England and Wales are both packed with memorable rail routes – lines that connect city, coast and countryside to often spectacular effect. Some are short rides that trundle through shapely landscapes, others are map-spanning journeys that cross multiple counties. Here we’ve chosen four of our absolute favourite rail routes in the UK, all of which have a YHA presence close by.
1. York to Berwick-upon-Tweed
The East Coast Main Line is one of the UK’s main rail routes, stretching from London King’s Cross all the way north to Edinburgh and beyond (Dundee, Aberdeen and – pass the chocolate frogs – Hogwarts). With YHA York situated close by, the stretch between York and Berwick-upon-Tweed takes just 1 hour 45 minutes but passes through many places of note, including Durham (don’t miss the cathedral view on the right and, a while later, the Angel of the North) and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Arriving into historic Berwick-upon-Tweed, the train rolls unforgettably across the 28-arch Royal Border Bridge before reaching the station. You’ll find YHA Berwick less than 15 minutes’ walk away. Set in a converted granary, it’s unique for having a Tower of Pisa lean, and also makes a fine base for exploring not just the ancient walls that encircle the town but the pleasures of the castle-studded Northumberland coast to the south.
2. Settle to Carlisle
Rail connoisseurs get a little giddy at mention of this highly scenic rail route through the Yorkshire Dales. Opened more than 150 years ago, it takes in 20 viaducts and passes through 14 tunnels, making it not just a feast for the eyes but an astonishing feat of engineering. The stations along the line – many of them tiny and remote – are carefully tended, while the deep views across the National Park are pure joy.
End to end, the journey takes a little less than 1 hour 45 minutes, so it’s perfectly possible to travel both ways in the space of a day. But even better, perhaps, to disembark the train and set off into the Dales themselves. The high-perched YHA Hawes sits a few miles away from Garsdale Station, one of the stops along the rail route, while YHA Malham – which is also on the Pennine Way – is connected by bus to Settle.
3. London to Penzance
The UK has only two sleeper services. One, the Caledonian Sleeper, runs from London Euston up to Scotland and makes for a brilliant way to reach the Highlands. The other, the Night Riviera, travels each evening from London Paddington to Penzance, reaching Cornwall in time for breakfast by the coast. The benefits of taking the service are numerous. Not only is it the greener option, it also means you don’t have to use up daytime hours by travelling – and no less notably, it’s also an adventure.
Penzance has bags of potential for travellers, being well placed for walking jaunts along the South West Coast Path and panoramic road-bike trips, although serious rail fans might also consider getting off a stop earlier, at St Erth. From here, a scenic branch line makes the short journey north to lovely St Ives, where you can wander the narrow streets, enjoy the beaches, then continue down to YHA Penzance at your leisure.
4. Chester to Holyhead
Wales has some beautiful rail routes, among them the Cambrian Coast Line and the Heart Of Wales Line, but the charming stretch between the border city of Chester – with the newly opened YHA Chester Trafford Hall on its outskirts – and the causeway-connected island of Anglesey has plenty of its own to enjoy. The journey can take as little as 88 minutes on the express, but opt for a stopping service and you’ll be able to break the journey in charismatic Conwy, home to a glorious medieval castle (and, less than 15 minutes’ walk from both the station and the fortress, YHA Conwy).
Continuing west across the Menai Strait onto Anglesey, you’ll then have the lexical thrill of calling at the longest-named station in the UK, the mouth-mangling Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
The railway line terminates on Holy Island, at Holyhead, from where you can take a walk along the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path – or, indeed, catch a ferry to Ireland!
Did you know?
Hop aboard The Dartmoor Line
New life was breathed into the UK rail network in November 2021, when The Dartmoor Line was reopened for the first time in 50 years. The rail route – which travels 15 miles from Exeter St David’s to Okehampton, the northern gateway to Dartmoor National Park – was fully relaid, with some 24,000 sleepers being replaced in the process. The news was especially exciting for YHA Okehampton, which occupies a converted railway goods shed at Okehampton Station: so not only is the hostel a prime base for Dartmoor adventures, it’s also borderline impossible for guests to be late for the train back to Exeter…
YHA Street on screen
In the late 1980s, presenter and former MP Michael Portillo played a key role in saving the Settle to Carlisle line from closure. His subsequent TV series, Great British Rail Journeys, continues to be a fixture on the BBC schedules. During a recently-aired episode of Series 11, while travelling between Taunton and Salisbury Plain, he stopped off at Somerset’s YHA Street – the longest-standing hostel in the network – to meet YHA historian Duncan Simpson. On-screen, Duncan talked him through the 1930s beginnings of YHA, the curfews and shilling-a-night policies of yesteryear, and the role hostels played in the peace process.
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Image credits: © adobestock / John Rowley, RamblingTog, petert2, valeryegorov, Gail Johnson, Tomas Marek