A Great Railway Journey Around Britain in Seven Days

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How much of Britain can you see if you travel by train?

In summer 2012, it was thirty years since American travel writer Paul Theroux made his epic journey around the coast of Britain. He did so intending to travel by train as much as possible. His account is the best-selling book, The Kingdom by the Sea. It's one of a number of books by the author which describe great train tours around the world.

You might be tempted to retrace his steps, but you'd need around three months to spare if you wanted to do it properly. Assuming that you don't have that sort of time on your hands, here's a seven day itinerary, using UK trains, that'll give you a small taste of his adventure. It doesn't go all the way to the four corners of this great country, but it'll take you much further than most UK tours ever go. Along the way you'll travel along some of the UK's most scenic railways. You'll also get to experience one of the world's great train journeys, the West Highland Lines in Scotland.

Where possible, there's just one train journey per day. Each trip takes a little more than five hours at maximum, and leaves in the morning after ten o'clock. The two exceptions to this are day four, when you'll need to depart slightly earlier, and day seven, when you can leave later if you like. Be aware that you will have to change trains on some legs of the route, and do check the timetables for exact details.

While the itinerary is to travel Britain in just seven days, if you do have longer, you'll be able to see a lot more. This will allow you stop at more places, spend more time in each town or city, and maybe travel on to greater adventures. If all you've got is a week, however, you'll still have a memorable time.

Just a word about the lens image - it won't be quite like this. We don't have compartment carriages anymore, and you certainly won't be allowed to smoke - see the man in the foreground with his cigarette.

Lens photo - Great Britain - British Railways Relax by Rail Poster
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Travelling in style

Given a choice, how would you prefer to travel?

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  • orisekk Jan 28, 2014 @ 5:46 pm
    Cars, cars and again cars
  • Cercis Jan 28, 2014 @ 9:19 am
    I am definitely a train person; always have been;, always will be.
  • Chestnutjam Jan 28, 2014 @ 6:43 am
    Cycling... Okay, let me rephrase it: riding.
    I'd love to go on a BMX trip. I wouldn't mind any other trip, ooo.
  • bloomingrose Aug 23, 2012 @ 1:54 am
    I adore a nice train trip. Trained in Europe and across the West Coast of the US.
  • vaigavenugopal Jul 18, 2012 @ 1:18 am
    Informative for a traveller who wish to visit britain in few days. Expecting more places..:)

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Day One - London Paddington to Cardiff

just over two hours

The Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff The first stage of the journey takes you from the capital of England and the UK, to the capital of Wales. En route, you’ll pass the famous city of Bath. This is well worth a stop, time permitting, to see the Roman and Regency sights.

In Cardiff itself, you’ll probably wish you had more time as well, but head down to the waterside at Cardiff Bay to see the Millennium Centre and the Senedd, the venue for the National Assembly of Wales. The area by the Bay has plenty of restaurants and cafes, so it’s a relaxing place to spend a few hours before bed time.

Photo credit – the Wales Millennium Centre
© Copyright David Lewis and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Cardiff links

Visit Cardiff website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.

Day Two - Cardiff to Chester

three to three and a half hours

Eastgate Street, Chester Depending on which lines you take, you might stop at the very pretty English border towns of Hereford and Shrewsbury. You’ll definitely pass through Crewe, the historic heart of Britain’s rail industry.

Chester is an enchanting city; the centre is surrounded by the most complete medieval wall in England. Inside the walls, there’s a special atmosphere. It’s both peaceful and lively. The city was a very important fortified settlement in Roman times and it had the largest amphitheatre in Britain. Through Saxon and Norman times it was continually strengthened, with its wall and castle. A walk around the wall is a great way to see the city, and there’s a broad range of shops in the Rows. Later, have a quiet drink in one of the many bars; they’re often hidden away in little courtyards, so you’ll need to do a bit of exploring.

Photo credit – Eastgate Street, Chester
© Copyright Gary Barber and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Chester links

Visit Chester website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.
Within the Walls of Chester
I know the guy who wrote this article.

Day Three - Chester to Glasgow

leaving just before noon - just over three and a half hours

The Gallery of Modern Art, Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow Back on the train, you’re in for a treat this day. En route to Glasgow, the journey along England’s West Coast Line is very scenic and, over the border into Scotland, it’s pretty impressive too. You’ll cross the Southern Uplands before you reach the Central Lowlands, where most of the people live.

I have a lot of affection for Glasgow, most of my ancestors are from the Gorbals in the south of the city, and the town of Paisley to the west. Glasgow is a fun place, and it’s also a city of fine culture. It has 19 theatres and concert halls, and some really great art galleries. When I say great, I mean internationally renowned. Go to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) or the Burrell Collection if you’ve got time. Unsurprisingly, it’s not hard to find somewhere to get a drink in Glasgow, but it’s also a great place to eat, the city’s Italian and South Asian communities are largely to thank for that. For a good curry, Glasgow is hard to beat.

