When planning my next destination I tend to focus on the big trips abroad, I forget that I live in a country which has so much to offer in terms of beautiful countryside, coastlines as well as quaint villages and vibrant cities. One year I decided that I was going to spend my summer holiday travelling around the United Kingdom.
I had two goals in mind when planning my trip and that was to visit the north of Scotland (beyond Loch Lomond and Edinburgh) and Cornwall. I lived in Glasgow for 10 years and never visited the Highlands or Islands. Cornwall? Well, I simply miss the beaches back home in New Zealand and I had heard that the Cornish beaches were divine (and they are). I also ruled out middle and southern England. My reason for this was I’ve visited many towns in those areas before as day and work trips. Wales, unfortunately, had to be cut from my itinerary due to time constraints; it was a difficult decision to make.
Everything beyond that was me sitting with a map of the rail network and Time Out’s 1000 Things to Do In Britain (which is now incredibly out of date but still has some good ideas). If you are looking for more recent travel guides I am a big fan of Lonely Planet guides as they suit my style of travelling (there is always one in my bag/hand when I travel); their Great Britain or Best of Great Britain guides don’t disappoint. Fodor’s Essential Britain is also worth checking out. My absolutely favourite guides for inspiration is New York Times’ 36 Hours and there is one for the UK; 36 Hours, London and Beyond.
How Did I Travel?
I don’t drive so my only option was public transport, mainly via train. I love travelling by train. You have the time relax, the freedom to roam about the carriages plus the scenery as you speed through the countryside or along the coast is priceless.
If you are a visitor to the UK then buying a rail pass is cheap and easy. BritRail gives you various options at rates cheaper than buying tickets in the UK. At the time of this post it was only £310 for a 15 day BritRail pass, if I were to buy a similar pass in the UK it would cost £796. You must purchase your BritRail pass before you arrive in the UK.
When I did this trip I brought an All Line Rover (14 days) ticket because it was cheap, at the time, plus it gave me flexibility with regards to travel times and allowed me to have spontaneous side trips. However, now at £796 standard class (discounted with railcards) it is the most expensive option. If you know in advance which stations you will be disembarking from it’s much cheaper to buy single tickets per journey. If I were to cost my itinerary at today’s prices this is what I would get (please note that these prices are based on booking 12 weeks in advance; UK train tickets massively go up in price the closer you are to your travel date):
|Off-Peak Standard Class (fixed times)
|Anytime Standard Class (flexible)
|All Line Rover (14 day)
|BritRail 15 days (Overseas Visitors Only)
If I had brought single tickets in advance I would have saved a whopping £351.15 (Off-peak) or £177.80 (Anytime) Those savings could fund those side trips. If you just want to jump on a train and see where it takes you, then the All Line Rover tickets are ideal. My advice is to cost up all your options before purchasing your tickets. My personal preference would be the Anytime flexible tickets. Fixed time means exactly that; missing your train means purchasing new full price tickets on the day. These days, it is a very rare occasion to find a ticket hall staff member that will show empathy and bump you to a later train, at no extra cost. Or a guard that will ignore the incorrect time on your ticket.
Another option for saving on ticket prices is to split your tickets. Splitting tickets involves buying tickets for constituent parts of your journey. For example, for my journey travelling from Oxenholme Lake District to Exeter, it would be cheaper to buy a ticket from Oxenholme to Lancaster, and another for Lancaster to Exeter. I don’t need to get off at Lancaster but the train must stop at Lancaster for my tickets to be valid. TrainSplit is a great tool for splitting your tickets, however they charge a fee based on your savings so use it to find cheap tickets then book direct via the train company.
It’s important to note if you have single tickets you can’t disembark anywhere that is not your final destination. If you stop at a town which looks amazing and your ticket is, for example, Oxenholme to Exeter you can’t leave the train at this new station without incurring penalties (if you leave the station to explore this amazing town). It sounds crazy because you are effectively leaving the train at a station prior to your destination but that’s British rail for you. Also this action renders your ticket invalid; you would have to purchase a new ticket for your ongoing journey.
If you do plan to buy a Rover ticket, the best company is GWR (this link will take you straight to the booking page). You should be able to buy them from all other train companies but GWR provided the best knowledge and service when it came to my purchase. For information regarding what other type of Rover and Ranger tickets are available visit the National Rail website.
Over the next few days, I will write mini guides for each of the towns listed below, including the train journeys, should you wish to learn more.
York – 1 day
London Kings Cross ↠ York (approx 2 hours)
The walled city of York would have been the perfect way to start my UK trip, if I hadn’t decided to attend a Lord of the Rings all nighter at the IMAX the night before (don’t plan a LotR all nighter or any kind of movie franchise all nighter before you travel). My plan had been to have a quick nap before catching the 1pm train, arriving in York at 3pm. Instead I slept until 1pm and caught the 3pm train, arriving at 5pm. I was still able to explore the city streets coming across gems such as Dick Turpin’s grave, Clifford’s Tower, and York Minster, before falling comatose into my bed.
Scarborough – 1 Day
York ↠ Scarborough (approx 50 minutes)
Scarborough is a seaside resort in North Yorkshire, with two beaches which are the polar opposite of each; the lively South Bay with amusement arcades and cafés, and the peaceful North Bay, where you can take a quiet stroll. Storing my luggage at York station, I took a 50 minute train journey not only to enjoy at a day at the beach but to also visit the historic Scarborough Castle and to visit Anne Bronte’s grave.
