There are plenty of contenders for my favourite train journey in the UK. I love the sense of escape on the Paddington to Penzance line, especially down by the Channel in Devon and crossing Isambard Brunel’s magnificent bridge into Cornwall. The meandering route from Belfast to Derry in Northern Ireland has an exhilarating stretch along the north coast near the Giant’s Causeway. Then you have the beguiling northern sections of the King’s Cross to Edinburgh east coast line, crossing high above the Tyne before traversing the coast on the dramatic sweeping turn into Berwick-upon-Tweed.
But my number one UK ride is north of the border: between Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh. The Kyle Line, as it is known, is a 70-mile journey spanning 29 bridges, opened at great cost in 1897 (£20,000 spent per mile). This was a fortune back then but the track was considered key as it allowed cattle to be transported from the west of Scotland to London in 21 hours; before then, it had taken six weeks to lead beasts by hoof along drove roads to reach trains south.The landscape as you move west is inspiring: gorse, heather and bracken in shades of gold, canary yellow, purple, khaki and mauve. Lochs spread out, gloriously mirror-like on a still sunny day, with shards of light reflecting off the water into the carriages.
The Kyle Line, with its most westerly point by the Isle of Skye, survived Dr Beeching’s cuts in the 1960s and another scare in the 1970s, when a local rail enthusiast group lobbied to save the railway from closure by arguing that there was a chance oil might be discovered in the waters off the west coast and that, if so, the line would be crucial for transporting materials to oil-rig platforms. Oil was never found. But, thank goodness, the line survived.
If it wasn’t for the railway, Crewe — as we know it — simply would not exist
My favourite station is perhaps not the most obvious choice: Crewe. Again, there is a rich train history to be told, as it was here that the London and North Western Railway decided to base their important works to build locomotives and carriages back in the mid-nineteenth century. Crewe was a convenient halfway point between Liverpool and Birmingham (the rail company almost went for Edge Hill in Liverpool but thought it better not to be at one end of the line). To give an idea of the effect this had on the area, the pre-works population of Crewe was about 70. Now the town and surrounding area is home to 84,000 residents, plus a football team nicknamed the Railwaymen. If it wasn’t for the railway, Crewe — as we know it — simply would not exist.
The Crewe Heritage Centre, set within a V-shape of tracks where the lines diverge to the north of the station, is packed with old railway paraphernalia, shiny locos and carriages. Run with the help of passionate volunteers, it is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of railway stuff. Trains mean a lot in these parts and there is still a Bombardier train repair site providing employment locally.
Queen Victoria once stayed at the Crewe Arms Hotel, where a now closed-off tunnel was dug between the hotel and the station so she could avoid the crowds. The manager showed me the bricked-up entrance to the tunnel and told me that some rail enthusiasts (always rail enthusiasts not trainspotters, I have learned, for fear of causing offence) request rooms facing the station so they can indulge in a bit of extra enthusiasm.
The Kent and east Sussex Railway opened in 1900, linking parts of the two counties that were isolated by the mainline railways. The tracks cover 10.5 miles between Tenterden in Kent and Bodiam in East Sussex, and it is my pick of the heritage lines in Britain with working steam trains.The line closed in 1954 but reopened 20 years later after rail enthusiasts stepped in. The British love of trains runs deep; perhaps because they were invented here with the first proper railway between Liverpool and Manchester opening in 1830 and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket flying along at a heady 35mph.
Aboard the bottle-green Holman F. Stephens locomotive (dating from 1952 and named after the line’s original engineer and manager), as the plumes of steam and smoke rise, the breaks squeal and the whistle blows, there is a feeling of stepping back into a gentler era. Seats squeak. Hissing sounds emanate from below. Tumbledown hedgerows and farmers’ fields spread out as you chug along towards the turrets and battlements of Bodiam Castle. I love this journey. The crackle and rasp of the furnace. The fizz of steam. The rattle and scrape of the carriages on the line. The harmless enjoyment of a clickety-clack ride in the English countryside.
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