UK Holidays

Where to go by train in Britain

As readers of my blog will know, I often take my summer holiday in the UK, and usually, now that I am retired, several other breaks of varying lengths. We do go abroad, both on package tours and on our own itineraries, but we always take at least one seaside holiday in Britain, sometimes by car but far more often by train. (The trips abroad have all been by train since the Channel Tunnel opened, although we will probably have to fly again at some time if we want to go beyond Europe, parts of Asia and North Africa.)

In 2021 it is likely that holidays abroad will be greatly restricted by coronavirus precautions in almost every country in the world and the complex quarantine arrangements. I offer this page as inspiration in some small way for anyone wondering where they can go in the UK, especially as the roads are likely to be busier than ever with so many people taking holidays in Britain this year.

Wherever you go, the journey is part of the adventure!


Before looking at destinations it is worth reiterating that when travelling by rail the journey is part of the holiday. Regard the ride as one of the holiday activities, not just a way of getting there, so choose an interesting route if there is any choice available and research what you might be able to see from the windows: some of our great cathedrals and castles, for example, can be spotted from the train, and some of our best landscape. Taking the Thameslink route through London gives some amazing views of the city, too. And if you can get Advance tickets, travel First Class and get a better seat and, on some routes, table service of meals and snacks (subject to pandemic precautions, of course). And do see my advice on luggage!




Seaside

Cross Country Trains serves several
coastal destinations
When it comes to summer holidays, most of us probably think of the coast. Seaside holidays have always been popular since the concept of the summer holiday was first invented (by the railway industry) in the 19th century, and although not all seaside resorts still have the rail stations around which they grew, many still do have them and it s still quite easy to take a seaside holiday by train. I make a few suggestions here, but my list is far from exhaustive and I have not been everywhere so the lack of a mention here does not mean a place is not worth visiting!

North Wales

The north Wales coast resorts are accessible by rail, and from most of England a change of train at Birmingham New Street will get you there. Llandudno, Rhyll, Conwy, Colwyn Bay and Bangor are all well-known resorts and worth a visit, and New Street is right at the hub of the British railway network with trains from all over the country.

South Coast of England

All the way from Dorset to Sussex there are many seaside resorts which still have their rail stations and are easy to reach via either Birmingham or London: Weymouth, Poole, Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Southsea, Brighton, Hastings and many others. There are miles and miles of high quality beach and a variety of fantastic landscape and lively towns, something to suit everyone, and the weather is generally pretty good. Where the train doesn't reach, a coastal bus ride from the nearest station will get you to almost everywhere else - Swanage, for example, is an amazing open-top bus ride from right outside Bounemouth station. And if you want to go overseas but stay British, a fast ferry from Poole will take you to the Channel Islands!

From Portsmouth Harbour, or from Lymington Pier, are ferries to the Isle of Wight. The ferries are part of the train services and through tickets are sold to the stations on the Island Line down to Shanklin via Portsmouth Harbour, or to Yarmouth via Lymington

Really good value First Class Advance tickets from London Waterloo get you off to a great start, although trains also reach Portsmouth Harbour from Bristol if you want to avoid London.




East Anglia

The Norfolk and Suffolk coasts lost more of their railways than North Wales or the South Coast, but stall have several rail-connected resorts, and reasonable bus services to others. Essex has kept most of its railways to the coast. So Clacton, Southend-on-Sea, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Cromer and Sheringham are accessible direct by train, but one bus connection would get you to other places like Southwold (from Ipswich), Hunstanton and Wells-next-the-Sea (from Kings Lynn) and allow you to tour inland, too.

Kent

High Speed Train driving at Margate from London St Pancras.
This service, via HS1, has revolutionised access to Kent holiday resorts.

Most of the Kent resorts are now easily accessible by train, many of them by direct high-speed train from London St Pancras which gives easy connections from the rest of the country, Euston and and Kings Cross termini being an easy walk and Paddington a simple Underground ride (although I have walked that, too!). Margate is not what it was fifty years ago but is still well worth a visit and is improving all the time: is beaches are as good as ever! Again, buses take you where the trains don't reach.

West of England

Getting past Bristol and Exeter on the M5 and/or A38 has been a problem for as long as I can remember (about sixty years!), but although the railways are not what they were, there are still many seaside possibilities in the west, and many ways of getting there from any part of the UK. From London trains leave Paddington or Waterloo, and from everywhere else you can connect into these at, say, Reading or Bristol, or you can travel direct to most of the western peninsula from Birmingham New Street and anywhere else on Cross Country's route, as far as Aberdeen! You can even travel overnight from London or Reading on the Night Riviera sleeper service avoiding spending a day travelling. From Penzance you can get the ship to the Isles of Scilly.

Awaiting the steam train to Dartmouth at Paignton!