Just a note about the picture, this is GOMA, and the statue outside depicts The Duke of Wellington. One night, somebody added the traffic cone you see on his head. The authorities didn’t like this so they took it away, but it came back. The cone is now a permanent fixture, and an essential part of Glasgow culture.

NB. Just as a little update – I did initially write that you’ll travel along the Settle to Carlisle Railway – England’s most scenic line. The logical route would not go that way, but you could do it as a detour from Carlisle if you really wanted to. If not, the West Coast Line through northern England is pretty scenic too.

Photo credit – The Gallery of Modern Art, Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow
© Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Glasgow links

See Glasgow website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.
The Lively Culture of Glasgow
I know the guy who wrote this article.

Day Four - Glasgow to Mallaig

leaving around 09.00 - just over five hours

Ben Nevis Make sure your camera is charged up on this day, you’ll need it. You’re boarding the West Highland Lines at Glasgow Queen Street, and heading into the wilderness.

There are two choices, you can either travel to Oban or Mallaig, the train divides at Crianlarich. Whatever you decide to do, it’s going to be excellent, but my suggestion is to go to Mallaig. The stretch from Fort William to Mallaig was the location for the Hogwarts Express scenes in the Harry Potter movies, but the word ‘express’ is hardly fitting. This is not a speedy journey. The route snakes through glens and passes lochs; it’s not a time for the driver to go at full throttle. Sometimes the trains have to stop while deer clear the lines at their own pace. None of this will matter though; you’ll just be enjoying the scenery, and probably doing a bit of eagle spotting.

There is an option to take a steam train from Fort William to Mallaig, if you really want to do the Harry Potter thing justice, but you’ll need to book that separately. The service is called the Jacobite, and there’s a link below for more information and booking details.

I’m also going to suggest you travel back to Fort William for the night, you’ll find more choice of accommodation there. Staying in Mallaig would be wonderful if you can do it, but Fort William is great too. It’s a major mountaineering centre for Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, and Glen Coe. Another thing, if you get to Mallaig and you’ve got a day or two to spare, there are ferries to the Isle of Skye, and that would be another fabulous adventure.

Photo credit – Ben Nevis from Corpach
© Copyright TheTurfBurner and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Fort William links

Visit Fort William website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.

West Highland Lines links

The Jacobite
Information and bookings for the steam service between Fort William and Mallaig.
West Highland Line voted Top Railway Journey in the World
On the ScotRail website

Day Five - Fort William to Edinburgh

leaving just before noon - around five hours

Looking down the barrel to the Scott Monument, Edinburgh Getting back to Glasgow for the train to Edinburgh, we’re doubling back on ourselves, and that’s something I’ve tried to avoid. There are two reasons why I’ve made an exception in this instance. Firstly, it’s such a wonderful journey, and secondly, there’s no other choice.

Say hello again to Glasgow as you’re passing through, and it’s only a quick trip to the capital. It pains me to say this because there’s an east west rivalry among the Scots, but Edinburgh is a truly fabulous city. I’ve been to some fine places, including Paris, Rome and New York, but Edinburgh is right there with them, especially on a sunny day, if only there were a few more of those.

There’s no mystery about what to do in Edinburgh, go to the castle, shop in Princes Street, or just wander around. One of the less obvious attractions is the Camera Obscura, which has been much improved since I last went there. What was once a hidden gem is now a fun interactive attraction, with lots for kids to do. I suppose that’s a good thing, I definitely wouldn’t give it a miss if you can.

If you time it right, you’ll arrive in Edinburgh during the festivals. If so, on the upside there’ll be plenty to see. On the downside, you’ll wish you had a week and you might find it hard to get accommodation, just so you’re aware. Check using the link I’ve provided below.

Just a quick tip – if you find you’re running behind schedule at this stage, you can get straight back to London from either Glasgow or Edinburgh. It would be such a shame if you had to do this, but at least the option is there.

Photo credit – Looking down the barrel to the Scott Monument, Edinburgh
© Copyright Martin Brown and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Edinburgh links

Edinburgh on Visit Scotland website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.
The official Edinburgh Festivals website
If you're going to do this you need to look here.

Day Six - Edinburgh to York

around two and a half hours

York Minster, York The journey from Edinburgh to York won’t take too long, so you’ll have time for a few sights when you get there. Just a tip, on the following day the journey to London is quite quick too, and the services are pretty frequent. You could spend the morning in Edinburgh and travel later to York, knowing you can see more of York the following morning. I hope that’s not too confusing.

