Scenic Railway Routes

Train travel as entertainment

Looking through the window is all the
entertainment you need on many journeys
Although I have travelled some spectacular scenic railway lines in Switzerland and France, I am limiting this article to routes in Great Britain because (a) I want it to be a manageable length and (b) there are many routes here well worth travelling but about which rather less has been written. Many of my British readers may be unaware that there are some really beautiful routes which can be used, albeit more slowly, rather than mundane main lines, as well as the routes in, for example, the Scottish highlands which are rather better-known.

Even trimming this to Great Britain does not allow me to make an exhaustive list, and in any case this is a matter of taste and opinion, and I have not travelled every line in the country yet to assess it! So I am choosing a few routes which I personally have enjoyed and therefore commend. They may not be to everyone's taste but I hope that anyone trying them on my recommendation will at least agree that they are interesting and worthy of consideration. Some are well-known (and I shall not dwell on the best-known ones) and some less well-known. Still others are my own idea and you are unlikely to find them listed anywhere else!

Coastal Stretches

Everyone knows the line past Dawlish in south Devon, or at least we've all heard of it. It is where Brunel had to build the Great Western main line because of opposition to taking it overland, and it has led to spectacular storm incidents including a recent complete cutting-off of Cornwall for several weeks. It is also gorgeous both to see from the ground and to ride! For the passenger, the Dawlish section is but a part of a longer stretch from Exeter St Davids, the main junction station in Exeter where all the lines converge, through to Newton Abbot: this takes in the Exe and the Teign estuaries as well as the seaside between them and is scenic throughout. There is a short video clip at The West of England on this blog.

For me the best coastal stretch, though, is on the East Coast Main Line in Northumberland. Mile after mile of views across the North Sea, including famous historic sights like Lindisfarne (Holy Island), Bamburgh, Alnmouth, and eventually into Scotland the distant view of the Firth of Forth.

Two other places come to mind where you get much closer to the sea than either Dawlish (except in storm weather when the sea comes to greet you!) or the Northumberland coast, but they are not so much on the beaten track and are less well-known. One of them is on the Far North Line, between Golspie and Helmsdale (video clip above), and is but a part of a long ride that is scenic throughout! You can read about my adventure on that line at The Far North! on this blog. On the coastal stretch the track runs literally along the back of the beach: no sea wall like Dawlish, the shingle is right beside the train! The Far North Line will appear in anyone's list of British scenic lines, but not in every list of coastal lines.

The other such line is in Furness in Cumbria, the coastal railway from Barrow-in-Furness to Carlisle. I have only travelled between Barrow and Whitehaven, but there is a long stretch of back-of-the beach line overlooking the Irish Sea, as well as some fairly spectacular estuary-crossing and the docks at Barrow. Indeed, the stretch from Lancaster to Barrow also has some good sea views across Morecambe Bay, although much of it is now salt marsh. You can read about my trip along this line in Rum and Submarines.

Another interesting, and exciting if, like us, you are on your way to a coastal holiday, stretch of line is the preserved line from Paignton to Kingswear for Dartmouth. The train is steam-hauled and sometimes conveys a Pullman observation car with armchairs and sparkling wine, and follows the coast for a while along Goodrington Sands (above) and beyond and then crosses the peninsula to emerge alongside the Dart estuary where it terminates at Kingswear for the ferry to Dartmouth. Thus there is town, country, beach, forest and river all in one short train journey. We have done this twice as a means of getting to Dartmouth, and also used the line for travel along the coast while staying there. I don't think we've ever ridden it just for the scenery, but then we've seen quite a lot of it without really trying!

River Valleys

Many railway lines follow river valleys because it enables engineers to design with minimum "cut and fill" even if the course is not direct, and this can give some beautiful rides as a by-product. The Rhine Valley in Germany and Switzerland is an example of a dramatic riverside railway line in its broad reaches, picturesque higher up. In the UK, the Great Western main line follows the Thames for some distance around Reading and the Avon around Bristol and Bath, for example, and the West Coast main line follows the Trent for long stretch through the Midlands. Not all of these give attractive views from the train, but I'll mention three rather different scenic sections that I personally enjoy, two of which are probably not mentioned elsewhere.

Boats on the River Great Ouse at Ely
One is very short indeed, the approach to Ely station from the north, past the marina on the Great Ouse, full of boats and activity, with the city and its unique cathedral rising behind it. Blink and you miss it, but no matter how much work I have to do, I always look out of the window here. If you can afford to time to look out for a few minutes, the approach from the Peterborough direction treats you to a rotating view of the cathedral as you curve round the city before taking the straight run past the marina. Stunning.

Another is the fast run into Reading from the west, with a view across the broad River Thames to Caversham with riverside houses, many with boathouses. Not as pretty as Ely, but a much wider river and very pleasant.

My third example is in many other people's scenic railway lists, and that is the line from Bristol down to the south coast, following the Avon through Bath almost all the way to Trowbridge and then the Wylie and the Nadder from Warminster into Salisbury. The Avonside bits between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon are especially picturesque and although so far I have only ever travelled through here on my way to or from south coast holidays, I plan one day to take it more slowly and get off the train at intermediate stops to look at places properly, perhaps having coffee, beer or lunch or even staying somewhere on the way through.

I have enjoyed many other well-known riverside stretches, such as the branch line to Blaenau Ffestiniog from Llandudno, and the Tyne Valley line westwards from Newcastle - which also follows Hadrian's Wall in places. I find that books taken to read on the train are seldom opened when I am following a river - and especially if that river winds its way between mountains in Scotland or Switzerland!


