Once a week, a train pulls out of Aberdeen station at 08.20 and heads south. There’s no great fanfare, no particular sense of occasion, and the train itself is only five coaches long. However, everything else about this service is Brobdingnagian.
Over the next 13 hours and 19 minutes it travels 774 miles, the greatest distance covered by any train in Britain. Stopping at 35 stations along the way, it spends around two hours of the journey stationary as it picks up and drops off passengers. After proceeding down the east coast as far as Newcastle, it heads south to York, then trundles south-west across the Midlands and on to Bristol, finally making its way to Penzance on the western tip of Cornwall via the south coast of Devon. The full journey is always made in that direction – for maintenance reasons, no service goes all the way north. And having been suspended for nearly two years because of the pandemic, the service is up and running again – albeit only on Saturdays for the time being.
Having made my way to Aberdeen on less Herculean trains, I strolled along the city’s sandy beach on a bright, crisp day to the rows of cottages that make up Footdee (pronounced “Fittie” locally), once a discrete fishing village. In Duthie Park’s free-to-enter David Welch Winter Gardens, the tropical house transported me to balmier climes. When evening came I ate at the lively Ninety-Nine Bar, whose current resident chefs – “how BAO now” – offer a good smattering of plant-based options, such as bao buns with smoky teriyaki tofu. Also, one of my cocktails was on fire – a sure sign that one is winning at life. Afterwards I headed around the corner to the refurbished Siberia Hotel (doubles from £52 a night room only) to wallow in my en suite whirlpool bath. It’s no wonder that, just before the pandemic struck, the Granite City leapt from 16th to eighth in the annual Bank of Scotland survey of Scotland’s best places to live.
But as I left, I found myself wondering: what exactly do you do on a train journey that lasts as long as Star Wars Episodes I-VI ? Though the wifi was surprisingly good, I chose to devote the hours not to screen-gazing but scene-grazing. Before long, with a rising sun blazing across a mirror-flat North Sea, I had drifted off into a state approaching zen.
I found myself charting the train’s progress in several ways. I noted numerous well-loved landmarks, beginning with a trio of venerable fortresses: Edinburgh Castle, whose elegant silhouette trumps many a capital’s skyline; Bamburgh Castle, sprawled confidently across a Northumbrian outcrop; and Durham, towering over the Wear and dominated by its impressive cathedral. There were lesser milestones to look out for as well, such as the mysterious ruined sandstone house halfway down the cliffs just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed – glimpsed for a few seconds, then gone.
I also marked our passage by the rivers and estuaries we crossed. This route crosses a host of spectacular bridges, most of them bequeathed to us by the Victorians. In the first five hours we had been conveyed over the Tay, the Firth of Forth, the Tweed and the Tyne; towards the end, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent Royal Albert Bridge bore us high over the Tamar into Cornwall.
I became a contented observer of people’s lives: the joggers on a Birmingham towpath, the farmworker plodding across an enormous field, the group of boys fishing something out of a river that was certainly not a fish.
I scanned the countryside for wildlife. A fox slunk warily back to its den. A pair of gulls engaged in an aerial dogfight with a flock of rooks. A geometric pattern of molehills revealed itself, created with the precision of a crop circle. Five roe deer, all striking precisely the same pose, watched the rattling, clattering carriages slide by.
You can only get this snapshot of Britain from the vantage point of a train. For much of the summer you can make this journey entirely in daylight, although on my trip, the wintertide gloaming dwindled into night between Cheltenham and Bristol. After that, I pressed my face against the window to catch the beacon lights of remote farmhouses and the more gregarious illuminations of Exeter and Plymouth.
Stepping out at Penzance I was immediately struck by how much milder it was than in Aberdeen. After a night in a former fisherman’s cottage in Newlyn, I went for a misty morning walk in a T-shirt, through the bumpy countryside just outside the town and down into the fishing village of Mousehole. That evening at The Vault, a swish pop-up restaurant in Penzance, I undid all my exercise with rich dishes of padron peppers, wild mushroom arancini and basil tagliatelle accompanied by glasses of Abruzzian trebbiano and Puglian primitivo (the pop-up owners hold a national Restaurant Wine List of the Year award).
That night, having strolled along the coast back to my lodgings , I felt like I’d had two very different holidays in one. Or three really – as Agatha Christie once said: “To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”
Train tickets were provided by CrossCountry (singles from Aberdeen to Penzance from £114). Accommodation at Kara Cottage, Newlyn, was provided by Luxury Cornish Escapes, from £100 a night (sleeps two, three-night minimum,. Hotel Siberia has doubles from £52. The Vault pop-up has moved into the reopened Old Coastguard in Mousehole. Further info from visitscotland.com
FOUR MORE SCENIC BRITISH RAIL JOURNEYS
Norwich to Liverpool Lime Street
This yomp across England takes in vast tracts of scenic and varied countryside. The journey begins beside the River Wensum and crosses rural plains to Thetford, before plunging across the Fens – nearly 1,500 square miles of marshy ground beneath wide-open skies. In early spring, keep your eyes peeled for flocks of wildfowl, such as wigeon, teal and shoveler as they start migrating north. Further on, the journey incorporates large swathes of the Peak District national park, passing through the gorgeous Vale of Edale as it heads west from Sheffield to Stockport.
