A grand sense of arrival
London Paddington. Picture: Margaret Turton

Why rush about, simply to wait? Airports and crowded motorways hold little appeal and this could be the time to recapture the era when a leisurely journey was an integral part of every holiday.

More European train travel:
A HARD DAY ON EUROPE'S TRAINS
ST PANCRAS
EUROPE'S RAIL TRAIL
SCOTLAND BY RAIL

It's also superbly practical to arrive in Britain by train. My journey from Paris by Eurostar had me at London St Pancras International Rail Station in two hours and 15 minutes. Arriving from Brussels takes less than two hours; from Amsterdam it takes four hours 16 minutes. You can then explore London or continue on to the counties.

Aside from boarding and disembarking a stone's throw from lodgings and sightseeing in most major cities, train travel offers another bonus - a grand sense of arrival.

That's a quality well-understood by the engineers and architects who pushed technology to the limit to create Britain's splendid Victorian railway stations.

Men like Sir George Gilbert Scott who, in the 1860s, mixed the vaulted ceilings and pointed arches seen in 12th-century church architecture with the very latest glass and iron building methods for St Pancras.

This, in turn, inspired the current generation of British rail architects who showed that they, too, could astonish when St Pancras was expanded to become the hub of Eurostar. Ultra-stylish, it also holds Europe's longest champagne bar.

Before 2007, Eurostar's terminus was at London Waterloo, part of which is Grade II heritage-listed today. The magnificent Victory Arch at Waterloo's main entrance honours casualties of the two world wars.

Waterloo Station also found its way into the lyrics of The Kinks' song, Waterloo Sunset, heard at the London Olympics closing ceremony. The Kinks' songwriter Ray Davies' style - an exercise in detached observation, surely - suggests he'd make the ideal railway passenger.

He would be in paradise, gazing at the world frame by frame from the window of a train. Waterloo is the departure point for Winchester, Portsmouth, Southampton, Salisbury, Weymouth, Bournemouth and Exeter.

Brits have always adored railway journeys. When the railway reached Brighton, people flocked there en masse, driving Queen Victoria from the Royal Pavilion to the privacy of London and Buckingham Palace.

London Victoria is the station for Brighton departures today. You can also travel on to Bath, Exeter, St Ives and Canterbury.

The arrival of the railway actually restored Canterbury's economy, which had been on the slide since Henry VIII destroyed the shrine of Thomas Becket, thereby halting the lucrative pilgrimages immortalised in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Arriving in Canterbury today, you can see the original 1830 Invicta steam engine built in Newcastle upon Tyne on display at Canterbury Museum.

By the 1840s railways fanned out from London in every direction and, by 1900, London had more mainline termini than any other city in the world.

The London Transport Museum at Covent Garden documents these developments and the achievements of great Victorian engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in the Olympics opening ceremony.

Brunel built the Great Western Railway linking London with Bristol. Clusters of railway architecture in Bristol - the original 1841 neo-Tudor Temple Gate railway station and the present neo-Gothic Temple Meads station built by Brunel's colleague, Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt - are important Bristol landmarks today.

Bristol's present neo-Gothic Temple Meads station built by Brunel's colleague, Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt. Picture: Destination Bristol
Trains to Bristol depart from London Paddington, another Brunel-Digby Wyatt masterpiece. From there you can also travel on to Oxford, Reading, Penzance, Plymouth, Birmingham or Wales.

Railway nostalgia is frequently observed in film and television programs and railway journeys are often the backdrop of novels.

London Paddington captured the imagination of Agatha Christie, who used it in her mystery, 4.50 From Paddington.

Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, has Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson heading off to Cambridge by train from London King's Cross.

A century later this railway station became the home of the mythical Platform 9 3/4 , starting point of the Hogwarts Express in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

London King's Cross opened in 1852, refiring the legend of Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni people of eastern England. Some claim her final battle against the occupying Romans took place in this vicinity in 60AD, and that she's buried below Platform 8 or Platform 10. Passages deep beneath the station are said to be haunted by her ghost.

More train travel:
GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS
GLACIER EXPRESS
ORIENT EXPRESS
CANADA BY TRAIN
THROUGH THE ROCKIES
SYDNEY-LONDON BY TRAIN
MOSCOW-NICE
PACKED IN IN INDIA

A more tangible presence, however, is her statue at the northern end of Westminster Bridge.

West of Platform 8 at London King's Cross, a huge makeover will shortly link the original Victorian railway station designed by Lewis Cubitt with the neighbouring Grade II-listed Great Northern Hotel. A bold new steel and glass wave-like structure is emerging alongside the Cubitt-era features.

Trains from London King's Cross take you on to Edinburgh Waverly (in less than five hours), with shorter travelling times for Cambridge, Newcastle or York.

A big bonus for any railway buff travelling to York is the National Railway Museum with its locomotives and engines dating from George Stephenson's Rocket steam locomotive right through to today's Eurostar. It is said to hold the biggest and finest collection of all things rail-related in the world.

Viaduct carrying the settle to Carlisle Railway, Dent, Cumbria, England. Picture: Photolibrary.com

FACT FILE

• Book Britrail Passes through Australian-owned International Rail. These can be received in Australia prior to departure. internationalrail.com.au or 1300 387 245

Margaret Turton was a guest of VisitBritain.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West