From boarding the shortest flight in the world to jumping on a night train in London and waking up on the Cornish coastline – Robin McKelvie rejoices over some of the best journeys in Britain…
Words by Robin McKelvie
Best journeys in Britain: Board an evening train in central London and wake up deep in the Highlands
There is something magical about boarding a train just as everyone else is going to bed. The Caledonian Sleeper, a train with a mission to sweep you from London Euston all the way to the Scottish Highlands and Inverness, almost 500 miles away, ticks all the boxes to be one of the best journeys in Britain.
For those who’ve booked a Caledonian Double/Club cabin on the train, the experience begins with a relaxing drink in the private lounge at Euston. Then, when boarding is announced, you make your way down the escalator to the assigned platform, where a smartly dressed concierge will check you in. The Caledonian Sleeper revealed its spruced up interiors in 2019, which included options for double beds and ensuite shower rooms, plus the sleek Club Bar – open to anyone with a room rather than a seat – the work of Edinburgh-based designer Ian Smith. Hungry? Tuck into haggis, neeps, and tatties in the Club Car, washed down – of course – with a wee dram.
Back in your cabin, be lulled asleep on handcrafted Glencraft mattresses by the gentle movement of the train. In the morning, Caledonian Double/Club guests can either have breakfast delivered to their cabin, or much better, enjoy a cooked Highlands breakfast in the Club Car and watch the Highlands soar all around as the train burrows north through the Cairngorms bound for the only city in the Highlands, Inverness. With rugged mountain massifs, plunging glens and patches of Caledonian Forest, it’s a thrilling introduction to the Scottish Highlands.
Start and end point: London Euston to Inverness
Price: Cabins from £230
Book tickets: sleeper.scot
Best journeys in Britain: Take the world’s shortest flight (from Westray to Papa Westray)
The fact this has been the world’s shortest flight – just 53 seconds – since 1967 really hits home when you are on the tarmac on the island of Westray and realise that the entire distance from here to Papa Westray, a wee island just 1.7 miles away across the water, is about the same as the length of the runway at Edinburgh Airport. For this journey, your Loganair steed is a Britten-Norman BN2B-26 Islander aircraft, distinctive with its high wing and propellers. On board there is only room for the pilot and eight passenger seats – if it’s busy you may end up in the co-pilot seat up front.
The experience of this great journey is a short, but dramatic one. You zoom off the runway and almost immediately the plane starts to descend. The landing is an adrenaline-pumping one. The landing strip is tiny and, depending on the wind, you might use the ‘cross runway’, which means skimming in over the wall, hitting the turf and then juddering to a halt before you reach the wall at the other side of the runway. To lengthen the experience why not do a three-flight half-hour triangle from Kirkwall, the largest town in the Orkney Islands. You can also stay on Papa Westray and discover the almost 6,000-year-old Knap of Howar, the UK’s oldest dwelling, or tour the island with the legendary Papay Ranger.
Start and end point: Westray to Papa Westray.
Price: From £21 return
Book tickets: loganair.co.uk
Best journeys in Britain: Embark on an Agatha Christie-style adventure aboard the Night Riviera
The UK’s other overnight sleeper train, from London to Devon and Cornwall, is similarly draped in romance. This route and the area it transports travellers to – the English Riviera – was a favourite haunt of novelist Agatha Christie, who spent much of her time staying in some of the fabulous period hotels or attending lavish functions. You can savour a little taste of the high life to which Christie was accustomed in the Great Western Railway First Class Lounge at London Paddington before setting off.
The evocatively named Night Riviera operates six nights a week, easing passengers from Paddington to Penzance in Cornwall, 300 miles to the southwest, in around eight hours, and is best enjoyed in a twin or single sleeper compartment.
The journey takes you from London at night, delivering you to the very edge of the UK on the fringes of the Atlantic by morning, where you’ll be served a bacon roll in your compartment shortly after waking. The first sleeper train on this route ran in 1877 when Queen Victoria was on the throne, but the Night Riviera as we know it today was relaunched in 1983. In 2018, the train was revamped with new standard class seats, a refurbished buffet counter and lounge car. If you’re a real Christie devotee, time your visit for the International Agatha Christie Festival in September, or factor in a visit to the writer’s home of Greenway. Hopefully your own Night Riviera experience won’t be rudely interrupted by a murder mystery to solve.
Start and end point: London to Penzance
Price: From £171 return in a cabin
Book tickets: gwr.com
Best journeys in Britain: Take a narrow-gauge railway through Snowdonia
The Snowdon Mountain Railway bills itself as an ‘unforgettable adventure’ and it more than lives up to the billing, soaring you off towards the summit of the highest mountain in Wales. Normally it ascends to the summit station (4.7 miles), but it has been stopping one stop short at Clogwyn, which peers over Llanberis Pass and Clogwyn Du’r Arddu cliffs. The summit station and visitor centre are currently undergoing refurbishment and normal service is slated to resume in 2023. Either way, it’s a deeply scenic journey that opens up this unique mountain wilderness to everyone.
You can appreciate the grandeur of Snowdon itself, as well as a phalanx of surrounding mountains and the valleys of North Wales. The journey takes you past surging waterfalls and old chapels – look out too for soaring peregrine falcons, the world’s fastest bird. The carriages are designed with floor-to-ceiling windows to really maximise the views. So renowned is the service that 12 million travellers have swept up the mountain since it first ran in 1896. For a heritage experience, hop aboard one of the steam-hauled services. This pioneering line is constructed on a 800mm gauge, which it shares with rack railways in Switzerland and it has incredible mountain views to match.
Start and end point: Llanberis – Snowdon Summit Station (currently terminating at the penultimate stop of Clogwyn)
Price: From £35 return
Book tickets: snowdonrailway.co.uk
This is an extract, read the full feature in the Dec/Jan 2022 issue of Discover Britain, out on 4 November.