Belfast to Derry
This two-hour train trip gets seriously scenic after Coleraine, when it partly follows the coast and Lough Foyle. As it runs along Downhill Beach, the sands and turbulent ocean are just outside the window, with the domed Mussenden temple perched on the cliffs above. On through farmland and past views of craggy Binevenagh – a towering cliff on the edge of the Antrim plateau – it will offer views of wintering geese, whooper swans and waders on the shores of the lough.
Within Derry’s 400-year-old city walls are excellent cafes such as Soda and Starch and engaging guided city walks (from £6). For rainy days, there is the new Derry Girls experience in the Tower Museum or, over the river, the Walled City Brewery for a taster-filled tour (£15). Next door, the Ebrington is a new hotel and spa in a former army barracks with glowing city views across the Peace Bridge (doubles from about £135 room-only).
Singles £14. On Sundays, a Day Tracker ticket gives unlimited rail travel across Northern Ireland for £9, translink.co.uk
Norwich to Lowestoft
This wild 40-minute railway journey, one of Greater Anglia’s “Wherry Lines”, glides out of Norwich and straight through the Norfolk Broads, past reedbeds, rivers and racing deer. Water birds can be spotted from the train windows across windmill-dotted marshland; one of the walks on the Wherry Line walks website) offers a closer look. The pink-footed geese that overwinter here fly past in huge V shapes towards dusk.
Near Haddiscoe station is the free-to-enter ruin of St Olave’s priory, and the Bell, the oldest recorded pub in the Broadlands is nearby. A short riverside walk from Norwich station, by the church where Julian of Norwich was an anchorite, the restful All Hallows guesthouse (doubles from £80 B&B) is immaculate, friendly and great value.
£10.50 return or £12 for a Wherry Line Ranger ticket
Swansea to Carmarthen
Running beside the Loughor estuary and then the castle-flanked River Towy, this route offers glimpses of oystercatchers on the sandy shore outside the window, and cows grazing on the saltmarshes. In Swansea, the elegant Glynn Vivian art gallery, near the station, hosts the biennial Artes Mundi exhibition until February 2024.
Walkable Carmarthen is a great place for a foodie stroll round imaginative places such as Karm’en Kafe near the ruined castle and the veggie cafe in Waverley Stores with its homity pie and platefuls of salad. Almost next door, the veteran Falcon hotel has smartly renovated bedrooms (doubles from £120 B&B).
Day returns £12, tickets.trc.cymru
Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield
The wooded Hope Valley line runs right through the Peak District past gritstone cliffs, reservoirs and viaducts. The local Community Rail Partnership suggests walks for all seasons from its stations, such as a 4½-mile hike from Grindleford through the ancient ferny woods of Padley Gorge, with beeches framing the waterfalls. After a climb on the glorious moors, the station cafe offers chip butties and tea in halves and pints.
If it’s tipping down, interesting museums in Sheffield include the Millennium Gallery, five minutes from the station, with an easyHotel nearby (doubles from £35 room-only).
Advance singles from £4.70, northernrail.co.uk
London to Margate
High-speed trains run from London St Pancras to Margate in 90 minutes, through wooded downs and sloping vineyards. This route and the slightly slower coastal line from London Victoria via Whitstable both have their scenic charms. The coastal route crosses the Medway at Rochester, with views of the riverside Norman castle. Beyond Herne Bay, the twin towers of St Mary’s church at Reculver can be seen rising from the marshy shoreline.
Margate is an ideal destination for wintry beach walks or sheltering from the elements in galleries and underground attractions such as the eccentric Margate Caves. No 42 is a new boutique hotel (doubles from £155 B&B) on Margate’s seafront near the Turner Contemporary where every detail feels fresh, from Whitstable oysters and local artworks to a spectacular rooftop bar.
Advance singles from £11, 5-15 years £1, southeasternrailway.co.uk
Inverness to Thurso
Another monumental four-hour Scottish railway journey, the Far North line winds slowly past shifting vistas of estuaries, lochs and mountains, miles of deserted beach and rocks covered in cormorants.
The blanket-bogged Flow Country is easily reached on foot from Forsinard, where the old station house is now an RSPB visitor centre, with a surfaced trail through bird-rich lochans to a lookout tower.
In Thurso, the North Coast visitor centre has displays of Pictish stones and Viking shield bosses. Back in Inverness, there are great places to eat, such as the riverside Mustardseed; the city’s oldest hotel, the Royal Highland, is right next to the railway station (doubles from £76 room-only).
Advance singles £14.70, scotrail.co.uk
Oxford to Hereford
This two-hour journey through the Cotswolds and Malverns passes meandering willow-bordered rivers, wooded hills and ancient orchards, and crosses four counties. There may be herons by the River Evenlode, swans on the Avon and fork-tailed red kites wheeling overhead.
Ten minutes’ stroll from Worcester Foregate Street station, beside the wide River Severn, is the city’s cathedral, with its Norman crypt, medieval cloisters and carved misericords. Orchard-ringed Ledbury makes a great winter base for exploring: the half-timbered Feathers hotel, one of the town’s oldest inns, has 20 colourfully refurbished bedrooms (doubles from £100 room-only) and is a 10-minute walk from the station.
Advance singles from £14, gwr.com
Lancaster to Carlisle via Penrith
This speedy line, skirting the Lake District, is beautiful as well as fast. There are autumn views across fells and undulating fields with sheep and whitewashed farms. The North Lakes hotel and spa, a 10-minute walk from Penrith station past the rose-walled castle, has a decent-sized pool and cheerful restaurant with an open fire in the middle (doubles from about £140 B&B).
It’s a 15-minute hop to the end of the line, where Carlisle Castle, surrounded by wooded parks, is a 15-minute stroll away through the city from the station and is offering 20% off to people who arrive by train, bus or bike.
Advance singles from £7.40, avantiwestcoast.co.uk, tpexpress.co.uk
Glasgow Queen’s Street to Mallaig
Scotland’s West Highland Line is one of the world’s most spectacular rail trips: an epic five-hour journey along Loch Lomond and over wild Rannoch Moor. The scenery is endlessly engaging, especially in late autumn, when the bracken-bronzed hillsides glow. There are trackside waterfalls and pine-ringed, island-studded lochs all the way to the white sands of the west coast.
From Glenfinnan station, passengers can tackle a rocky hike under the huge curving viaduct that features in the Harry Potter films, or stroll to the National Trust visitor centre, free and open all year, with a winter cafe serving soup and hot drinks.
Southampton Central to Bournemouth
Trains between Southampton and Bournemouth take in miles of the New Forest, where ponies wander through gold birches over winter-browned heath. At Brockenhurst, 20 minutes in, there are hire bikes at the station for exploring level trails such as the disused railway line to pub-rich Burley (from £22 a day). Those wanting to see more of Southampton or Bournemouth could add PlusBus to their train ticket and get unlimited bus travel around the area.
Bournemouth is turning the Lower Garden into a free festive light trail again from 17 November, and the Village hotel (doubles from £60 room-only) is offering 10% off with a train ticket as part of Southwestern’s reward scheme.
Advance singles from £4.10, southwesternrailway.com