8 busy days on the rails: a UK odyssey comes cheap
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It’s nearly 8.45 a.m. at chilly, iron-framed King’s Cross Station and the final passengers are scrambling to board as I sit back on the train, sip my scalding hot latte and flick through a satisfyingly hefty Saturday newspaper.
Almost imperceptibly, the carriages begin to move and within seconds we burst from the station’s grubby shadows into brilliant, cloud-free sunlight. As the capital’s crenulated, brick-built skyline fills the windows, my ambitious United Kingdom train odyssey begins.
Britain’s once-shabby railways have vastly improved in recent years, with snazzy new trains and replacement tracks increasing overall speed and efficiency. But with these improvements have come substantial fare increases, leading to a near-revolt among local commuters and the gleeful rise of cheap, no-frills airlines.
Luckily, for those like me who prefer to avoid out-of-town airports, watch the countryside roll past or just travel with a smaller carbon footprint, there are several good-value UK train passes only available to overseas visitors.
Enjoying a challenge and the chance to circumvent the confusing and pricey domestic train ticket system-pass holders simply hop on and go-I’ve decided to see just how far I can get on an eight-day BritRail pass.
After a snails-pace crawl through north London, we speed into England’s green belt region, colored by patchwork fields and villages with sharp-steepled churches. Perusing my rail map and dozing in the sun, I’m heading for York-around two hours away.
I arrive before lunch and check the afternoon train times, then drop my bag at the left-luggage counter. While packing light is recommended, most large stations have bag-drop services, although prices can reach an eye-popping £6 per bag (about $12 at today’s exchange rate). Luggage-free, I follow the signs for a short stroll to the city center.
Since Saturday is York’s traditional shopping day, the winding streets of crooked Tudor buildings are teeming with locals. Hitting the cobbled market square, where stalls are piled high with everything from cheese to chocolate, I grab a hot meat pie and a fruit bun lunch-convincing myself I’ve covered the necessary food groups.
Rounding a sharp corner, the Minster, Britain’s largest medieval cathedral, suddenly looms ahead of me. I spend an hour here marveling at the soaring interiors of this Gothic masterpiece, complete with choir screen statues of 15 English kings. Heading back to the station with time to spare, I duck into the National Railway Museum, a free-entry Aladdin’s cave of train history. It’s home to dozens of old-school locomotives, including the 1935 Mallard-the world’s fastest steam train-and the famed Flying Scotsman.
I’m back on a train that’s considerably more modern than either of these by 3 p.m. for a sweep up the eastern coastline to Edinburgh. In less than three hours, I’m marching purposely along Princes Street to my hotel where I drop my bags and head for the historic Royal Mile to indulge in a stomach-stuffing pub dinner of “haggis, neeps and tatties.”
Up early next day for a crowd-avoiding stroll, I take photos of the hilltop castle, then visit Mary King’s Close. It’s an entertaining underground attraction that takes visitors below the Royal Mile to a catacomb-like area of derelict homes where the poorest once lived. One room is apparently haunted, but the no-show ghost must be having a lie-in when I visit.
Back on the train by mid-afternoon-with takeout sandwiches and two newspapers-the longest leg of my trek takes more than five hours and weaves me down England’s western flank towards Liverpool. Passing looming gray peaks and glassy-flat lakes, and changing trains at Glasgow and Carlisle, I roll into the Merseyside metropolis around 9 p.m.
I haven’t visited this once-gritty dockyard city since childhood, but when I hit the wind-whipped streets the next morning, I discover that Liverpool is sprucing-up for its reign as 2008 European Capital of Culture. Checking out the Walker Art Gallery and World Museum, housed in adjoining neo-classical palaces in the cultural quarter, I admire some Degas and Rembrandt paintings, and catch a colorful Wallace and Gromit exhibition.
I’m train-bound again by late afternoon and enjoying a storm that lashes the windows like a drive-through car wash before changing at Birmingham and arriving in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a leisurely three-hour journey and I arrive well-rested around 7.30 p.m. After a short cab ride to my creaky-floored Tudor hotel, I’m lured by the aroma of the bar’s open fireplace and head downstairs for a fruity pint of local ale.
Next morning, I take my time ambling around the streets, enjoying the sun-dappled buildings where local lad Will Shakespeare once walked. Since it’s often overrun with tourists, I head early to his birthplace, a handsome timber townhouse nestled near shops hawking “As You Like It” T-shirts. Later, I stroll over to Holy Trinity Church, reflecting before the great man’s discreet tomb, traced in blue rope near the altar.