Resorts easily reached this way include Weston-Super-Mare, Exmouth, Teignmouth, Torquay, Paignton, Looe, Falmouth, Penzance, St Ives, Newquay, Barnstaple, and a bus ride will get you to Minehead from Taunton, or if you are really adventurous look out for connections via the West Somerset Railway, a steam-operated preserved branch line. Likewise, for Dartmouth a steam train is available direct from Paignton several times a day all through the summer season. Getting there really is a part of the adventure when you go to Dartmouth this way, and who in their right mind would want a car in Dartmouth anyway?

Yorkshire and the North East

Like East Anglia, these parts of England have lost more railway than some other parts, but again there are still resorts which are rail-accessible and there are coastal bus services which will get you to those between. Scarborough has direct trains from Manchester which have connections from elsewhere at York and Leeds; Whitby is at the end of a long scenic line from Middlesborough and as you get further and further into the moors you can feel the stress departing as you leave your working life behind you!

Whitley Bay and Tynemouth are now on the Tyneside Metro system and can be reached from Newcastle. While you may not go there looking for hot, sunny weather you can quite often find it there anyway, though maybe not as hot as Poole or Newquay.

North West

Everyone knows about Blackpool, which now has a better train service than it has enjoyed for quite a while. Morecambe still has its station, and the Midland Hotel has been restored to Art Deco splendour and is right opposite the station which was its raison d'être. Farther north, the line from Lancaster takes you through Grange-over-Sands (no sand there now, so although coastal it is no longer a "seaside"), Ulverston and Barrow-in-Furness to the Irish Sea coast and Whitehaven and Maryport. Again, if you want to feel you're going overseas there are ships to the Isle of Man from Liverpool.

Scotland

I have never done a seaside holiday as such in Scotland, but have visited briefly and can recommend the resort of Aberdeen: it does have a beach and amusements as well as docks and oil and a university! The Far North is worth a visit for the scenic ride to get there from Inverness and you can have the beach to yourself at Thurso and a few other places on the way. The east coast also features Arbroath and, on a branch line from Edinburgh, North Berwick. The west coast tends to be more rugged, but there are Ayr, Prestwick, Troon, and Saltcoats, for example, with trains via Kilmarnock or Glasgow.

South Wales

The Gower Peninsula is reachable only by bus from Swansea, but Swansea is served by fast trains from London (with connections at Bristol Parkway, Bristol Temple Meads or Cardiff from everywhere else), so it is quite accessible. The only resort with its own train service is Tenby, still requiring a change at Swansea, but that is a superb resort with five beaches and well worth a visit. But it is a small place and needs booking in good time! Plan the trip carefully and ensure you can make all your connections because it's a long way west.



Walking

I have often thought that train (or bus) travel goes well with country walking: you can start in one place and finish at another, and in Britain we have many rural stations whose main purpose is to cater for walkers. From the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to the South Downs and Dartmoor, if walking is your thing then a holiday with begins with the railway can work for you.


Now I have to confess that I am not quite so knowledgeable about this type of holiday, but I generally return from my holidays having walked many more miles per week than I ever do from home. There is always much to explore when away in a new place, and the places you go will depend on personal preference: I am rather more interested in urban rambles than most people (and I shall deal with cities in a separate section), so I am less experienced in countryside exploration. I suggest the following possibilities, although there are many more:

  • The West Highland Line from Glasgow via Fort William to Mallaig has several stops suitable for walking in suitable weather. It is vital to do research in advance and not to be marooned by missing the last train back to your base, of course. At some stations there is accommodation, and this would need to be secured in advance if you wish to use it. Some are very remote indeed (Corrour springs to mind), if that is your penchant.
  • The Settle and Carlisle Line in the north of England likewise has some remote stations from which walks can be started and agin these need to be well-planned.
  • Norfolk has some little stations without any other real use, too, and also there are some great walks (particularly if you are interested in birds and other wildlife) along the north Norfolk coast, and if you are based in a resort like Sheringham it is possible to take the Coastliner bus out and walk back to base.
  • The English Lakes has a network of bus routes allowing access to the hills for walkers - well worth investigating as part of planning for a holiday among some of our best scenery.
Almost anywhere has a network of public footpaths and these are often well way marked these days and easy to follow. Planned in advance on a OS map or using a smartphone app it is easy to choose a holiday base where different walks can be taken each day, or even to arrange a tour which is part walking, part rail, staying in different places each night.

One one holiday in Dartmouth we did a walk each day to reach a different National Trust place of interest, and the walk was as much a part of the adventure as the destination. You can read about it in the blog, at The Thirties Era with a Polish Twist! Of course, train or bus trips with country walks work well if you are doing a "staycation", too, where you live at home but go out each day doing things you'd do if you were on holiday in your own area. See A Walk to the Pub, for example.



