request stations: St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, Causeland and Sandplace until the river gradually widens until the West Looe River joins almost opposite the station terminus at Looe. You simply haven’t been to Cornwall unless you’ve fully explored the lovely Looe Valley Line.
15 Plymouth – Gunnislake
This Devon branch line, the Tamar Line, may not have as many quirks as Liskeard-Looe, although it also passes under a superb viaduct carrying the main line and has a reverse manoeuvre along the way (at the wonderful Bere Alston – where the line once continued to Tavistock and Okehampton, and who knows, the pipe dream of reinstatement may one day come true) but for me it has a well deserved fifteenth place in this list for the wonderful views over the Rivers Tamar and Tavy, as the line twists and turns pointing east, then west, then north and repeat (many times) up the valley to Gunnislake.
Both Gunnislake and Calstock stations are also served by Plymouth Citybus route 79 offering a great view of the railway line crossing the River Tamar at Calstock. Bere Ferrers is also a wonderful station to explore with a heritage centre and adjacent vintage train.
16 Lancaster – Barrow-in-Furness – Carlisle
For me the Cumbrian Coast Line has many similar characteristics to the Cambrian Coast Line (at No 10): hugging the coastline with glorious views out to sea and wonderful mountain scenery inland.
Within a few minutes of setting off from Lancaster you arrive at the infamous Carnforth station which is definitely worth exploring for a Brief Encounter before hopping back on the next train as it leaves the main West Coast Line for the coast.
Skirting round the western edge of the Lake District on the Cumbrian Coast Line is a wonderful way to spend three and three quarters hours of your life; you certainly won’t regret it.
Even before reaching Barrow-in-Furness the views over Morecambe Bay are a tasty aperitif for what’s to follow as the train passes over the 528 yard low level Arnside Viaduct over the sands ….. then cruises into the wonderful Grange-over-Sands station with its window views over the sands …. then continuing round what is almost a 360 degree loop to serve Barrow-in-Furness …. then heading north along the coast …. but not before another fifteen mile ride around Duddon Sands …. then to Ravenglass which is a lovely stop off to ride the spectacular Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge railway …. and then of course there’s the infamous Sellafield a few miles north with its barbed wire and security fences making it clear you’re not welcome unless you work there, which many local people do, as busy trains heading north from there at shift change times testify.
Pick your journey carefully as some entail connections in Barrow-in-Furness and some offer the opportunity to ride behind a Class 37 or Class 68 loco in old coaching stock for a real nostalgic ride back in time.
17 Newcastle – Edinburgh
Whatever else, make sure you’re sitting on the coastal side when making this journey. Superb glimpses of the coastline tease you as you journey north until the train approaches Berwick-upon-Tweed where the full magnificence of its spectacular viaduct and crossing the Tweed on the Royal Border Bridge is a sight to behold, as is the sight of the original road bridge (Bridge End). After that, many welcome glimpses of the coast become more frequent as you head north towards Dunbar and Scotland.
My favourite journey on this line is the first early morning southbound departure from Edinburgh to Kings Cross which leaves as early as 0540. But it’s well worth getting up early for; uniquely the train only calls at Newcastle making the 393 mile journey to London in precisely 4 hours (averaging 98 mph) and on a summer’s morning you see the sun rising in the east over the coast as breakfast is served and you head down to Newcastle – bliss.
18 Llandudno – Blaenau Ffestiniog
Another stunner of a Welsh line; and another with only six journeys a day but well worth planning an itinerary around. The line follows the course of the River Conwy southwards as far as Betws-y-Coed from where it heads west along the River LLedr but be prepared for a complete change in scenery once the train nears Blaenau Ffestiniog and emerges from the 2 mile long Ffestiniog tunnel. You arrive in slate country and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on the rail network.
At Blaenau Ffestiniog there are cross platform connections with the Ffestiniog Heritage Railway which is well worth a trip as are the bus routes which run up and down either side of the Conwy Valley between Llandudno and Betws-y-Coed. Betws-y-Coed is also worth a stop off to explore including the miniature railway alongside the station.
