The West

British rail at your service
British rail at your service

The fixtures board above the Ealing Cricket Club ground in London reads ruefully: Saturday - raining; Sunday - more rain; weekend sponsor - the Gulf Stream.

Downpours of the kind expected in the tropics have deluged crops, flooded some homes three times in the previous month and generally threatened to cast a pall over the eagerly anticipated London Olympics.

More immediately, it has brought chaos to the roads. The M4, one of the major arteries serving the west side of the British capital, is closed for three days for urgent repairs.

The resulting traffic snarls are stark evidence of the benefits of rail travel in the UK and the prospect of heading off around England using my Britrail pass is beginning to look like the right decision.

In previous visits to family and friends across the country, I have hired a car and whizzed on and off the motorway network. As users of the Mitchell and Kwinana freeways can vouch, these are superb when they are not congested. When there is an accident, roadworks or even peak hour, it's like driving through treacle.

My eight-day pass allows me to travel anywhere in England, except for one or two restrictions on high-speed trains.

Rail is a preferred means of transport for increasing numbers of British people. Demand for rail travel is increasing at six per cent a year, reaching levels not seen since the late 1920s.

Even rural lines which were scheduled for closure are being heavily used and electrification is planned for more major routes.

The important first step with the Britrail pass is to get it stamped on the first day you use it and fill in the dates for which it is valid.

Feeling relaxed on my first journey from the south coast to Waterloo, I order a coffee from the cart on the train. From the looks of my fellow passengers, I realise this is considered to be a little foolhardy. And they are right - it's not fresh.

But we set off on time and arrive punctually after 83 minutes of admiring Hampshire's green landscape and its surging rivers and catching up on the news with a paper.

London's railway stations are testament to their vital function in the city's transport system and the vision of the syndicates which built them back in the Victorian era.

Waterloo is mostly modern and functional but the renovated St Pancras station is a stunning blend of old and new. The external architecture is like a Gothic cathedral to the new-found religion of rail travel, blending in the classic Renaissance Hotel.

But the platforms and retail areas are high tech and spacious, fast-moving zones to deal with abundant foot traffic.

I'm in plenty of time to find a comfortable berth on the train to Nottingham, send a text to my friend who will meet me at the station, flip open my laptop and connect it to the adjacent power supply conveniently designed for such a use.

Most passengers are dealing with their emails, making brief calls to update colleagues on their itinerary and studying paperwork. It's a mobile office, but with a suitable modicum of understanding that not everyone wants to know your business.

Just in case that is not enough tranquillity, there are designated quiet carriages where mobile phone calls are not permitted. On some lines there are entertainment carriages with seat-back TV screens as well as dining carriages.

I've squeezed my belongings into an easily foldable shoulder bag for stowing overhead but there is no need as there's a rack for suitcases to hand.

Some 90 minutes later we've covered 200km and are pulling in to Nottingham station, the home of Trent Bridge cricket ground and some historic Ashes battles.

I am already in the centre of the city and my contact whisks me off to lunch at the 12th-century Trip to Jerusalem pub, followed by a stroll around the squares and parks of this multi-cultured city.

The inner-city feel quickly gives way to the meadows and villages of D.H. Lawrence country and, in adjacent Derbyshire, the grimy collieries have left a legacy of canals and tow-paths to explore the countryside.

Next destination, Leeds, lies along a ribbon of northern towns, more a fast local service than an express and the carriage fills with characters.

Two profoundly deaf men hold sway with a conversation at peak volume, exchanging tips on crossword answers before dragging in their neighbours with questions on their destination and parentage.

A lady with a dog on her lap studies intently the rolling hills crested with houses. Northern towns and slated terraces flash by. Surely solar panels on Barnsley roofs are a measure of optimism - but there they are.

Suddenly we arrive, crossword done, all the text messages answered. The sooty reminders of its industrial history are etched in the walls of the villages and towns of Bronte country west of the city of Leeds.

The Yorkshire Dales are popular hiking and climbing country and the pictures in the pubs bear witness to all aspects of the county's history.

On day six of my eight-day pass, there are race-day groups, hen parties and rugby league supporters adding to the atmosphere at Leeds railway station as I set off my longest haul - a 5½-hour run to Plymouth in the south-west. Again, we leave and arrive on time.

The accents of the ticket inspectors and food trolley staff change from northern to a soft West Country burr as we travel through fields turned into lakes with sodden crops and stock.

One of the surprises of rail travel is the extent of the English countryside, normally concealed from the car driver by buildings, road signs and the need to concentrate.

The Devon moors give way to estuaries, woodlands and deep valleys as we approach the naval city of Plymouth, where Sir Francis Drake was given news of the Spanish Armada while playing bowls on the seafront, known as Plymouth Ho.

After a weekend of watersports in the nearby Cornish seaside town of Looe, I'm on my last leg of the journey: back to Portsmouth via a change of train at Bath Spa.

I've only used the Britrail Pass for five of the eight days it was valid for, but the cost is at least comparable with the very cheapest of the individual advanced fares I could find for the different legs of the journey and many of these types of fare required off-peak travel.

By road, the journey would have been 1225km and, under ideal conditions, taken a similar amount of time as the train.

But the cost of hiring a small car just for one person, plus 100L of fuel at $2 a litre would have pushed the cost far beyond the $350 of the Britrail Pass.

For relaxation, a view of the pretty English countryside, the blessing of arriving at the heart of your destination and the chance to meet some interesting locals, travelling by train takes some beating.

Just be wary of the coffee. After all, some things never change.

The West Australian

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