Glenfinnan Viaduct seen from a Scotrail Sprinter train
heading to Mallaig from Fort William
Having visited the Swiss Alps a couple of times I have seen many a mountain view from many a train in both winter and summer and been duly impressed. Here in Britain the scenery is not Alpine, but there are places, especially in Scotland, where there are some pretty spectacular views. They do not look the same in a 2D photo on a computer screen, so I am just going to say that you need to go and do it yourself! The lines I recommend are the West Highland, best seen at dawn from the lounge car of the Caledonian Sleeper and from The Jacobite steam train beyond the Sleeper's terminus at Fort William, and the Far North from Inverness to Thurso. I am told that the line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh is also spectacular but that is still on my "to do" list. There is also some decent mountain scenery through the Cairngorms between Edinburgh and Inverness, including the ski resort at Aviemore. See my posts at West Highland Adventure, The Highland Chieftain and The Far North!

Urban and Suburban Lines

If you are a fan of the countryside and wild, you might wonder whether there can be such a thing as an urban scenic line. Well, it is not like the countryside, of course, but there are city and town scenes that demand attention through the train window. Some are part of rural journeys, like the marina at Ely, mentioned above, or the view along the streets at Yarm and at Grantham as you cross on a high bridge, or famously the view of Durham Castle and Cathedral from the viaduct. Indeed, the East Coast Main Line has several decent urban views: York Minster and the Tyne Bridges at Newcastle are two more, for example, and the arrival at Edinburgh.

The Thameslink line through central London includes some great glimpses of the London skyline and it is hard not to be excited travelling this way with a young family! Since the line was reconstructed to pass under Ludgate Hill instead of over it, the glimpse of St Paul's Cathedral has gone, but you still see Southwark Cathedral south of the Thames.

In Birmingham there is little of the city centre to see from any of its lines, other than the distant view of one more skyscraper than the last time you came, but there is a great scenic ride in from (or out towards) Cheltenham, Gloucester and South Wales. This line follows canal and passes through leafy Edgbaston and past Birmingham University and it is  particularly attractive in spring and autumn.

While not necessarily spectacular, there are some approaches to town stations that I'd call interesting, such as at Grimsby where the train almost seems to be running in the street, between rows of houses, and the high-level line from Portsmouth and Southsea to Portsmouth Harbour. It is a pity that the Channel Island boat train to the ferry terminal at Weymouth is no longer operating: I'd love to travel through the narrow streets on that, but although Channel Islands is on my list, travel will have to be via Poole Harbour now.

Looking Out

Do you recognise the castle visible through the drizzle here?
A relative who seldom goes anywhere without a car once asked me, "What do you do on these train journeys?" as if train travel were some boring new means of travel ("like flying," the cynical might add!). Well, I don't think I've ever been asked that about car journeys: watching where I'm going, keeping within the speed limit and making sure I have enough fuel seem to be enough to keep most of us occupied in the car. On the train I usually take a book, but unless it is a work trip and I have things to do, I seldom actually open my book. I usually have an iPod, too, but even if I am alone, I seldom listen to any music. I sit and look out of the window and watch the world go by. If I can keep my iPhone charged I usually run a map app so that I can see where I am which can add to the interest. Sometimes the view of the railway is the most interesting part. For example, across large parts of south London there are spectacular multi-level junctions and multiple-track lines busy with a variety of trains. I don't need any "on-train movies" or games: for me, the view is part of the enjoyment of train travel.

The main reason we choose rail travel for our leisure trips, whether holidays or day trips, is that holiday starts as soon as we leave the house: the travel is not just a matter of getting somewhere new but is in itself part of the "somewhere new". We enjoy the stations - either their facilities or just their architecture - and we enjoy the ride: we try to travel First Class whenever we can afford it and choose the "club duo" seating so we both get window seats and a table to ourselves. Apart from the enjoyment of the food and drink , the view from the window is part of the fun. There have been boring bits in France, and that is when the book does get read, but that does not often happen in Britain or in Switzerland.

Finally, I think my favourite view was when I opened the window blind of my sleeping compartment the morning after leaving Euston in the dark to find running deer and snow-capped mountains outside - a view that was to last all through breakfast and well beyond! It is worth looking out the scenic routes and not always going the shortest, fastest way, and coming back a different way from the way out, too.

What are your favourite bits of British railway line to travel?


  1. Expensive and overcrowded though it might often be, there isn't much in the country to beat the scenery between Manchester and Sheffield on the Hope Valley line. Midland Railway engineering at its most bullish, a quarter of the line is underground but the monstrous tunnels only serve as a curtain raiser on the next jaw-dropping set piece. I think the tourists have found it, at least the last time I went a couple of Americans watched a snow-capped Kinder Scout slipping by and remarked; "It's just like the Sound of Music!"

    (After reading your excellent blog for almost five years Mark, I've finally got round to commenting. Apologies for the delay as they say in railway parlance)


  2. Thanks for the comment, Mike. I have not travelled that way by rail for a very long time, and when I did it was a wet and dark day so I was not able to see much. It is fairly local to me, though, and is definitely on the list for a future trip - probably on a visit to Liverpool, going out via Nuneaton or Birmingham and back via Manchester and Sheffield, or vice-versa.

  3. Nice post! I recently applied for a visa to Switzerland. Your article will help me in choosing the best destinations for my Christmas celebrations in Switzerland. Keep up the good work.

  4. Has anyone commented to you on the seating in the LNER Azuma trains which now seem to have many seats without a window view?

    1. No, but I can say myself that although there are some seats without a window, there are not many of them, and I understand that LNER are actually removing most in order to increase luggage space. I have once chosen a non-window seat when I wanted to concentrate on something else (!) and at night it makes little difference anyway. Cross Country Turbostars also have some windowless seats, and I expect some other units do, too. It would be OK in my opinion if this were mentioned in the online booking systems so that you could avoid reserving a seat without a view if you want the view.