Riding the Rails: Plymouth to Edinburgh

Tempted by the idea of a classic foreign train ride? What about those trips closer to home …

Why ride the UK rails?
Perhaps it’s because so many of us commute by rail. Or perhaps it’s because British train trips don’t somehow feel exotic – whatever the reason, you might not take a long UK rail journey for fun. But ever since a cross-Europe jaunt, I’ve hankered for a long-distance British train trip. Something to get your traveller’s teeth into.


Where to go?
So when plotting an adventure in the snows of the Cairngorms, I plumped not for the plane or an epic drive, but to ride the rails. All the way from Plymouth to Edinburgh (around 8 hours) aboard CrossCountry trains, and then onto Aviemore (3 more hours) the next day. It was partly inspired by this article in Telegraph Travel: The 50 Greatest Train Journeys on Earth – Aberdeen to Penzance is number 22.

Dawlish Rail View

Familiar Routes
The first section was familiar – from Plymouth through Devon’s hummocky hills to the scenic, edge-of-shore stretch at Dawlish. I always love this section (although I normally want to get off and swim); when heading west it signals heading home.

After Exeter came the route up to Bristol Temple Meads. No getting out here – I was in for the long haul. In fact, once aboard your biggest responsibility is remembering to get off. And knowing you don’t have to get off for six more hours is actually very relaxing.


Bristol Temple Meads

The Long Haul
Those next six hours had a sense of sight-seeing as seat-viewing, of being static yet moving, of the country being rolled out for you to see. Station architecture became interesting: barrel roofs at Bristol and Darlington; ornate Victoriana at Burton upon Trent; subterranean modernity at Birmingham New Street.


Birmingham New St

Still Aboard
There are fragments and fleeting, flitting images. Graffiti tags intrigue. Fields, factories, housing estates, trees and power lines speed past. Bridges, cathedrals and terraces glide by – glimpsed and gone. Your mind is free to be both idle and curious (houseboats – who lives on houseboats?!). This odd way of seeing Britain is strangely compelling; incomplete visits that make you want to return.



Journey’s End
Passengers come and passengers go. They help each other with bags. The crew makes sure a disabled woman has everything she needs. There’s free wi-fi; I get heaps of work done. The sun comes out at York. It gets misty. Accents shift. Another crew change. Around Newcastle the sun gleams low on the horizon. By Alnmouth it’s pretty much set, which means glimpsing Dunbar in the dark. Finally, eight hours after starting, I emerge at gracious Edinburgh. It sparkles in the floodlights.


Journey’s End

The Return Leg
And now? After three days hiking with friends in the snowy hills of the Cairngorms, of being wind-blasted, tested and awed by that environment – I’m chugging along that Dawlish stretch by moonlight. I’m coming home.

This journey from Plymouth to Edinburgh was courtesy of CrossCountry  

Here’s where they run:


Published by Belinda Dixon

I'm a travel & adventure writer (Lonely Planet), broadcaster (BBC Radio Devon & BBC Guernsey) and the British Exploring Society's media Leader on its 2016 Himalaya expedition. I write a blog that aims to inspire adventures; deliver inspiring training and record and edit powerful oral history archives.

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