Blowing off Steam in the UK

In Con's Corner, England, Scotland by Con JagerLeave a Comment

Bill Bryson's new UK book

Bill Bryson’s new UK book

I just finished reading Bill Bryson’s new UK travel book “The Road to Little Dribbling”, the hilarious laugh-out-loud sequel to his equally hilarious “Notes from a Small Island”. Bryson’s forever charmed, nay, bewildered by All Things British, so much so that he went to live there and took their citizenship test! His writing is uniquely humorous, whether it’s roaming around Australia, hiking the AT in the USA or, in England, trying to translate British English into English he understands. I am fortunate to have visited many of the places he describes. Actually, I take that back. It’s not a matter of being fortunate: I travel in his footsteps on purpose! I’m off to Scotland again in October to cover a few spots I haven’t seen yet.

One thing Bryson hits on is the ongoing British love affair with trains. Then again, the Brits did invent them! Cornishman Richard Trevithick created the high-pressure steam engine at the dawn of the 19th century and built the first steam locomotive, unnamed as far as we know. His first steam rail run was in 1804 and Britain was on track, so to speak, to blanket the country with rail. George “Father of Railways” Stevenson built the first railway between cities using steam locomotives in 1830. He invented many locomotive improvements and built the famous “Rocket” steam engine. Poor Mr. Trevithick is largely forgotten: he should have come up with a catchy name for his locomotive! It’s all about the marketing…

Trains, hiking and sightseeing

Why am I writing about this? Well, I love trains, especially in the UK, and especially steam engines! Done a number of long-distance and specialty rail trips worldwide, and in England, there’s hardly a branch line left I haven’t been on over the decades, usually combined with some long-distance hike. Take a train to a starting point, hike, stay overnight in some charming B&B or, even better, in a pub! Hike on, longer or shorter, to the next village with a station, sometimes not more than a simple platform, and head back. Always wise to carry the train time tables with you, as some of the rural lines just run a few times a day, if at all on some days, and with big service differences between weekdays and weekends.

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I continue to seek out train trips. Just now, in February, I went to Scotland to ride the new “Borders Railway” train to Tweedbank, the longest new route built in over 100 years, then walked to Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott, a lovely day outing from Edinburgh, no car needed. See my previous blog post for more details on that. I’ll have to do it again in the future, as ScotRail is partnering with Steam Dreams to bring us a Steam Train Experience on the Borders Railway line in 2016!

Steam Railways in Southern England

You have your diesels and electric trains but, for the true aficionado, there’s nothing like steam. Steam engines started the railways craze then became “superfluous to requirements”, as English managers so soothingly say when they have to let someone go – and England is their retirement home. Today, to paraphrase Bryson: “there are 108 steam engines in the UK and that’s about 106 more than any country really needs.” But it’s an active retirement, the best kind!

Steam trains are being restored all over the place and are back in action nationwide, usually maintained, managed and operated by local volunteers with infectious enthusiasm. Some fun steam lines that come to mind are the Bluebell Railway in Sussex: fun day out especially with kids. In the Brecon Beacons, there’s the Brecon Mountain Railway. And at Corfe Castle in Dorset, the Swanage Railway has more steam runs than virtually any other line.

Fun for Five at Corfe Castle
Enid Blyton Ginger Pop shop

Enid Blyton Ginger Pop shop

Approach Corfe Castle

Approach Corfe Castle

Speaking of Corfe Castle and kids: this spot is of special interest to fans of “The Famous Five” books by Enid Blyton. Corfe Castle was Ms. Blyton’s inspiration for Kirrin Castle, site of many a Five adventure. Drive up from the west or, if coming from the north or east and want a spot of adventure yourself, take the short car ferry across from Banks Road to Ferry Road. Fun fact: at the Castle, step into the tiny Ginger Pop Store, which shares its entrance with the village Post Office at the Castle, to find in and out of print Famous Five books, memorabilia, souvenirs, and of course, Ginger Beer. Also at Corfe Castle – and this is becoming a recurring theme in my travel blogs – opportunities abound for tea and scones with jam and clotted cream!

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A Scone and a Castle...