This is a route that loves a cathedral too. Bookended by one in Norwich and Liverpool’s pair, it stops at five further cathedral cities – Ely, Peterborough, Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester. Also look out for the famous crooked spire of St Mary and All Saints at Chesterfield – there’s a cracking view of it just south of the station.
The cities at both ends of the route are on the up. England’s first Unesco City of Literature, Norwich enjoys a buzzy literary scene, with spoken word events and author talks at various venues including the National Writing Centre. Or you can just sit in little independent cafes like The Bicycle Shop and watch someone at the next table penning a genre-defying masterpiece. Liverpool, meanwhile, is teeming with offbeat events, from next month’s Liverpool Against Racism music day (24 April) to Sunday-morning brunches with live gospel music in Alma de Cuba, a former church.
254 miles, from five hours 38 minutes, hourly until mid-afternoon Mon-Sat (advance single from £32.50, eastmidlandsrailway.co.uk)
Cardiff Central to Portsmouth & Southsea
A leisurely jaunt south-east from the vibrant Welsh capital to one of the south coast’s major cities. Before you leave Cardiff, try something different like an urban foraging course in Bute Park. Or keep the Winter Olympics flame burning by hitting the slopes at the Cardiff ski and snowboard centre, then cheering on the Cardiff Devils, one of the top ice hockey teams in Britain.
At Newport, look to the left for the eye-catching art deco clock tower that has become a symbol for the town, and to the right as the train crosses the River Usk to see the castle towers right next to the railway bridge. After the four-mile Severn Tunnel – another extraordinary feat of Victorian engineering – highlights include a saunter through the Georgian spa town of Bath; a long, scenic stretch beside the River Avon, passing under the graceful Dundas Aqueduct; a foray through Bradford on Avon, founded by the Romans and encircled by Green Belt; and a trundle along the Wylye Valley beneath the southern edge of Salisbury Plain.
Journey’s end comes at Portsmouth, which is better known for the Spinnaker Tower and historic dockyard than its winter sports, but that hasn’t stopped the renowned Banff Mountain film festival from pitching camp at the Kings Theatre for a night on 27 April on its world tour.
135 miles, around three hours 16 minutes, hourly throughout the day (advance single from £27.90, gwr.com)
Manchester Piccadilly to Milford Haven
This is a train whose route is as mysterious and sublime as the scenery through which it travels. Though it’s easy to see the logic of running a direct service from Manchester as far as Swansea, this one simply keeps going, pushing west along the south Wales coast for nearly two more hours, even taking in a few request stops before finally running out of steam at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.
After Cheshire’s comfortable greensward, there’s a visit to Shrewsbury followed by a canter through some of Shropshire’s most beguiling countryside with the heights of the Long Mynd to one side and Wenlock Edge to the other. After Ludlow – a town with nearly 500 listed buildings dating back to the middle ages – the line follows the River Lugg and its tributaries through Leominster to Hereford before crossing the border into Wales just south-east of the Black Mountains. Next stop is Abergavenny before the train swings west to make its way along the south coast.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Milford Haven is packed with attractions, beyond its maritime-themed museum. However, by exploring other Pembrokeshire branch lines you can visit the pleasingly old-fashioned seaside town of Tenby, the well-preserved castles at Pembroke and Manorbier, or Fishguard, whose lively annual folk festival ( 27-29 May) is mostly free.
285 miles, from six hours five minutes, every two hours until late afternoon (advance single from £33.50, tfwrail.wales)
Glasgow Central to Newcastle via Carlisle
Direct trains between Glasgow and Newcastle are swift and reasonably frequent, taking passengers via Edinburgh and the Northumbrian coastline and stopping at five or six stations on the way. However, there is a much less-well-advertised southern route between the two cities. Every day except Sundays, the 16.11 pulls out from Glasgow Central and heads for Carlisle before cutting across country to reach Tyneside. Although this is a slightly shorter route, the train takes over an hour longer to reach the same destination. Calling at 21 stations en route, it’s an offering to warm the heart of slow travel fans everywhere. Add to that the spectacular scenery through which it travels and it becomes a true collector’s item for any railway lover.
The train slides along Nithsdale into Dumfries before crossing the border at Gretna. After leaving Carlisle it runs just south of Hadrian’s Wall all the way across the country, offering passengers tremendous views of untamed Cumbrian and Northumbrian countryside (though not of the wall itself).