As the old cliché testifies, it’s often the journey not the destination that’s most rewarding. With that in mind, here’s ten spectacular journeys around Britain.
Travelling on The Snowdon Mountain Railway, Gwynedd
A haunting whistle cries out across the wild Snowdonia valleys as Wyddfa, one of the original 1895 steam locos, leaves the Halfway station bound for the summit of Snowdon – the highest mountain in Wales. Ever since the Victorians finished building the rack-and-pinion railway, plucky little engines have been chugging their way to the summit, halted each year by winter snows and with services frequently restricted by high winds.
But not everyone is a fan of the train. Bearded Gore-Tex mountain types hate slogging their way to the top only to find a trainload of inappropriately dressed tourists packing out the café and spoiling the serenity taking smartphone photos of their friends.
Those same hikers find little at fault with the mountain itself, however, or the exhilarating routes to the top – there are seven in all. The gentlest approach, the Llanberis Track roughly follows the train tracks. Alternatively, if you want to save yourself 800 feet of ascent, start at Pen-y-Pass, a col from which three popular routes begin: the relatively easy Miners’ Track, which passes the remains of a crushing mill from the old copper mines, while the more rugged Pig Track climbs Bwlch y Moch (the Pass of the Pigs). Those with a head for heights meanwhile tackle the knife-edge ridge of Crib Goch, part of the wondrous Snowdon Horseshoe route.
The Snowdon Mountain Railway starts from Llanberis, Gwynedd, www.snowdonrailway.co.uk.
Taking the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, Liverpool
The service may date back to the twelfth century but as you step onto the Snowdrop ferry (one of the three that still service this route) there’s no mistaking which era you’re being transported to. Hackneyed it may be, but it almost goes without saying that the tannoy is only going to be playing one tune.
“Life goes on day after day/Hearts torn in every way”, sings Gerry Marsden as the 1965 hit he recorded with his band The Pacemakers cranks into life for the millionth time. Liverpool’s golden age of music may now be half a century old, but the charm of taking a ferry across the River Mersey from Liverpool to the Wirral Peninsula to this soundtrack still hasn’t diminished.
On board ship, unless the weather is truly atrocious, it’s worth sitting out on deck where, once Gerry’s singing ceases, you’ll hear a decent audio commentary telling you much about the city and the long history of the ferry service, which was operated by monks from Birkenhead Priory until the monastery’s dissolution in 1536.
Mersey Ferries (merseyferries.co.uk) operate up to thirteen times a day.
Riding the Settle to Carlisle railway
Often dubbed “England’s most scenic railway”, the Settle to Carlisle line, which runs from the Yorkshire Dales almost to the Irish Sea, is a joy from end to end. Yet as walkers, families, railway buffs and locals board at pretty-as-a-picture Settle station, all flowers and wraparound friendliness, few realize just how privileged they are to be able to ride it. For it’s a miracle that this engineering masterpiece, almost stillborn in the nineteenth century, and close to violent death in the twentieth, exists at all.
It’s invariably a holiday atmosphere – happy, excited, expectant – as the train climbs northwards out of Settle through the beautiful Dales countryside. Yorkshire’s famous Three Peaks rock past – Sphinx-like Pen-y-ghent to the right, Ingleborough and Whernside to the left. Sheep and farmhouses dot bleak uplands rising to limestone scars, rough pasture is edged by dry-stone walls. Out onto the great Ribblehead Viaduct, you’ll feel like you’re flying. Far below, rivers and roads meander, and people stand by their cars taking pictures as you cross. After the viaduct, the train dives into Blea Moor Tunnel, said to be haunted. From Ais Gill, the railway’s 1169-foot zenith, the line drops down the idyllic Eden Valley through lush fields and prosperous villages, finally fetching up, brakes squealing, at the fine sandstone city of Carlisle.
A day return from Settle to Carlisle can be booked via National Rail (www.nationalrail.co.uk).