19 Sheffield – Penistone – Huddersfield
We’re talking serious South Yorkshire scenery here; until you slip into West Yorkshire, then you’re talking serious West Yorkshire scenery. When I travel along this line in addition to admiring the scenery, I often wonder if many passengers notice the subtle change of branding and logos between the stations east and south of Penistone (South Yorkshire) and west and north from Denby Dale and on to Huddersfield (West Yorkshire). As often as not, it’s been a Pacer when I’ve made this journey adding that unique charm only a Pacer can provide as it trundles along with the Peaks and Moors in the distance on the left hand side heading Huddersfield bound.
20 St Erth – St Ives
Back to Cornwall for this short five mile branch line, which gets overrun with passengers in the summer thanks to sensible traffic management arrangements which keeps cars out of St Ives and instead enforces parking at the Park & Ride site at Lelant Saltings the first station after St Erth.
It’s another journey where it’s essential to sit (if you can find a seat in the busy summer months) on the coastal side (that’s the offside as the train leaves St Erth) for maximum sea views as the train scurries along to St Ives, where there’s only the most basic platform as a terminus. Don’t forget to walk up the hill to the bus station where there’s one of Britain’s most scenic bus turning areas, and maybe take an open top bus all the way round the coast via Lands End to Penzance, or if you’re short of time take the quick way via St Erth and Crowlas.
21 Edinburgh – Aberdeen
We’ve already enjoyed the first past of this route as far as Ladybank on the Inverness journey along the Highland Line (No 4 in the Hundred Best Train Journeys) but now we’re keeping to the east coast as we head to Aberdeen to enjoy the fantastic journey over the Tay Bridge (a spine chilling moment whenever I cross and recall reading about the terrible 1879 disaster) and take in the lovely city of Dundee and on to Montrose and Stonehaven before arriving at Aberdeen.
22 Oxford – Worcester – Hereford
This line always intrigues me as it’s neither a main line or a branch line. It’s a wonderful hybrid which despite some track doubling, still has potential delay inducing single track sections as well as delightfully named stations including Ascott-under-Wychwood, Moreton-in-Marsh and Honeybourne where there’s a line off to serve the MoD depot at Long Marston and who knows, maybe one day the reinstatement of the long lost connection to Stratford-on-Avon, which really would make for a joined up railway.
The journey continues through both Worcester’s stations (the delightful Shrub Hill, with all it’s charm and old style signals, and also Foregate Street) before continuing through more rich English countryside via Great Malvern and Ledbury before terminating at the lovely market town of Hereford.
23 Swindon – Cheltenham
There are only three stations along this beautiful line – Kemble, Stroud and Stonehouse – and each has a character of its own and the scenery, especially to the north of the line, is another example of Englishness at its most countrified which is a good enough reason for its placing here in the list.
24 Westbury – Bath Spa
Westbury’s a lovely interchange station in its own right, and surprisingly busy for the size of town as five rail lines converge and a freight marshalling yard is nearby; but it’s the section of line after Trowbridge towards Bath Spa which always brings me joy as it follows the gorgeous River Avon as well as the parallel Kennet and Avon Canal. and serves the amazingly well looked after stations at Bradford-on-Avon, Avoncliff and Freshford. The views are absolutely stunning. I’ve caught the one morning GWR operated train from Brighton which wends its way all along the coast to Southampton then inland via Salisbury, Westbury to Bath Spa/Bristol (a three and a half hour marathon) just for the fifteen or so minute delight of this section of track.
25 Exeter – Barnstaple (and Okehampton)
Another Devonshire branch line delight, with wonderful scenery and a real treat to arrive at Barnstaple station with its retro signage and heritage atmosphere.
I’ve cheated and added the spur from Crediton to Okehampton to this entry – it only runs just a few journeys on Summer Sundays and uses the same tracks from Exeter as far as Crediton, and to be honest you don’t see much as the hedges and trees either side of the single track to Okehampton itself are thick and mature, but Okehampton station even tops Barnstaple for retro delight (and a connection to the Dartmoor heritage railway).
