Making Train Excursions from London to England, Wales, Scotland & France
For most Americans, London serves as the gateway to Europe. It's the first European place they think to visit and the primary European destination they feel most comfortable challenging with visit. And what a perfect indoctrination London is for Yanks, with its language and cultural similarities and familiar features.
What is also great about London is that it offers a convenient link with so many other destinations via train travel, which is the subject of this essay. First, put Amtrak out of your mind - train travel in Europe is great. It's been a staple in those closely packed countries for over a century. European countries treat the rail system as one of their primary means of public transportation (not tertiary like in the US) so they invest in infrastructure, upgrade the train cars, stations and service. The food is decent, the train stations are often regal relics right in the middle of cities so that they are worth visiting in their own right (and give a great psychological boost at the start of a train trip).
Practically speaking, train travel allows travelers see the country in a way that air travel doesn't permit. The clean, efficient London Underground connects all of the major train stations (Like Paris, London has several main stations circled around the city instead of one central station - each satellite station is positioned to service a different region of the country). Famous, black London taxicabs will also transport you easily from a London hotel to most any train station. With this arrangement, visitors can glide easily in and out of London to points in England, Wales, Scotland and Continental Europe (including the Flanders battlefields and memorials from the First World War that are only 90 minutes from London by train).
London, the capital of the industrial revolution, had the nation's rail network built around it. London is the travel hub for rail lines that spread into all parts of the United Kingdom, and now radiate through Europe via the tunnel under the English Channel. Many American travelers making their first jaunt to Europe find it sufficient to visit London. But consider - Paris is now less than three hours away via high-speed train (here is the Eurostar link). Even easier are prime British destinations like Bath (one and a half hours from London by train), York (two and a half hours direct from London on the train) Cardiff, Wales (two hours and ten minutes away), and Edinburgh, Scotland (four and a half hours by train, or accessible via overnight sleeper). Take a look at the hugely useful German National Rail site that will instantaneously give you connections, times and length of trip for train routes all over Europe.
This essay will address prime destinations in easy reach by train from the main London rail lines including Bath and York in England, Cardiff and southern Wales, Edinburgh and Scotland, and northern France. (Paris has its own page already, and the pivot trip from Paris to Normandy and the D-Day Beaches also has a page for you to reference.)
One additional famous destination that was left off the short list for this essay is the famous English Lake District. The Lake District in the northwest of England is the land of waterfalls, mountains and calm woodland that havae charmed and inspired many, including the poets of the Romantic Age. It is located north of the industrial belt around Liverpool and Manchester. You can drive it in about 8 hours from London, but I would call that a pretty rigorous trip. You can also take a train from Euston Station, London, and after a change to the branch line in Oxenholme you will get to Windermere in the Lake District in about four and a half hours. From there you'll need a car to explore. I know there are car rental agencies in nearby Kendal (Avis is at Station Road in Kendal). But visiting the Lake District from London isn't a trip that falls into your lap the same way as the other choices I will explore. The Lake District train service isn't on the main London routes, you have special car rental headaches and your destination is screened from you by an unwelcoming belt of Lancashire industrial landscape. Once you get to the Lake District you need to be reasonably self sufficient (here is a site with a list of maps and books that are handy for Lake District trekkers). But for my focus in these posts the Lake District is too ambitious. My focus is on easy finds and easy access - trips that any reasonably energetic and well-oriented traveler can make, and thereafter expand upon into larger trips if ambition strikes.
Bath, England is a simple, highly enjoyable one-and-a-half hour trip from London's Paddington Station. This trip is easily done as a day venture from London, but it is also great fun as an overnight adventure. It's simple and foolproof because you don't need a car. You get off the train station located south of town and walk right into the scenery. (You can't really make a wrong turn without getting your feet wet because the southern part of Bath is framed by the the River Avon.)
What's in Bath? Bath is the beautifully preserved, Jane Austen town of 18th century architecture with a history that resonates back to its ancient Roman baths (local council website). If you've seen the bustle of London, then compliment that experience with the calm Georgian elegance of a town like Bath. The Romans first made Bath famous in the 1st century with a network of baths that rely on the natural mineral springs gushing forth curative waters at a constant temperature of 116 degrees farenheit. Relics of the Roman Baths are still here for you to visit. So are the relics of Jane Austen, who lived at several addresses in Bath at the dawn of the 1800s.
Mostly, Bath is about soaking up the sights and architecture of a town that was designed to be as distinctive as anything a proud, wealthy and architecturally aware nation like Great Britian could imagine, design and build. John Wood the Elder is Bath's architectural godfather. He made creative use of Indigo Jones' Palladian style, and of the stone circles left from the Romans. The Royal Crescent connected 30 different houses in a graceful arc. Stop at No. 1 Royal Crescent to get an idea of this design feat.
