How to Take a British Road Trip … by Rail

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Deal Expert, New York
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London has topped the bucket list of traveling families, football fanatics and foodies for ages. And while Great Britain’s capital is undoubtedly one of the planet’s greatest cities, it’s merely the gateway to a nation that gifted the world with everything from Hard Day’s Night to Hogwarts.

To experience some of Britain’s greatest hits — whether you love a good fabled castle, country pub, ancient distillery, natural hot spring or anything even remotely related to the Beatles — you need not rent a car and drive on “the right side” of the road.

With 21,000 miles of rail line and more than 2,000 operating train stations, the country is home to one of the most comprehensive public transport systems on earth. But beyond being gobsmackingly easy, train travel here turns out to be extremely cost-effective, too.

To narrow things down a bit for you, we’ve highlighted four favorite regions — all super-accessible by rail — and provided a micro-guide to each.

Southwest England

This corner of the country has attracted visitors for centuries with its hot springs and, well, henges. Unlike ancient pilgrims, however, you’ll likely depart from London’s Paddington Station. As your train makes its way into the countryside, keep an eye out for the turrets of Windsor Castle (less than an hour out of town), the medieval cathedral city of Salisbury (90 minutes from London), and the 360-foot-long Uffington White Horse that was carved into chalk hills during prehistoric times (about three hours outside London).

Dartmouth Steam Train in Paignton, Devon, England

EAT: whatever’s in season at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Great Britain’s best restaurant according to the 2018 edition of the Waitrose Cookery School’s nationally revered Good Food Guide. Set atop Port Isaac — an English fishing village straight out of Central Casting — with views of the ruggedly handsome Cornish coastline, this seafood-centric spot is the flagship of a celebrity chef with two Michelin stars and countless BBC appearances to his name (which, not surprisingly, is Nathan Outlaw).

SEE: the sun rise — or set — from behind a prehistoric monument. Though Stonehenge’s origins, purpose and exact age remain a mystery, this place of pilgrimage is believed to be about 5,000 years old. Theorists credit everyone from druids to aliens with the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s creation, but no matter what you believe, the stone monument is breathtaking — especially at dawn and dusk. Once you catch your breath, visit the onsite museum and recreated Neolithic houses for a glimpse into everyday life circa 2,500 BC.

DO: Immerse yourself in one of the oldest tourist destinations in England, just an 85-minute train ride from London Paddington. Bath’s healing hot springs — once a sacred site for the Romans — were rediscovered in the 18th century and quickly became a fashionable resort town. When in Rome, er Bath, do as the Romans (practically) did and soak in 90-degree mineral waters at the Thermae Bath Spa. One block from the original Roman Baths, this four-story day spa includes an open-air rooftop pool.

Roman Baths in Bath, England

Wales

The two-hour train ride from London to Cardiff (the unofficial gateway to Wales) is an excellent preview of the countryside you’ll encounter on arrival. From there, the trip will be broken up by stops in impossibly charming Welsh towns with equally impossible names (think Llanrwst).

Conwy Castle in Conwy, Wales

EAT: lamb, cheese and leeks, everyday Welsh fare that dates back to Celtic ancestral times — and still populates the menus of some of the best local restaurants, seven of which are Michelin-starred. Among these, the rural Walnut Tree Inn has been dubbed the best restaurant in Wales, with ever-changing seasonal specialties that keep locals and visitors coming back for more.

SEE: a seasonal spectacle by Mother Nature: the arial stunt show known as murmuration. At the RSPB Newport Wetlands Reserve — one of the newest additions to the 20 percent of Wales that’s protected — massive flocks of starlings gather during the coldest months of the year (generally, through February). To watch these birds form endlessly shape-shifting clouds by the thousands, arrive just before dusk and prepare for a crazy cacophony. If you don’t mind bundling up for your wildlife sightings, head to the Pembrokshire Coast’s Strumble Head, where porpoise mothers and calves show up year-round, as does the occasional whale.

DO: Snag tickets to watch the national sport of Wales. Nope, not football, but rugby. The season is in full swing at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium (the national team’s home turf). Whether or not you’re a fan of the sport, you can’t help but get swept up in the Welsh national anthem (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau) and the raw animal energy of the game. If you’re around in February or March, try to catch a match of the Six Nations tournament — Wales hosts England (Feb. 23) and Ireland (March 16).

Welsh Highland Railway in Gwynedd, Wales

Northern England

Once home to all kinds of royalty — from musical to medieval — this region of rolling hills and rock and roll is a three-hour train ride from London. Making your way to the North York Moors? You may find that one of the stations you pass through looks oddly familiar: Goathland Station, featured in the Harry Potter films.

Wast Water in the Lake District, Cumbria, England

EAT: the offerings at the village pub (okay, it’s a Michelin-starred village pub) that was recently named the best restaurant in the world by the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. This gorgeously middle-of-nowhere outpost known as Black Swan puts an eccentric spin on local Yorkshire specialties (think venison with smoked local fruit) to the delight of pretty much everyone.

SEE: the dramatic natural backdrops of Yorkshire. Still dotted with Norman castles and medieval abbeys, the rolling hills of “God’s Own Country” boast residents who can trace their heritage back to the Romans and Vikings who first settled in Northern England. You’ll get lost in time wandering the sea- and moor-side villages of Robin’s Hood Bay and the thousand-shades-of-green inside Yorkshire Dales National Park.