The one intermediate stop at Samford Courtney wins the prize for Britain’s most basic station with absolutely no facilities at all, save for a locked gate which the train guard on the first train of the day unlocks.
Back to the Barnstaple branch and just saying how lovely the Devon scenery is – along the whole journey – count the number of times the track crosses the lovely River Taw – bet you lose count!
26 Glasgow – Wemyss Bay (and Gourock)
This train journey enjoys such a high entry for one simple reason: Wemyss Bay station. It has to be the most delightful station across the whole network. Stunningly attractive with magnificently designed curves and circles and not a straight line or corner to be seen. I’ve been a few times now, and love it more every visit. I also like the quirkiness of another station along the line called IBM. What at one time was a thriving industrial area owned by said technology company is now a barren wasteland with ghostly empty buildings, and as I found, when exploring the area, entails quite a circuitous and lonely route for pedestrians down to the main A78 road to Greenock for the bus.
Another addition to this entry is the short six mile stretch of line heading further west, past the junction where the Wemyss Bay line heads south at Port Glasgow, continuing to the terminus at Gourock along the Firth of Clyde. It has such interesting station names including Bogston, Cartsdyke and Fort Matilda and a lovely view of the Clyde.
27 Eastbourne – Ashford International
Not as famous as the Dawlish Wall, nor the Cambrian or Cumbrian coastal lines, but nevertheless this lovely East Sussex coastal line offers wonderful views of the English Channel and the south coast’s characteristic beach huts and fishing huts as the train passes from Pevensey Bay and Normans Bay, through Cooden Beach to the massively long platforms at Bexhill and then the quirky St Leonards Warrier Square located between Bopeep Tunnel (lovely name) and Hastings Tunnel (each almost a mile in length). After Hastings and Ore, there’s the wonderfully dense wooded section of single track line with the short platformed, isolated, and little used stations of Three Oaks and Doleham before arriving at Winchelsea and Rye (well worth a stop off and explore). After that the scenery changes once again as the train crosses the Romney Marsh to the characterless and much expanded terminus at Ashford.
This line has two-car Class 171 diesel trains which, aside from the Uckfield line, are unusual for Kent and Sussex. It’s unsurprising that Doleham sees so few passengers (it’s East Sussex’s least used station) as on a Saturday only the first and last trains in both directions make a stop – so you have to leave on the 0558 to Ashford and can only return on the 2357 arrival back making for quite a long day out! (Mondays to Fridays offers more sensible departures to Hastings at 0755 and 0917 with a 1718 arrival back.)
28 Redhill – Guildford
It’s for the North Downs. They’re beautiful. They really are. Views from both sides of the train are worth clocking but I always prefer the north side and get those full on views through Dorking and Gomshall – which incidentally has one of the most extensive ramped footbridges I’ve ever seen anywhere on the network.
29 Paddock Wood – Maidstone
This is another train journey alongside a delightfully scenic river. In this case the River Medway as it wends its way north towards Maidstone (and eventually to Sheerness and the sea). The train provides an hourly service from Tonbridge to Strood but it’s the twenty minute ride alongside the Medway and passing through stations Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury….
….and East Fairleigh which is the really stunning section of track (sit on the right hand side heading north for best views).
30 Derby – Matlock
Book-ending the top thirty is the delightful journey from Derby into the wonderful Peak District town of Matlock. I love the first station after leaving the main line at Ambergate, called Whatstandwell, not only for its quirky name but because it’s the closest station to the Tramway museum at nearby Crich.
The line follows the Derwent Valley along with the A6 and river to Cromford before a tunnel brings you to Matlock Bath (famous for the Heights of Abraham) and Matlock itself, where there are connections to the Peak Rail Heritage Line further up the valley, or to the lovely TransPeak bus route on to Bakewell and Buxton to connect back to the rail network.
Watch out for Part 3 of my Hundred Best Train Journeys (31-60) next month.