If you want to stay in Bath it's pretty easy to do. Here is Tripadvisor's listing/rating of hotels in Bath. The Queensberry Hotel and the Royal Crescent Hotel are the top dogs in the hotel hierarchy. For eating Popjoy's Restaurant at Beau Nash House, Saw Close, is well regarded. Number 5 Bistro is good for a light snack ( 5 Argyle Street).
If Bath illustrates a high order of evolved civility, then maybe York will show you a more complete sense of English history, piled layer upon layer from the Vikings up to the busy Victorians. York is in the center of England, two and a half miles from London's King Cross and Euston Stations by train. It is right on the high-speed rail line from London to Edinburgh and offers a perfect stop on the way to or from Scotland. York is a beautiful, historical walled city with the largest gothic church in England (the towering York Minster, which is visible all over town).
The present-day historical markers of York include Jarvick, an authentic Viking site, the 1,900-year-old city walls that were started in Roman times, and more recently the National Rail Museum that tells the story of Britain's early prominence in train travel. York Minster is 184 feet high and boasts the most blinding stained-glass windows in England. You can take the stairs to the roof of the Central Tower (275 steps), or visit the 13th century Chapter House. For more historical perspective, a former 18th century debtor's prision is the site of the Castle Museum, which displays English arms and costumes from centuries past.
Beyond the layers of historical significance, York one of the most charming British cities you could visit. No car is required for a short stay. The train lets you out at the edge of the city walls and those walls (and towering York Minster) serve as a geographic guidelines throughout your tour of the city. You can take a cab in from the station until you set your bearings, or get a map and bear down on the Minster. Just stay inside the city walls and you can't go very far off course. The River Ouse slips through the middle of town and recreation streets like The Shambles lend a vivid impression of what York looked like through the eyes of previous generations.
If your season during your visit provides long days, York can be done as a very active day trip from London, but that's pushing the limits of endurance. Once you arrive you will likely be charmed and want to invest another day or two. Staying inside of this appealing walled city is pretty easy. Middlethorpe Hall is a restored 18th century mansion that gets raves from hotel reviewers, but it's a mile and a half from the city center. My favorite digs are Judge's Lodging, particularly with one of the rooms that provides a view of York Minster (Judge's Lodging has a fairly novice website, with images that are badly pixelated, but don't let that put you off). Dairy Guest House is another nice place within the city walls to rest your head for a night or two. Melton's at 7 Scarcroft Road, Betty's at 6-8 Hellen's Square and 19 Grape Lane (same address) are favorites for something to eat.
Cardiff and Southern Wales
Dylan Thomas, a hard-drinking Welsh writer, wrote several volumes of poetry along with prose that usually concerned his homeland viewed through Thomas' remarkably clear retention of a child's point of view. One of the more famous short stories is "A Child's Christmas in Wales." The atmospheric opening sentence reads like this:
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
Through the story (and a number of others) Thomas paints a compelling picture of the "sea-town" of his youth (Swansea on the southern coast of Wales) where he spent his childhood before the Second World War. The characters in this and other stories are typically Welsh: modest, social, witty and language-loving. Reading the Thomas story conjures for the imagination a town that is familiar, yet as far away as the byegone centuries, and much of what he writes is still characteristic of Wales.
Wales isn't centuries away. In fact, southern Wales is only a couple of hours from London by the main rail line. Bath and York, which were described in previous posts, are decidedly English destinations. But there is much more to see in Great Britain than the familiar English - there are their cousins over the borders. Wales and Scotland are two distinct countries within the nation, complete with boundary lines, long national heritages and languages. For me a side trip from London to Cardiff and southern Wales is a great adventure because it has the flair of visiting a different country, but it has more convenience than many English destinations.
Southern Wales has its roadsigns written in English as well as that consonant-heavy, phonetic, Celtic language known to the world as Welsh. Wales is a mystical land of musical, linguistically gifted people. Cardiff, with a population of only about 300,000, is a young capital by British standards. It sprang to prominence only since the start of the 19 century. Cardiff Castle, a central landmark, has a longer history with part of its Norman construction shared with a Roman wall. The National Museum and Gallery, with eight separate branches, is a world-class museum that is a keeper of the long memory of Welsh history.
