The forgotten British rail routes we would love to return

·8-min read
Gorse bushes on Dartmoor with Meldon Viaduct in the distance - Zoblinski/Getty
Gorse bushes on Dartmoor with Meldon Viaduct in the distance - Zoblinski/Getty

Exploring Dartmoor will become that much easier from next month. The Dartmoor Line between Okehampton and Exeter will resume regular passenger services on November 20, after an almost 50-year hiatus.

The 40-minute ride will run from Exeter St Davids, stopping at Crediton before travelling on to Okehampton, delivering travellers right onto the edge of Dartmoor. Trains will run every two hours each week, seven days a week. Initially, more than half of Monday to Friday services will include a call at Exeter Central. Beginning December 12, this stop will be added to the majority of weekend trips, too.

Should you be travelling from London or elsewhere in the south east, you could rely on rail all the way from Paddington or Waterloo to Okehampton – then head straight onto a countryside walk. Of course, a cosy cottage stay (perhaps with a hot tub included to ease aches after a busy week) or overnight in a pub with rooms would allow you to reboot post-hike.

Sheep underneath a tree in Dartmoor which is lit up by the sunset - Devon and Cornwall Photography/Getty
Sheep underneath a tree in Dartmoor which is lit up by the sunset - Devon and Cornwall Photography/Getty

The reopening of the Dartmoor line is part of the Government’s Restoring Your Railway Manifesto. Back in July 2020, 50 bids were shortlisted as part of a push to reinstate some of the nearly 5,000 miles of line shut by Dr Richard Beeching, a former chairman of British Railways.

Welcomed by local commuters, traffic-weary motorists and train lovers alike, the return (or hope-for return) of lost railway connections offers up plenty of domestic holiday inspiration – and a little nostalgia. Here are seven more routes that – if unearthed – would help to signal a rail renaissance.

Leicester to Burton-on-Trent

Once known as the Ivanhoe Line, the name was taken from the novel by Walter Scott, which is set in the area through which the line runs. It is known today as the National Forest, which is a designated national park that’s spread over the counties of Derbyshire, Leicester and Staffordshire. Wandering through the park, visitors will encounter undulating farmland, thick forests and younger woodlands.

Autumn path, Peak District, Derbyshire - joe daniel price/Getty
Autumn path, Peak District, Derbyshire - joe daniel price/Getty

A freight line still passes through this route, giving a clear advantage to the campaign to reinstate it – and, indeed, it has won funding through the UK Government’s ‘Restoring your Railway’ programme. Some £500,000 in funding, split 10 ways, was announced in 2020. The route was among the first to win financial backing. The Campaign to Reopen the Ivanhoe Line claims that Leicester–Burton rail journeys take longer than they did 40 years ago. The expectation is that it will act as a busy commuter line in the week and will be valuable for tourism and leisure at the weekends.

King’s Lynn to Hunstanton

Holidaymakers and residents alike know that driving up to Norfolk by car can be lengthy and congested – particularly on a sunny day in Hunstanton. Then, when you reach the county, the roads become narrow and windy. The depths of the northern coast – a popular area for summer beach days and tranquil walks out of season – can feel pleasingly cut off. Reinstating the line is unlikely to see the quietest stretches of sand suddenly overrun, but it would make it feasible to commute from north Norfolk to Cambridge or reach Hunstanton from King Lynn in just 20 minutes.

The Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk, England - BerndBrueggemann/Getty
The Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk, England - BerndBrueggemann/Getty

The latter seaside town’s heyday as a Victorian resort may be long behind it, but it still attracts plenty of daytrippers. A day enjoying the retro charms of new Hunstanton (arcades, a fairground, posh fish and chips) alongside the sweep of beach of its prettier side (old Hunstanton), would be better enjoyed without the fear of being stuck in traffic at either end of the journey.

Carmarthen to Aberystwyth

A campaign group was formed in 2013 that seeks to reconnect railways between both Carmarthen and Aberystwyth and Afron Wen and Bangor. Traws Link Cymru, as the group is known, argues that restarting these routes would provide an invigorating regeneration in the region (trawslinkcymru.org.uk). It would also link Aberystwyth to Swansea for journeys into London – and perhaps opportunities to attract more tourists from beyond the nearby area. Indeed, it was the railways that brought holidaymakers to Aberystwyth in the early 20th century. One piece of optimistic marketing dubbed it the “Biarritz of Wales''. More on that here.