City Breaks

London is the most popular tourist destination in the world, and it is easily reached by train from almost anywhere in Britain. Many British people go there for day trips, or occasionally overnight, but we seldom make a holiday of it, but there is a lot there and plenty to fill a week or two. I cannot claim it is cheap, though: even budget hotels are not especially cheap in London, but you do get a lot of experience for your money. As well as all the usual tourist places like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace there are scores of museums and less well-known historic sites. A glance through the London pages of the National Trust and English Heritage websites will give you a week's intensive visiting without setting foot in a museum or art gallery! Travel on an Advance First Class ticket and get a reserved comfortable seat for much less than the cost of a standard walk-up ticket, and use contactless card payment on the Underground and buses to cap your daily spend: walking is often the simplest way to get around the central area, too, and there are some great urban rambles to be had in London. Search for "London" on this website for inspiration!

Kenwood House, an art gallery on Hampstead Heath, London

The United Kingdom has many other cities well worth a visit, too. None of the others approaches the size and complexity of London but they all have their history and most are worth a few days if not a week. The oldest are not the biggest, though, and where you choose to go will depend on your interests, so do the research first, easy on the World Wide Web!

Canal Tour in Birmingham
Our second city is usually taken to be Birmingham, the second-biggest and at the centre of England with a large urban hinterland in the West Midlands conurbation. Only a couple of centuries old as a city it has a great industrial heritage and more miles of canal than Venice! It has one of the nations best art galleries and two great concert halls and museums celebrating its place as a world centre of jewellery-making and small metalworking industries. Again, search "Birmingham" on this website for suggestions of what to see, but I have been everywhere yet and notable omissions are the Science Museum at Millennium Point and Aston Hall.

The third city is supposed to be Sheffield, and across the Pennines from there is Manchester, both well worth a visit, as is the wild countryside between them. One of my own favourite cities is Liverpool, and I hope to spend a few days there as soon as we are allowed to travel again, for a ferry trip on the River Mersey and on the Manchester Ship Canal. Again, plenty of history and culture to explore. Also among my favourites are Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Edinburgh well repays a week-long stay, with plenty to see, and Newcastle can include some beach time at Tynemouth as well as city time! I have only been to Glasgow briefly and await the chance to spend much more time there.

River Cruise in Ely

There are our historic cathedral cities, too, such as York and Canterbury, obviously, and Carlisle, Salisbury, Winchester and Ely, too - Ely is just a market town city but is packed with interest and is easily accessible by rail from all over England.

Bath is one of my favourite cities to visit, and it will be one of the first I get to as soon as travel is allowed and the Thermae Spa is open again!

Like the seaside places, this list of cities is not exhaustive and there are other great cities in all four UK nations you may like to explore. he great thing about major cities, of course, is that they tend to be on the inter-city rail network!






Tours

We have taken many a Great Rail Journeys tour on the continent and arranged some short tours of our own in the UK. The downside is living out of a suitcase or backpack; the upside is seeing lots of interesting places (and, if you like that sort of thing, riding on lots of trains!). Some parts of the country lend themselves to touring quite well, and we have done a little bit in Cornwall, although I'd like to do something much more adventurous there, in Scotland and on the south coast of England, but Wales and East Anglia would also be good places to go. Plan in advance, book B&Bs, buy train tickets and go!

For an altogether more luxurious touring holiday, take a look at Belmond's website, draw a deep breath and book a trip around Scotland on the Royal Scotsman cruise train! I have yet to experience this (it was booked last summer and had to be cancelled because all the other customers were American and could not get here!) but it promises to be something to remember - just as well because it's a bit expensive to repeat ...




I hope this has been a helpful set of suggestions for holidays in the UK. Do not fall for the idea that these are inferior to foreign travel, for unless you are very fortunate indeed you are unlikely to have seen all that the UK has to offer. There is much omitted here, of course, for I have not done everything myself, and I regret that Liverpool and the Lake District are so briefly dealt with, because I'd have visited those places last year but for the pandemic restrictions. 

If you are thinking of train travel for the first time, please do browse through the tabs at the top of this page and look at the advice on luggage, on first class travel and on changing trains, and browse through the blog to see what I have done over the years, but bear in mind that some things have improved since I did them, and that the pandemic has curtailed some things, too. Do ask questions in the comments sections and I'll try to answer as soon as I can - after all, I'm not going anywhere just yet.

Finally, if this year's wing-clipping has made you think about rail travel more than before, how about following me onto the continent by train as well? There are several trips abroad on the blog, too. Often the train takes longer than flying, but often it does not once you take all the travel time into account - and how brilliant was the trip to the South of France by Eurostar!

Cheers!


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