Following an afternoon departure, I head for Bristol, the southwest’s seafaring capital. It’s not a direct route from Stratford and I have to change twice on the three-hour journey. Like Liverpool, this once-grungy port city has gentrified its old buildings, transforming many into trendy bars and restaurants.
Checking into a non-descript business hotel – like most of my sleepovers, it’s a late-availability Web special – I wander around for a few blocks then drop into Fleece a pub-style music venue mixing cover bands with emerging local groups. The moody rockers playing tonight favor noise over content (or maybe I’m just getting old), but it’s a chance to chat with locals and gather some sightseeing tips.
After a slow start the next morning, I make for the Arnolfini, Bristol’s version of London’s Tate Modern, and peruse its contemporary artworks before flopping down for a large cappuccino in the gallery’s café. Unfurling my rail map to plan ahead, I’m tempted by Wales but decide to close the loop and head back east.
Packing a takeout Cornish pasty, I hop back on the train for a swift, one-hour spin to Salisbury. At Salisbury station, I jump on the Stonehenge transit bus and 20 minutes later I’m circling the ancient site-along with hundreds of chattering visitors. Although the tour-group atmosphere undermines the mystery, I scan the horizon to count the age-old burial mounds ringing the site.
Returning to Salisbury center, I check into my cozy B&B and enjoy a late afternoon cathedral stroll followed by a sampling of “olde-worlde” pubs. The tiny Haunch of Venison needs less than a dozen patrons to feel crowded, and it’s a lovely spot for a half-pint of grog. I also drop by the New Inn-which is anything but-and the Old Ale House for some Tanglefoot and Bishops Tipple beers.
After the next morning’s postcard-writing chores, I weave to the station for an hour-long afternoon ride to Winchester, an often-overlooked historic city and ancient English capital. After a 10-minute walk from the station to my hotel, I quickly depart to spend the next couple of hours ducking along medieval back alleys and nipping into cafés for some cake-flavored R&R.
It’s raining when I wake the next day, so I borrow a hotel umbrella to visit the remnants of Winchester’s giant castle. There’s not much left, except a flint-walled Great Hall housing a huge technicolored disc mounted on one wall. Known as King Arthur’s Round Table, it’s actually a medieval fake created to commemorate the legendary monarch long-after his reputed reign.
Driven onto an early train by the weather, I take a 90-minute trip to Brighton, hoping for sunny skies by the time I reach the popular south coast resort. Miraculously, as the train screeches to a grudging halt at the end of the line, the brooding clouds roll apart.
The sea breeze waters my eyes as I stroll downhill to my quiet guesthouse. Within minutes, I’m back on the streets, heading toward the water-accompanied by noisy seagulls and the tempting aroma of fish and chips.
Avoiding the stony beach, I march to the end of the pier-with gray-brown waves sloshing underneath the boards-and spend the afternoon lost in a tangle of shop-lined lanes behind the seafront. During dinner that night-fish and chips, of course-I spread out my dog-eared map and trace the route I’ve traveled.
It’s been a tight schedule, but being on the train, rather than following driving directions or waiting around in airports, has been the trip’s most relaxing aspect. I’ve also covered, by my calculations, more than 1,100 miles. As I decide which London-bound departure to take tomorrow (Day 8), my eyes flick back to the map and I imagine where I might go instead. Oxford looks tempting and I could be there for lunch…
IF YOU GO:
BritRail’s eight-day Consecutive Pass costs $332. Four-day ($232) and 15-day ($499) Consecutive Passes are also available. For those who want to stay longer in their destinations, an alternative Flexipass provides four ($293), eight ($425) or 15 days ($644) worth of travel over a two-month period. First-Class and family passes are also available, as well as Scotland-only and England-only passes.
Aside from their unrestricted, hop-on-hop-off convenience, passes can deliver substantial savings compared to buying individual tickets for each leg of your journey. While some restricted discounts are available for advance bookings, the standard ticket prices for the trips I took are:
London to York: £74.50
York to Edinburgh: £66.50
Edinburgh to Liverpool: £72.10
Liverpool to Stratford-upon-Avon: £26.10
Stratford-upon-Avon to Bristol: £37
Bristol to Salisbury: £22
Salisbury to Winchester: £11.60
Winchester to Brighton: £37.60
Brighton to London: £12.90
Grand total: £360.20 (around $700)
For pass information and purchases, call 866-BRITRAIL or visit www.britrail.com. UK train routes, timetables and fare information is available at www.nationalrail.co.uk. For last-minute accommodation deals while you’re traveling, try www.priceline.co.uk.