Cardiff is a walkable city, but many find it alluring to hire a car and tour the region. There is great adventure in climbing into your car and roaming the wooly countryside (Avis is at 14-22 Todur Street, Hertz at 9 Central Square and Budget at 281 Penarth Road). While stationed in Cardiff, your accommodation options span from the pristine St. David's Hotel and Spa, to The Big Sleep Hotel (actor John Malkovich is a part owner), to more modest accommodation like the Town House on Cathedral Road.
Only twenty minutes north of Cardiff up the Taff River is the Brecon Beacons National Park, rolling Welsh hill country that gurgles with streams cut deep beneath the shaggy fields. This is superb hill walking country (you'll need boots and serious walking gear). Staying the night is a real adventure and a marked contrast from Cardiff. Here is the Tripadvisor listing for the region. Try the market towns of Brecon (Felin Fach Griffin inn is good) or Abergavenny (try the manor house, Llansantffraed Court, 10 miles out of Abergavenny).
If you crave more of Wales take the coastal road, A484 out past Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas worked and was buried, and to the other oceaside towns of Tenby, Pembroke and finally lands end at St. David's. St. David's is not only the stoney western tip of Wales, it is also the site of the Cathedral of St. David, shrine to the patron saint of Wales who founded a monastic community here 1,400 years ago. A walk along the rock walled coastline, with waves crashing around you, will make you believe you have found the edge of the earth.
Edinburgh and Touring Scotland
Edinburgh, the "Athens of the North," is probably the most dramatic-looking capital city in Europe. The castle glowers from over a black, volcanic cliff, watching over Princes Street and the gray, granite-block buildings that shine in the rain and brood in the sun. Carved, Greek columns give Edinburgh a justified air of education and culture. Every day at one the cannons from the ramparts fire to mark the time. The stoney streets of Edinburgh echo with the sounds and sights of sensible activity mixed with an enevitable demonstration of that mystical passion of the Scots (after dark, and fueled by a love of spirits and socializing, the mystical passions of the people of Edinburgh become more pronounced).
To the traveler, Edinburgh looks and sounds forbiddingly far from the familiar sights of London. But high speed train service out of London trims the trip to Edinburgh's Waverley Station to about four hours. You also have the option of taking the nine-hour overnight sleeper train, which by US Amtrak standards offers an almost giddy level of charm, comfort and romance.
A visit to Edinburgh can begin with a trip to Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile. The hard past of the Scots, and their enduring spirit, is beautifully captured by Edinburgh Castle. Not only commanding a beautiful view of the city and region, the castle houses the history of the Scots for a thousand years ad the history of Scotland's Stuart kings. The Royal Mile is the main, history-packed thoroughfare of Edinburgh. A list of other touring points of Edinburgh, including the Edinburgh Zoo, the Royal Museum, the Scottish National Portait Gallery and Parliament House, is beyond the scope of this survey. But you will find yourself only slightly less busy than in London.
Edinburgh boasts a variety of interesting accommodations, ranging from the grand and traditional Scotsman (in the building occupied by the newspaper of the same name), to the new and chic Malmaison, to individually operated inns full of local charm like the Stuart House. Here is Tripadvisors listing/rating of hotels in Edinburgh.
From Edinburgh, with all of Scotland set out before you like a banquet table, it's hard to beat back the urge to rent a car and travel this mystic land. The allure doubles and triples if a member of your touring party is a golfer. There are Edinburgh rental offices for Hertz at 10 Picardy Place and for Avis at 5 Westpark Place, Dalry Road. Selecting a good route for a satisfying driving tour through Scotland is only difficult becuase there is so much to chose from. Frommer's publishes a nice guide on scenic drives in Scotland. Here is a good (and free) website from About Scotland that sets out an excellent driving course using Edinburgh as your base. Note that if you click on segments of the route the About Scotland map neatly displays the driving distances and highlights.
Where to begin with a car tour of Scotland? "Go west, young man" is pretty good advice in general, the west coast being packed with great sites, but it's not as simple as that and much of the famed Scottish Highlands (north of a diagonal line from Aberdeen to Glasgow) has great scenery and historic import. The scope of car touring possibilities here is more than I can cover, so I will offer some notes, some references and defer to a detailed guide like the Frommer's Driving Tours book previously referenced. To offer a car touring gold standard for you to consider first, there is pretty much a chorus of agreement that one of the best routes is the Great Glen Way along the north side of famous Loch Ness (here is a map of the Great Glen Way that also provides an idea of Scottish topography). The southwestern end of the Great Glen Way is cited as Fort William, but I would expand that to include the striking vista of Glencoe that also has the bloody distinction of being the site of the deceitful massacre of many of the MacDonald Clan in 1691.