Aberystwyth sea front, Wales - Ashley Cooper/Getty
Aberystwyth sea front, Wales - Ashley Cooper/Getty

There’s still plenty to entice – take the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway (which runs from the promenade to a café); the Ceredigion museum (where children can enjoy workshops in crafts such as puppet making) and a buzzing food scene. This proposed line would also include stops at Lampeter, Lanybydder and Pencader/Llandysul. The first of these is home to a university campus and filled with independent shops, pubs and places to eat. Despite its student (and hippy) population, it is essentially a quaint market town, perfect for a day of pottering.

Edinburgh to Carlisle

Among the most scenic entrants to our list of lost lines, the Waverley Route ran via Hawick and journeyed over remote landscapes, cantering across moorland and hills. It was another line nicknamed in honour of a Walter Scott novel (he lived at Abbotsford House, near the route of the line). One-time passengers of the Waverley would pass over bridges and viaducts and past remote stations – many of which can still be seen today. The line was cut in 1969 as a result of the Beeching Report.

Monument, Edinburgh, Calton Hill, Scotland - joe daniel price/Getty
Monument, Edinburgh, Calton Hill, Scotland - joe daniel price/Getty

However, back in 2006, the opening of a 30-mile portion of the route was approved by the Scottish Government – this now conjoins Edinburgh with Tweedbank. A series of branches sprang up from the route weaving towns and villages of the Scottish borders onto the wider rail map.

Stratford-upon-Avon to Honeybourne-Worcester/Oxford

Also known as the Shakespeare Line, a group promoting its reopening estimates that it would bring 400,000 additional visitors to his birthplace, including school children. As well as seeing his works performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, their newfound appreciation would be further bolstered with stops at Anne Hathaway’s cottage and the Bard’s one-time school rooms. The extension of the line south to Honeybourne station would also link it up with the Cotswold Line (Oxford to Hereford), which offers up a scenic journey through the Malvern Hills, to the spa town of Great Malvern and through the orchards of the Vale of Evesham and Herefordshire.

Worcestershire Beacon, Colwall, Malvern Hills - joe daniel price/Getty
Worcestershire Beacon, Colwall, Malvern Hills - joe daniel price/Getty

Connecting the two would signal a move towards making domestic holidays via train, with multiple stops to enjoy the wonders of the English countryside, almost as convenient as those enjoyed via car – as well as, for those travelling from central London, avoiding potential peak time motorway traffic on weekends and bank holidays.

Penrith to Cockermouth

This route was first given a green light in 1861 when a railway company incorporated by an Act of Parliament was set to build a line that would link Cockermouth with the London and Northwestern Railway West Coast Main Line at Penrith. Its origins were a meeting in Keswick in the previous year where it was agreed that a line would link existing stations in the two towns. A project for a railway connecting them was first proposed in the Railway Mania of the mid-1800s. “Here we are buried – shut out from the world, as it were – 15 hours from a morning paper”.

Tourists were once a vital source of income for the railway. In the 1860s, a shareholders meeting agreed on building a railway hotel that was set to rival those of the Scottish lochs and Switzerland. The costs involved (around £11,000 was spent on its construction) led to the conclusion that railway hotels were not a profitable asset for railway companies – it was soon sold off to another company. Visitors from Carlisle and west Cumberland enjoyed Keswick for day trips, as did members of the Temperance movement (it was a popular base for demonstrations).

Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria, England - joe daniel price/Getty
Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria, England - joe daniel price/Getty

However, it closed around the same time as many lines – the section west of Keswick shut in 1966; Keswick to Penrith followed in 1972. Rail enthusiasts can head to Keswick Museum to see remnants of its past – in fact, until November 15 there’s an exhibition on precisely this. ‘Rails, Trails and Steamy Tales’ charts the story of the company, the line and the people who worked and travelled on it. In 2020, a bid was made for funds towards looking at the feasibility of restoring the line, however the bid was unsuccessful.

Motorail

The first Motorail service ran for almost 30 years, connecting London with places throughout Britain. It was introduced before the country’s roads were suitable for long-distance car travel – or at least, involved hefty journey times. Holidaymakers could join a service at the dedicated Motorail terminal in Kensington Olympia, with cars in the carriages at the back and passengers filing into the front. They could head to Penzance, Plymouth, Edinburgh and Fort William, alongside Fishguard Harbour, Perth, Inverness, Brockenhurst and Carlise. It enjoyed a resurgence – albeit on a much smaller scale – when First Great Western relaunched a service from London Paddington to Penzance in 1999.

The service, which used converted General Utility Van vehicles, closed in 2004. A taste of the overnight trip is still accessible on the sleeper train from London to Cornwall. To save the hassle of either a five-plus hour drive to Penzance, or a costly hire car on arrival, the drive-on option would be a welcome addition. Deploying the services elsewhere in the UK would also surely be a more sustainable option than a domestic flight.

Are there any British rail routes not mentioned here you would love to return? Let us know in the comments section below

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