Narrowboating on the Llangollen Canal
Llangollen lies near the western extreme of one of the most beautiful and popular canal journeys in Wales; some would argue it’s the best in Britain. The town itself is thoroughly appealing, its small, historic centre energized by the rushing waters of the River Dee and the shrill whistles of steam trains, chuffing their way out of the picturebook station.
Llangollen’s famous canal, a masterwork of the Industrial Revolution, was created by the great Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford. The first surprise is its location: high above the town, on the Dee Valley’s steep slope. The second is that there are so few locks to negotiate, despite the hilly terrain: in the thirty-mile run to Whitchurch in Shropshire, there are only two. So if your idea of a blissful few days’ boating is to snooze on deck while somebody else mans the tiller, Llangollen is an excellent choice.
Heading east, the canal winds its way through the lush Denbighshire countryside, crossing into England at Chirk and continuing through the open pastures of rural Shropshire and Cheshire. Before you cross the border, you exchange the calm serenity of wooded banks for heady drama as you steer your way onto a masterwork within a masterwork: the breathtaking Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Soaring over 38m above the wide Dee valley, it’s the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, and at the time of its completion, 1805, it was revolutionary.
Taking the sleeper train to the Highlands
The Caledonian Sleeper rolls along a ribbon of iron for 500-odd miles between London and Fort William, one of only two overnight routes in Britain (the other is London to Penzance). Taking you through some of the most stunning scenery in the country, it’s a wonderful, leisurely alternative to the often soul-destroying experience that flying has become, connecting you more intimately to the great British landscape. From zipping through London’s twinkling urban majesty during an evening departure, to rolling past the quiet countryside of England’s rural northwest, the length and breadth of Britain unfolds right in front of you.
By 7am, you’re skirting the shores of Loch Lomond, awake just in time for the best scenery. Like the hard C sounds of the passing station names – Crianlarich, Bridge of Orchy, Rannoch, Currour, Tulloch – the Highland landscape can be harsh, but not without its own lasting appeal. Among the green, ochre and dun-coloured crags, you’ll catch a quicksilver flash of a stream or loch, the occasional burst of yellow gorse, the unmistakeable patch of purple thistle and even the fiery-orange coats of Highland cattle, not to mention the odd deer bounding away as the train passes. So roll on, Caledonia, because the closest you’ll get to any of this beauty at 30,000 feet is in the pages of the in-flight magazine.
See www.scotrail.co.uk for more information.
Cruising down memory lane in a Routemaster
The original Routemaster, designed in the 1950s especially for the capital, is not only a style icon, with its simple, classic lines, but also a shiny red emblem of London pride, its famed hop-on-hop-off platform encapsulating the city’s rakish sense of spontaneity, urbanity and rebellious lack of respect for queues. Today just two “heritage routes” remain, designed not only for tourists but also to appease the crowds who blocked the roads in protest during the last buses’ final run in 2005.
Despite passing a string of tourist hotspots, riding a Routemaster today has little to do with the destinations – that hotchpotch of roadworks and chain stores, monuments and traffic jams can be seen from any London bus. No, this journey is a game of Remember When. If you want to “drive the bus” like when you were a kid, rush up top and sit at the front, grab the railing and go. If you want to enjoy the interplay between conductor (clippie) and driver, or hear the clippie’s familiar “Only five standing inside, please!”, then settle down below. Jettison your Oyster card and buy a ticket – it may not be spat out of a clickety, hand-cranked machine, but being handed a real ticket by a real person is a rare experience, one that most Londoners miss more than they know. One quick tug on the wire bell strung from the ceiling, one final “ding-ding”, a bold leap from the open deck, and your trip down memory lane is done.