DO: the Beatles Magic Mystery Tour in Liverpool — only two hours from London’s Euston Station. Because, really, you’re here — and you have to. This two-hour bus ride takes you past the childhood homes of John, Paul, George and Ringo and makes stops at sites that inspired their songs. Read: Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

The Cavern Club in Liverpool, England

Scotland

A four-hour train ride from London’s King Cross Station along the Northumbrian coastline transports you to a country with Celtic cities, mythical monsters, cutting-edge cuisine and a whisky tradition as old as the drop-dead gorgeous hills. On northbound trains, snag a seat on the right side for a peek at The Holy Island of Lindisfarne and the resident 16th-century castle. Train (and/or Potter) buffs can ride the historic Jacobite Steam Train along an 84-mile roundtrip route that includes a dramatic — and immediately recognizable — section of the Hogwarts Express track. What you may not have gathered from Harry, Ron and Hermione? You’ll also be riding past the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct near Loch Shiel, Highlands, Scotland

EAT: Don’t miss Highlands beef, beloved for its quality and used to rave-winning effect at Inverness’s famed The Mustard Seed — a riverside restaurant in a soaring, converted church. Other local favorites that make regular appearances on the menu: Scottish salmon, venison and lamb.

SEE: Edinburgh’s architecture. It reads like a biography of this ancient city — arguably one of the most beautiful in Europe. Among other plot points in the life story of this millennia-old seat of power are the medieval Old Town, the 18th century New Town and the heavily fortified, hilltop Edinburgh Castle — onetime home to the likes of Mary Queen of Scots.

DO: a whisky distillery tour. Originally called “water of life,” the malt was distilled by Scottish friars for centuries and is now the national drink, supporting almost $2 billion in salaries annually. From Scotland’s southern shores to the far-reaching Highlands, you’ll find five whisky-producing regions, each claiming to be the best, naturally. And though you could make an entire vacation of seeing whose claim is rightful, a good starting point is at one of the first legalized distilleries in Scotland: the nearly 200-year-old Glenlivet.


Insider Tips for Riding the Rails

  • BritRail Passes offer discounted tickets for tourists from outside Great Britain and include such perks as complimentary airport transfers, free children’s tickets, flexible travel and itineraries spanning the British Isles. Buy an M-Pass, and your mobile phone is your ticket during your train travels. You can purchase tickets 11 months in advance.
  • Download VisitBritain’s new rail brochure to find inspiring train journeys through Britain, from day trips to longer journeys, including top TV and film locations.
  • Buying a return fare is often cheaper than two single tickets purchased separately.
  • Advanced tickets cost less than those bought the day of travel but often restrict ticket changes and cancelations; purchases can be made up to 12 weeks ahead of travel.
  • If you are traveling during busy times — think Friday evenings — reserve your seats in advance.
  • Most trains have onboard Wi-Fi available and are outfitted with power outlets, so you can post those Instagrams from your trip through Great Britain.

Ready to go? Check out these vacations from Cox & Kings, exploring various parts of Great Britain.


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Show 9 Comments
  • http://www.thewanderlusteffect.com/ The Wanderlust Effect

    Such fun inspiration! I love exploring the UK, and rail is such a great way to get around. Would love to get to Wales next!

  • Linda Joseph

    It’s also worthwhile to look into discounts if you’re traveling with someone else because there’s an id you can get that saves you 30-40% if there are two of you traveling together. I think there’s a family version too. But you and your travel buddy don’t have to be married, you just have to both travel together on the same trains.

  • Long_Time_MB

    When ready to disembark from your train car, be sure to push the button to open the door. Train doors do not open on their own. I found this out the hard way.

  • http://batman-news.com Gerald Boesen

    I used the train during my recent trip to Scotland. Very easy and cheap. Much nicer than Amtrak.

  • SnappyChat

    I absolutely adore exploring Britain by car. So many magical places and moments we would not otherwise have experienced. However, after sitting in logjam traffic and missing out on many places due to travel time on our last trip, I may look into a train. Though I just can’t imagine traveling past Lindisfarne and not getting to explore the place where the Vikings began breaking all the rules of civility…

    • RedWolfeXR

      I have done it both ways, and petrol is VERY expensive. A lot depends on where you are going and how flexible. I found that without fixed travel plans the train was a great way to see the countryside. Often ended in cool places that were out of the way. Thurso Scotland, the tiny villages of Crainlarich and Mallaig, ect…

      But the coastal areas of Wales and the reaches of Skye? Those are only accessible by car. (some ferries are included in the regional passes, back then the Skye motorway was not built yet)

  • Kelli Owen

    Where do I find the prices and reservation number? Being of Scottish/Irish/English/Welch decent I would love to see my home country!

    • RedWolfeXR

      The only way it makes sense is using a railpass. Fares are (un?)fairly high for single trips and the headache of ticketing… You can find tons of places that will sell those passes online. Be aware that unless it says otherwise a regional pass NO LONGER covers the trip to and from the region from London. (in the old “Nationalised” days a Scotrail pass was good for a London-Scotland and back link but nothing I see now indicates that is still the case.)

      You have to buy the passes BEFORE you arrive, and most of the sellers are private agents. Two types of pass — “Flexible” which is good for a number of travel days within a span of 2 weeks or a month — or consecutive where you can travel every day of the valid period. That latter was the type of Scotrail pass I had, 8 days out of 12 I was there. I went 25 years ago but they don’t really change that much. First trip you make the conductor will “validate” the pass which starts the clock. If you are on a train when it “expires” then you are allowed to finish the segment.

      Just do a web search and you will see multiple agents.

    • Maxine Waggener

      Yes,I’d like to know the easiest way to reserve this excursion also and the lowest way to travel by train. This sounds so fascinating.