Let me also highlight, and pay respects to a great, informal reference for making a Scottish driving tour: Armin's Tour of Scotland. Armin planned and executed an eight-week tour of Scotland (here's a map of the route) that he reports about in great detail, with key cultural and architectural references and copious, good-quality photographs. If you are like me and appreciate a photographic preview of a destination, then you will be very pleased when you cross reference Armin's pictures with your own travel plans.
It's worth noting two particular aspects about car tours of Scotland, a note for golf enthusiasts and mention of Aberdeen. First, Aberdeen, the Granite City by the Sea, is a popular destination that isn't on many of the touring maps that tend to highlight the drama of the west coast and the Highlands. True, the east coast near Aberdeen is a little on the flat side, but this makes for lots of golf courses. The relative scenic value of the coastal drive from Edinburgh up to Aberdeen on the A92 motorway is second to the route from Perth on the A93, which travels up the Glen Shee, across the Devil's Elbow and over the Cairnwell Pass, the highest main road in Scotland (avoid in Winter). The coastal route is a straighter shot, it is more leisurely and has fishing villages and plenty of golf courses. Once in the Aberdeen region, consider staying at the Kildrummy Castle Hotel slightly west of Aberdeen. The home website for Kildrummy doesn't throw many sparks, but Tripadvisor, and several trusted travel guides heap praises on this hotel as the best in the region.
A closing note to golf enthusiasts; about fifty miles out of Edinburgh either northwest (Gleneagles) or northeast (St. Andrews), will take you to some of the finest golfing in the planet. Gleneagles, in Auchterarder, is justly famed, but St. Andrews is truly the birthplace of the sport. The drive over the Firth of Forth bridge from Edinburgh and along the coastal route (roadways 921 to 955 to 917) toward St. Andrews is striking in good weather and is often used as a scenic cycling route. The top-rated golf hotel at St. Andrews is Rufflets.
Visiting World War I Battle Sites and Memorials in Northern France
The cloudtravel page on visiting Normandy is one of the most popular. It stands to reason that with so much living memory of the Normandy invasion people would be attracted to the idea of visiting the memorials and the spooky remnants of the battles. Less in living memory, but every bit as poignant, are the World War I battlefields of Flanders that are easily visited from London via the Eurostar train under the English Channel and stopping at Lille, France in under two hours (stay on the train at Lille and you'll be in Paris in another half hour).
Trench warfare between 1914 and November 11, 1918 wiped entire villages off the face of the earth in the region of northern France near Lens and Arras. During a five-month period in 1916 a million people died in the Battle of the Somme. Such a profound quantity of munitions was pounded into the earth that eighty years later farmers in the region routinely collect tons of undetonated artillery shells for disposal that swell up from the mud in their fields. In some places the chemical content in the soil from expended munitions prevents the growth of any vegetation.
Not despite the war memories this region of France is not as gay and life affirming as, say Provence, but it is an easy trek from London using the high speed train, and hiring a car conveniently located at the Hertz office of the Lille train station. You can do it in a day trip when the days are long, or find try to find a cozy spot in one of the relatively uninspiring villages. Bergues, near to the coast and Dunkirk (famed for another global conflict), offers a scenic walled town. One accommodation option in the region is outside of Aire-sur-la-Lys, the Les Trois Mousquetaires (three muskateers), a timber-and-brick framed inn with the feel of an old country mansion. Probably your best choice for accomodation in the region is to make the drive into Belgium to the charming coastal town of Bruges, "the Venice of the North." Good hotel options here include De Tuileirieen, as well as the less pricey Hotel Egmond (sorry about the music on their web site, which, inexplicably, is the nearly forgotten "I'd like to buy the world a coke" jingle). The word is out about Bruges, and lots of visitors crowed its ancient streets in the summer months, so think about booking ahead. De Karmeleit is one of the better restaurants in Bruges.
One of the most moving cemetaries in the region is the acres upon acres of crosses at Notre-Dame de Lorette. To get there take the A1 from Lille to the A21 toward Lens. Precede through Agres to Souches, where the cemetary is there, located on the windswept Artois plains. From Souchez continue on the D937 to Neuville-St-Vaas, the larges German military cemetary in France. Continue on to the moving cemetary at La Targette. Near the crossroads of D937 and the D49 is one of the many museum in the area, Musee de la Guerre 1914-1918.
For a more personal impression of the conflict, trace the topographical scars from the Battle of the Somme near Arras, France. From Arras take the D919 to the D415. Once you spot the Ancre River watch for signs for the memorial Beaumont-Hamel where the terrain still carries the undulations of trenches and bomb craters.
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:36:46 PM.