Six of the best UK family railway adventures for 2022

Discover the UK on a family-friendly rail adventure this summer, exploring cities, coastlines and plenty of bewitching scenery in between.

The Jacobite Steam Train crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, Scotland.

Photograph by Alamy
By Ben Lerwill
Published 8 Jul 2022, 06:04 BST

1. London to Shanklin

This three-part trip combines the best of the capital with the sands of the Isle of Wight and makes a fine island adventure for the kids. After exploring the cultural highlights of London, travel by train from Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour station, where you’ll catch a ferry or hovercraft across the Solent to Ryde Pier Head, from where Island Line trains rumble down to the seaside resort of Shanklin.  

The bays and beaches of the Isle of Wight have bucket-and-spade-loads of family charm, with activities ranging from coastal walks to crazy golf. And the midway point between the capital and the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth has appeal of its own, with HMS Victory and the Historic Dockyard just minutes from the station. 

How to do it: It’s possible to book all three parts of the journey at the same time, through National Rail, Trainline and other websites. The whole trip can take as little as 3 hours 10 minutes.

2. Watercress Line

How about a 10-mile trundle through pretty Hampshire countryside? Steam engines travel between the charming Georgian town of Alresford (once a hub that transported watercress across the country, hence the Watercress Line) and Alton, taking just shy of 40 minutes.

The line holds regular themed days, most notably Thomas the Tank Engine events – this year from 6 to 14 August – when you’ll be transported by a full-sized working Thomas, while the Fat Controller and friends look on. Later in the year, in the run-up to Halloween, there’s a witches and wizards event, too.   

How to do it: Book tickets ahead of time. They entitle you to hop on and off all day on this heritage line. Alton can be reached by from London Waterloo, while at the other end of the line, Alresford is an easy bus or car journey from nearby Winchester.

3. West Highland Line 

A must for any UK rail-based shortlist, this riotously handsome line threads its way through the brawny peaks of the Scottish Highlands en route to the North West coast. Whether you ride the whole line starting in Glasgow or pick things up midway at Fort William, you’re in for a treat — particularly if the sun shows up.

There are plenty of reasons why this is an ideal family adventure — steam trains, fish and chips at the coastal terminus of Mallaig, valleys, mountains and the unforgettable views. Plus it’s inextricably linked to the Harry Potter films, with the curving arches of the Glenfinnan Viaduct a highlight even for mere Muggles.   

How to do it: The full journey from Glasgow to Mallaig takes a total of around five hours 30 minutes on a scheduled ScotRail passenger service (this can also be joined in Fort William). The Jacobite Steam Train travels from Fort William to Mallaig up to twice daily between April and October, taking around two hours in each direction.

4. Night Riviera

One of only two sleeper services in the UK, the Night Riviera rolls out of London Paddington at night (pack your own marmalade sandwiches) and arrives in Cornwall in the morning. The wide seafront of Penzance is the end point, and you can also hop off at St Erth for the lovely branch line north to St Ives.  

The route is a real adventure on the rails, with sea views appearing as if by magic when you wake up. Light breakfasts are brought to your cabin door, which is a fun perk. The train leaves London at 11.45pm, but you can board an hour earlier, and you’ll have lounge access at Paddington before that.

How to do it: Cabins have two berths, but you can book adjacent cabins with a connecting door, if needed. Regardless of when you’re travelling, buy a Family & Friends Railcard to get 30% off the (usually quite hefty) ticket price.

Train driver waits at Alresford station on the Watercress Line

Train driver waits at Alresford station on the Watercress Line.

Photograph by Alamy

Further afield: three European rail adventures


4. Rome to Palermo, Italy

Head from the Colosseum to the Med on this famed service, which sees the train travel south before being ferried across the Straits of Messina to continue its journey in Sicily. There are daytime options, as well as a sleeper service, and you can also start the trip from Milan, Genoa and Pisa, instead.

5. Chocolate Train, Switzerland

There’s plenty to entice travellers young and old on this delicious day trip, which begins and ends in Montreux, at the western end of Lake Geneva. You’ll begin with a rail trip through the mountains to Montbovon, before swapping to a bus for visits to Gruyères (for its eponymous cheese) and Broc (for the Cailler chocolate factory). Runs from May to September.

6. Paris to Barcelona

This direct journey, which takes around six hours 45 minutes, connects two of Europe’s great cities in serious style. Scenic highlights include the Rhone Valley, the South of France, and the fringes of the Pyrenees. Football-mad kids can also see it as a present-and-past Lionel Messi pilgrimage, as it takes in the home cities of his present and previous football clubs.

Published in the July/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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