A Scone and a Castle…

Tea and Scones will sooth your weary bones

Tea and Scones will sooth your weary bones

There’s a Tea House with a garden lawn looking right out at the impressive Castle ruins. Visitors can walk up (no fee), look around, clamber on and over the old walls. If you can escape supervision long enough, go hang over the north side for a great view of the … Swanage Steam Railway! I heard one coming and managed to hang over the edge long enough to get a quick video clip of the steam train going by, before my wife yanked me back to safety.

Rocking the rails with Ringo and Thomas
Thomas and Friends

Thomas and Friends. Yes I own this set.

Ringo drumming in concert

“Mr. Conductor” Ringo on drums in ’15

Another fun fact: if your kids (or you!) are Thomas the Tank Engine fans, they might be able to see Thomas & Friends at a heritage railway, as the gang travels around! Alas, no Ringo Starr as Mr. Conductor in these live settings – he’s done with that but, for you Beatles fans, he’s still touring! Just saw him in California near our office there – but the Thomas folks do roll out, so to speak, a Fat Controller at their heritage railway appearances.

Steam Railways in the North
King's Cross Platform 9 3/4

King’s Cross Platform 9 3/4

Northern England and Scotland have their fair share of steam railways too. York is home to the National Railway Museum, where they just restored the world-famous Flying Scotsman. Check out the Daily Mail article with some spectacular pictures. There’s also a good BBC report on the Scotsman’s first run from King’s Cross to York with some nice aerial shots. No, it did not leave from Platform 9 ¾….. but if you visit King’s Cross station, it does exist! I often recommend the London-Scotland train route to my clients wanting to combine a stay in London with time in Scotland. It is SO much nicer than flying! The route is downtown to downtown, served by fast trains (not steam) taking only about 5 hours nonstop to Edinburgh or Glasgow, they offer First Class (worth it!) and a Restaurant and/or Bar carriage, so you can enjoy a nice meal or drink while watching the English countryside glide by. Compare that to getting stuffed into some cramped airplane seat, staring at a cup of lukewarm tea and trying to make your 3 pretzels last, sitting next to who knows who, fighting over the armrest… My main reason though to prefer the train: no hanging around airports, no wasting precious hours, and: no having to deal with security and scanners and belts and shoes on and off.

Half an hour’s drive north in Pickering, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs to Whitby, home of Captain Cook – and the Best Fish & Chips in the UK! I had the pleasure of being shown around lovely Whitby by the Mayor when I volunteered on the Anchorage Sister Cities Commission during my 18 years in Alaska. Going around town, we bonded right way and His Worshipful stopped for delicious local fish & chips rather than some stuffy lunch. It was perfect. Whitby restaurant The Quayside won a 2014 national award for this iconic dish. Their version is not your father’s newspaper-wrapped greasy helping at the local Chippie! And, they’re conveniently close to the station, just a few minutes walking. By the way, for longer walking, Whitby is on the Cleveland Way, one of the UK’s National Trails.

On to Scotland

Aye, some bonnie steam routes to be had here! Take for example the Strathspey Railway. It operates steam engines right in the heart of the Cairngorms between Aviemore and Broomhill via Boat of Garten. Have a look at their video: so awesome, it makes me want to rush right over and ride it! Of course, for a whisky aficionado like me, there are other reasons for wanting to rush right over and travel by train through the – dare I say it – “dram-atic” scenery…

Bonnie Prince Charlie, Jacobites and – Harry Potter!
HP Viaduct, courtesy of Authentic Ireland

HP Viaduct, courtesy of Authentic Ireland

Last but not least, Scotland proudly features the famous Jacobite Steam Train aka “Hogwarts Express” from the Harry Potter books and movies. It runs seasonally between Fort William and Mallaig. Halfway you’ll find historic Glenfinnan with its Bonnie Prince Charlie history, where the line crosses that incredible Viaduct shown in the HP movies. The Jacobite has a video page as well.

If you have the time, do ride this train: it does book out far in advance so, purchase your tickets and reserve seats timely or have us book it for you. But beware! It’s a fantastic ride but think twice before sticking your head out of the windows: you don’t want to get hit by flying objects like Ford Anglia’s – or attacked by Dementors! At the end of your trip, you want to be able to say that all was well…..

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