Taking a helicopter to the Isles of Scilly
Leaving St Michael’s Mount behind it feels like you are skimming the western tip of Cornwall. In moments, you’re flying over enchanting Mousehole, its compact huddle of cottages encircling its tiny harbour. Soon after, your eye makes out the magnificent Minack Theatre, and it strikes you how inspirational it would be to watch Shakespeare with spectacular Porthcurno Bay as a backdrop. As north and south coasts converge a few minutes later, you pass over Land’s End, and with it just the endless expanse of shimmering blue sea. As you leave the mainland behind you the helicopter drops to just 1500ft above sea level allowing you to keep an eye out for dolphins and porpoises in the ocean below.
But the best part of this journey has to be the descent to St Mary’s, and the realization that you’re about to embark on your island adventure. Flying in with the gorgeous white-sand beaches of St Martin’s on your right, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were about to set foot in the Caribbean. But no – you’re just 25 minutes from the Cornish coast.
British International (www.brit-int.com) run flights from Penzance to St Mary’s throughout the year.
Flying through the sky at Matlock Bath
Matlock Bath now has its own cable car, whose six-seater glass and metal pods take a little more than five minutes to scuttle over the Derwent River Valley, pausing halfway along to swing gently in the breeze as passengers take in the panoramic view. It’s all good fun, and you can expect an excited squeal from the kids long before the cable cars reach their destination, the Heights of Abraham, grandly named after a famous British military victory over the French in Canada.
From the cable car’s top station, it’s the briefest of strolls to several attractions, including the Explorers’ Challenge, a first-rate adventure playground, and the stone Prospect Tower, from which there are fine views over the surrounding countryside. There’s also a fossil shop where you can buy some of the semi-precious stones for which the area is famous, but the best thing about the Heights is the guided trip underground down to the dark, dank and dripping Great Masson Cavern.
The Heights of Abraham, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire www.heightsofabraham.com.
Flying into Barra and beyond
BE6855 is perhaps the oddest scheduled domestic flight in Britain. It is a twenty-seater propeller plane that takes off daily from Glasgow and lands an hour later directly on the beach at the island of Barra. There is no airstrip, nor are there even any lights on the sand, and the flight times shift to fit in with the tide tables, because at high tide the runway is submerged. It’s probably also the only flight in the UK on which the person who demonstrates the safety procedures then turns around, gets into the cockpit and flies the plane.
Even if Barra were a dreary destination, the flight would be worth taking simply for the views it gives of Scotland’s beautiful west coast and the islands of Mull, Skye, Rum and Eigg. But take some time to explore Barra itself, just eight miles long by four miles wide. Visually, the island is a stunner, with white-sand beaches, backed by machair, and barren rocky mountains which offer superb walking; and Barra’s history is writ large on the landscape, with an atmospheric medieval island-fortress, Bronze Age burial site and a remarkable hamlet of Iron Age roundhouses exposed during a storm in 2005.
Cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats
People have used their feet (both running and walking), cars, motorbikes, public transport, bicycles, tricycles, unicycles, skateboards, wheelchairs and even a motorized bathtub. Some do it in fancy dress and at least one courageous fellow – “the naked rambler” – has done it in nothing more than a hat and pair of walking boots. It’s attracted everyone from schoolchildren to celebs. Most do it for charity, some for competition, others simply to say they’ve done it.
It is, of course, Land’s End to John O’Groats, Britain’s most epic journey. By road, it’s something like 900 miles, while off-road walkers will cover upwards of 1200. It generally takes cyclists around two weeks to complete (though astonishingly the record stands at little over 44 hours); for walkers, it’s more like two or three months – and a lot of blisters.
Gruelling it may be – and the sense of achievement you feel when you arrive is immense – but if you arrive at John O’Groats and feel slightly underwhelmed by its souvenir shops and coach parties, you wouldn’t be the first. So a word to the wise: press on east beyond the crowds to Duncansby Head, the real end of the road, which with its lighthouse, spectacular cliffs and sea stacks is a much more fitting end to your odyssey.
The Land’s End-John O’Groats Association (www.landsend-johnogroats-assoc.com) offers advice and support for people who want to make the journey.