Berwick-Upon-Tweed (Holy Island of Lindisfarne) – 1 day
Scarborough ↠ Berwick-upon-Tweed↠ Lindisfarne Island (approx 2.50 hours train; 35 mins bus to Lindisfarne from Berwick)
The main purpose for my stay in Berwick-Upon-Tweed was to visit the Holy Island, a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. The island was once an important seat of Celtic Christianity since the 6th century. While there you can visit the ruins of the mediaeval priority and the modern (est. 1550) Lindisfarne Castle. You can take a day trip or you can stay on the island overnight when the island is cut-off from the mainland (which is now on my bucket list). The Holy Island is reached from Berwick via bus, the timetable is according to the tides.
🚂 The train line from Durham to Berwick-upon-Tweed runs through green fields then skirts along the coast, taking you by castles, dramatic sea views and a Second World War airfield at Acklington.
Fort Augustus – 1 Day
Berwick-upon-Tweed↠ Inverness ↠ Fort Augustus (approx 4.50 hours train, changing at Edinburgh; 65 mins bus to Fort Augustus from Inverness)
The journey from Berwick-Upon-Tweed to Fort Augustus was long but worth it. I choose Fort Augustus as my base for Loch Ness because it wasn’t Inverness and it seemed to be the perfect base for exploring the loch. Drumnadrochit, while closer to Inverness, was a little too popular with tourists for my liking. I made the right decision; great views, great activities, great hotel (the above photo is the view from my room), and great whisky!
Isle of Skye – Half Day
Inverness ↠ Kyle of Lochalsh↠ Skye (approx 2.40 hours train to Lochalsh; 20 mins bus to Broadford)
Wish I had spent more time at this beautiful island, a half day was too short. I explored a bit of the Broadford coastline but the weather was a bit iffy (blue skies, torrential rain, then back to blue skies) so I ended up in the hotel bar drinking Drambuie cocktails with new travel buddies. If I was to plan this trip again, I would skip Skye and visit it, and the surrounding islands, as a separate journey.
🚂 A friend recommended I take the Kyle line from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh. This journey takes you through the beautiful Highland countryside, through mountains, and fishing villages. At the end you are rewarded with beautiful view of Skye from the shores of Lochalsh.
Glasgow – 1 Night
Glasgow is amazing! I prefer it over Edinburgh, but this is probably me being bias. Glasgow is great for shopping, culture and beautiful green spaces. You have Byers Road in the West End for great boutique shopping and trendy cafés. The West End is where you will also find the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which is surrounded by Kelvingrove Park. Then you have the rest of Glasgow… there is so much to write about Glasgow, so I’ll save it for a separate post.
🚂 Mallaig to Glasgow is one of the best train journeys you can do in the UK. This scenic route takes you over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, through impressive mountains and along Loch Lomond.
Grasmere – 1.5 Days
The Lake District has been on my bucket list for while so I was excited to finally go. Grasmere is the former home of poet William Wordsworth who called it “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”. It is! When it’s not being swamped by torrential rain. It was the worse summer in the UK that year and hotel staff confirmed they had seen nothing like this before. I spent my first afternoon sat it the hotel bar reading a book and watching the rain fall. My second day, I had to get out to explore the area. A trip to the village means stocking up on gingerbread and visiting Wordsworth’s local haunts. I ended my day with an afternoon walk along the White Moss trail. A nice hot bath was waiting for poor drenched me on my return as was a lovely glass of elderberry wine.
Exeter – 1 Night
The journey from Grasmere to Penzance would have been 9-10 hours so I decided to split the journey by spending the night in Exeter. My original plans were to stop at Shrewsbury but the journey to Penzance would still have been 7-8 hours. Bristol was also an option as it is an awesome vibrant city, but I’ve been there so many times before. I did have plans to explore Exeter during the afternoon but I was so very tired. Instead I brought a sandwich from the supermarket across the road from the hotel and had an early night. I visited Exeter the following year and it was okay, but I don’t really regret sleeping the entire time I was there.
Penzance (Cornwall) – 2.5 Days
Exeter ↠ Penzance (approx 3 hours )
The one thing I miss about New Zealand is the beaches, which is why I decided to spend the most time in Penzance. I used Penzance a base to explore the surrounding area. While here I spent time at Kynance Cove and Sennan Cove; visited a tin mine; and walked along the coast to Land’s End.
🚂 The train journey along the Devon and Cornish coasts is my favourite train journey. The train snakes in and out of the coast line. The journey from Exeter to Newton Abbot hugs the shoreline, with the waves crashing over the track. After travelling through the countryside, you then briefly rejoin the ocean at the Polperro Heritage Coast before making your way to Penzance.
Writing this post I realise that, while I did spent an extremely short time in each town, I had the most amazing time. I would visit each and every town in my itinerary again and again. Living in the UK, it easy to forgot that is it such a beautiful country. I wouldn’t buy a Rover ticket again, it is an expensive way to do this journey. I would plan out the trip in advance and booked a combination of Off Peak and Anytime tickets.
As mentioned before, I would skip Skye, and perhaps Exeter, using that time to visit Wales. I have to reiterate that Skye is beautiful and deserves its own special trip.
Key tools you need to plan your trip:
- National Rail journey planner & Network Map – The NR planner will also help you find the cheaper tickets and train companies to book them through
- A good Great Britain/UK travel guide
- Rail Card website – check if you are eligible for a discount rail tickets
- TrainSplit – to see if it is cheaper to split your tickets
- GWR – for Rover tickets
- BritRail – for overseas visitors
I hope this blog post has been of some help. Let me know in the comments what itinerary you decided upon.
Happy & safe travels!