York is another city where there’s no shortage of things to do, but you must go to York Minster. This is one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, it’s a true wonder. Aside from that, there’s the Jorvik Viking Centre and the National Rail Museum, if you haven’t had enough of trains by now. York also has a mind-boggling maze of little cobbled streets, with a host of independent shops and a vibrant cafe culture. How many times have you read words like that on a tourist website? But, in the case of York it’s true. You’ll love it there, but your sadness to leave will be somewhat mitigated by the prospect of returning to my favourite city, London.

Photo credit – York Minster, York
© Copyright Andy Beecroft and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

York links

Visit York website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.

Day Seven - York to London Kings Cross

about two to two and a half hours

Trafalgar Square, London Back to London, I won’t elaborate too much on London itself, I’ll be here until dawn. There are a few things I do have to say, not for legal reasons but something like that. Please use this article as a guide, and hopefully a source of inspiration. If you decide to do this, you will need to research the finer points yourself. Hopefully, I’ve done some of the homework for you, but you’ll have to check on the exact times of trains. There’s a link to the National Rail Network website further on. I use it all the time, and it’s pretty good.

Britain’s rail network is the oldest in the world and, lovely as that may sound, it does have its drawbacks. We do have things like maintenance closures, which usually happen at weekends. This can be disappointing and inconvenient, normally there’s a diversion or a replacement bus service. You shouldn’t be too badly affected by these, at least I hope not.

Finally, our railways aren’t cheap, especially if you just buy a ticket on the day. There are a couple of suggestions I can make, and these should reduce the cost a lot. If you buy tickets in advance and travel at off-peak times, the cost is greatly reduced, but it will mean being held to a fixed time. You can buy these online or at stations, but cheaper fares are subject to availability, and they don’t sell them after a certain time the day before.

Another thing to look into is a Family and Friends Railcard, these cost about £28. This will get you a hefty discount, but you do need to have a child aged 5 to 15 with you. There’s also something called a Rover Ticket, and this’ll cover you for a whole week’s travel. It would take a mathematician to work out if this will save you money. It’s a fixed cost, but you’re comparing it with so many variables. Don’t let this put you off though, start by looking at the National Rail Network website and have fun. I’m off to bed to dream of trains, while it’s still dark outside.

Photo credit – Trafalgar Square, London
© Copyright Yvonne Wakefield and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Tickets and prices

National Rail Enquiries
Website for all about timetables, buying tickets in advance and service disruptions.
Family and Friends Railcard
One way to save money

London links

Visit London website
You can use this site to look for attractions and accommodation.

About my Lens Photo

You can buy this at Allposters.com

Your feedback please

I’m grateful for any feedback you might care to offer, I’m sure there are many places you would have liked me to mention. I’m particularly sorry about Northern Ireland. I promise to make it up to you. My Great Grandfather was from Antrim, but I only write about places I’ve been to, and that’s next on my list.
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  • Marion23 Feb 08, 2014 @ 10:07 am
    I enjoyed the reading, and the pictures are very nice too. Good lens.
  • JessicaLVine Feb 07, 2014 @ 10:32 pm
    Nice lens. I like it. :)
  • Colin323 Feb 06, 2014 @ 4:06 am
    I take the York to London train a few times a year - for leisure now - and pay a bit extra to travel first class. It is definitely worth it, for the extra legroom and meal on the journey. I have a Senior Rail Card, which gives me a third off the price, and I love the chance to sit back for a few hours and watch the countryside go by.
  • Ainezz Feb 02, 2014 @ 2:55 am
    Sounds like an interesting idea
  • DebMartin Jan 31, 2014 @ 10:14 am
    This is a trip I'd love to take. Although seven days is not enough. I'd need at least 2 days in each place. Lovely lens.
  • tfsherman Jan 28, 2014 @ 7:43 pm
    Yearning to make just such a trip. Inspirational.
  • ElaineMarlowe Jan 28, 2014 @ 6:01 pm
    What a wonderful lens. I traveled throughout Europe in the 70's by train and loved it. I have never seen the English countryside however I did spend time in London. My ancestors are from the UK. Thanks for sharing this.
  • rauspitz Jan 28, 2014 @ 5:51 pm
    Terrific travel lens. Congratulations on getting LotD!
  • rattie Jan 28, 2014 @ 5:18 pm
    OOOH! Bit of an emotional tour for me John! I'm from the lowlands of Scotland (Ayrshire to be exact - Rabbie Burns country!) but I have llved in Australia for many years. I attended university in Glasgow and grew to love the city, which back then was old and dirty but architecturally held so much promise. I'm so glad you included much about Scotland which tends to be left out of people's travels when the see 'Britain'! Lovely, lovely lens.
  • nedcampbell Jan 28, 2014 @ 2:37 pm
    Great Site! I really loved the photos. There is nothing better than travelling by train anywhere.

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