“Many times the wrong train has taken me to the right place,” wrote novelist Paulo Coelho, and in my own experience, that’s certainly true. A last minute change of plan to board an overnight train from Vienna with our children gave us an unforgettable sunrise. From the sleeper window, we watched the skyline of Venice etched against an orange, crimson and pale blue sky as the train glided over the lagoon. Another time, years earlier, I woke up in a busy car to the offer of food and conversation from workers on the way back to Thessaloniki, because I had slept through a connection at the train station central Belgrade.
After two years of uncertainty around air travel and a growing awareness of its impact on the climate, there is no better time to rediscover the pleasure of traveling by train. However, our own rail network in Ireland is limited, so the easiest way to try a multi-destination rail holiday is to take the ferry across the Irish Sea to England, to experience beautiful scenery and picturesque towns and villages beyond the lights of London. , Manchester or Liverpool.
As Inter Rail celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, buying a flexi-rail pass from an agent such as International Rail offers a touch of nostalgia as well as deep discounts – like the £238 ticket ( €287) for 15 non-consecutive days throughout England. You can reconnect with your inner student, with the freedom to stay in one place longer or move on at will. Such is the freedom of traveling by train.
This loop route explores some of the most beautiful towns, counties and hamlets in the English landscape.
1. Cartmel, Cumbria
After arriving by ferry at Holyhead, experience the pace of rail travel on a four-hour journey north to Cartmel, a small leafy medieval village and gateway to the Lake District. The village is as famous for its horse racing as it is for its cuisine. Try the local specialty of sticky caramel pudding or take it up a notch at the starred restaurant L’Enclume.
The trip: Train via Grange-over-Sands (three hours); bus (10 minutes) or bike (15 minutes) to Cartmel
To stay: Priory Hall offers pretty rooms in the center of the village, from €120. priorityhotelcartmel.co.uk
2. Keswick, Cumbria
From Cartmel, take the Cumbrian Coast Line before leaving the network to reach Keswick, the northernmost town and arguably the prettiest in the Lake District. Hikers can embrace the Skiddaw and Blencathra hills that surround the village, and silver moon-shaped Lake Derwentwater, or simply stroll poetically against the backdrop of the place Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth have called home.
The trip: Train to Workington (two hours); bus (one hour) or bike (two hours) to Keswick
To stay: Rickerby Grange has been welcoming guests since the 1930s, now run by couple Phil and Charlotte with stylish rooms from €125. rickerbygrange.co.uk
Use the Unesco-designated fairy-tale riverside Durham Castle and Cathedral, famous for its central role in the Harry Potter films, as landmarks to navigate the winding, yet beautiful, cobbled lanes. from the city. Cafes, bars and artisan food shops line the streets; take a break from the pink and pale blue rendition of Tealicious for a huge range of teas and snacks.
The trip: Bus to Wigton (40 minutes), Durham by train (two hours)
To stay: The Kingslodge Inn is a 10-minute walk from Durham, surrounded by the peaceful forest of Flass Vale, with rooms from €130. inncollectiongroup.com/kingslodge-inn
4. Whitby, Yorkshire
Stay in this charming little coastal village to explore the North York Moors with its rolling valleys on its excellent network of local buses and trains, including the Esk Valley Community Rail service. A museum in the town explores the life of the adventurer and cartographer, Captain James Cook, and towering over the horizon from the edge of a cliff stand the very atmospheric, very Gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey, which found their place on the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Pretty Robin Hood’s Bay, south of Whitby, has tenuous ties to the Prince of Thieves.
The trip: Train to Middlesbrough (two hours), bus to Whitby (50 minutes)
To stay: White Horse & Griffin is a historic establishment dating back to 1681, with rooms from €110. whitehorseandgriffin.com
5. York, Yorkshire
The very essence of a medieval town, York’s network of cobbled lanes is filled with stucco-finished half-timbered buildings, rich rustic hand-made bricks and casement windows. Head to The Shambles, one of the most Instagrammed streets in the world, to fully experience the old-world vibe. Stonegate’s ‘House of Trembling Madness’ has a wide selection of local draft beers, but before you go down that road, be sure to catch a glimpse of Minster, York’s magnificent Gothic cathedral.
The trip: Train from Whitby to York (two hours)
To stay: The Hilton York offers rooms from €115. hilton.com
6. Bakewell, Derbyshire
Deep in the hills and rocky outcrops of the Peak District, and on the banks of the River Wye, lies Bakewell, with its exquisite collection of independent bookshops and cafes lined with sandstone streets. A swooning heartbeat away is Chatsworth House, which doubled as Pemberley in the TV and film version of Jane Austin’s novel Pride and Prejudice. To promote sustainable tourism, visitors arriving in Chatsworth by bus, train or bicycle receive a £5 discount on tickets.
The trip: Train to Sheffield (one hour), then bus to Bakewell (50 minutes)
To stay: The 200-year-old Peacock Inn has colorful rooms with four-poster beds from €118. paonbakewell.com
7. Rye, East Sussex
Arguably the most beautiful town in England, Rye is a place where the clock stood still in the 15th century, with twisted wooden overhangs, cast iron signage and lantern light that casts a ghostly reflection over its lanes shiny cobblestones. Head down Mermaid Street – a winding alley that looks like it belongs on a movie set – with quirky building names such as The House Opposite. Stories of spirits, smugglers and pirates abound, including nightly apparitions at Lamb House, the former home of American author Henry James.
The trip: Train to Rye (four hours)
To stay: Willow Tree House offers luxury bed and breakfast accommodation from €150 per room. willow-tree-house.com
8. Penzance, Cornwall
From Rye, take the Night Riviera Sleeper via London, which is only a short train ride away, to add a romantic touch to the adventure. Penzance’s promenade has a rustic, Victorian charm, but stroll up Chapel Street to see the town’s impressive Georgian architecture, including the eccentric and extravagant Egyptian House or the small home of Maria Branwell, mother of the brothers and Bronte sisters. From Penzance, take a stroll along the Cornish coast, first to the seafront at St Ives via the scenic Bay Line. An eclectic array of rooftops – belfries, slates or tiles – cluster around the white-sand bay, and there are top-notch restaurants too; linger at the Porthminster Beach Café to admire the view. Then explore the coast by train, passing places such as Mousehole or Saint Michael’s Mount, before slowly making your way to Plymouth.
The trip: Sleeper train (10 hours) or day train (eight hours)
To stay: The Artist’s Residence offers quirky, charming rooms in a revamped Georgian hostel from €125. artistresidence.co.uk
9. Castle Combe, Wiltshire
Sleepy Castle Combe shows few signs of the passage of time, and so its winding streets have caught the eye of film producers from Steven Spielberg to the team at Downton Abbey. It’s definitely a slow-paced destination; Stop at the old stables for a coffee or head to St. Andrew’s Church to find the faceless clock from the 15th century. Castle Combe’s location in the Cotswolds makes it the perfect base for exploring the other Golden Villages in the area.
The trip: Train from Plymouth (three hours)
To stay: The 12th century Castle Inn offers rooms from €120. exclusive.co.uk/the-castle-inn/
The honey hues and spiers of the university town of Oxford make it a worthy break from this trip to Shakespeare country. Stratford is a convenient last stop – most of the good stuff, including the home of the great bard from cradle to grave at Holy Trinity Church – is within walking distance of the station. Rest up for the final leg of the journey back to Holyhead by catching a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.
The trip: Train from Castle Combe (three hours)
To stay: The Mercure Shakespeare Hotel offers rooms from €110. all.accor.com