Ben Fogle takes the best rail trip in Britain from London to Penzance

Ben Fogle takes the best rail trip in Britain from London to Penzance

Lush green fields rush past the window in a blur. As I sip a soothing cup of tea, I spot church spires and windmills dotted around picturesque villages. I am on a train, streaking through the countryside on my way from London to Penzance in the western corner of Cornwall.

I have always loved trains  –  not in a trainspotting kind of way, but for the journey itself. I have always found this form of transport so much better than driving; this way you are able to relax, unwind and take in the views.

A train sweeps along the impressive coastline at Dawlish in Devon

A bay day: A train sweeps along the impressive coastline at Dawlish in Devon

I can clearly remember my first childhood train journey from London to visit my grandmother in Brighton, and I still get a buzz of excitement from travelling by rail. Stations are such romantic places  –  goodbye kisses on platforms and the shrill blast of the guard’s whistle before the train departs. I am lucky enough to spend a great deal of time on trains as I travel across Britain on various filming assignments. For me, the ability to relax, read, eat or work from the comfort of my seat while taking in the beautiful scenery around me is very therapeutic.

Rail travel can also be great value for money, especially when you book your ticket in advance. More than 500,000 advance tickets are sold each week and you can save a small fortune. Use the cheapest-fare-finder tool on to compare prices at different times of the day and days of the week  –  if you are flexible, you can find some real bargains.

And if you have children, as I do, it is also worth enquiring about a family railcard. This allows you to save a third on adult fares and 60 per cent on children’s fares.

Another good tip is to look out for deals that offer savings on entry to various attractions if you are travelling there by rail.

Ben Fogle gets ready to board the train at Paddington station

Full steam ahead: Ben Fogle gets ready to board the train at Paddington station

Although I have been fortunate enough to explore most of the UK by train, my favourite trip remains the service from London to Penzance. Authors such as Agatha Christie and Mary Wesley have written about the epic journey from the capital to the farthest corner of the West Country.

The trip begins at Paddington station, a wonderfully evocative reminder for people like me brought up on the tales of a bear from deepest, darkest Peru. Paddington has been the scene for countless farewells and reunions between my wife Marina and me as I set off or return from adventures around the world.

After pulling out of the station, we quickly leave behind the graffiti-smeared grey buildings of West London and find ourselves rushing through the green fields of Berkshire and past Newbury racecourse. Before you know it, you’re crisscrossing the Kennet and Avon Canal, with its multi-coloured barges.

We speed through Wiltshire, Somerset and then through a long tunnel into Devon. For a time, the track runs alongside the M5, where you see weary drivers battling against the traffic.

Even before I have finished reading my morning newspaper, Exeter St David’s looms into view. From here things get exciting because the line between Exeter and Plymouth was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the mid-19th Century as an ‘ atmospheric railway’.

Instead of noisy locomotives, Brunel’s trains were to be powered by an air-pressure system, known as atmospheric traction. In theory this would have allowed trains to climb steeper gradients and make tighter turns than locomotives were then capable of, but unfortunately the scheme ran into technical difficulties and was aborted. One legacy is that speeds on the line to Plymouth are lower than elsewhere on the route  –  all the better for admiring the scenery.

As we head towards the coast, the first scent of the ocean, that unmistakable aroma of salt and seaweed, teases my senses.

The train follows the River Exe and crosses marshes before Powderham Castle and its beautiful deer park come into view.

Before long, I spot the sand dunes at Dawlish Warren, which are home to countless wading birds. Also along this stretch are the remains of a number of lime kilns that were used during the construction of the railways.

A train runs alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal at Little Bedwyn Wiltshire

A train runs alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal at Little Bedwyn Wiltshire

As I peer out of the window, I notice that salt from the ocean spray has crystallised on the glass. I can also hear the familiar cry of seagulls.

I glimpse children splashing around in the water and building sandcastles on the beach. Beyond them, the ocean stretches for thousands of miles before reaching the United States and the Caribbean.

Fishing boats and sailing vessels bob about in the choppy waters. Sometimes this area is swamped by enormous waves as angry storms lash the coastline. That is of no concern to the children who share my carriage; they press their noses to the window, longing to feel sand between their toes, and the sweet taste of sticks of rock.

I first enjoyed the journey from London to Penzance when I was 11 years old, but my young son Ludo has already completed it. My wife and I bundled him up in blankets against the winter chill and travelled with him to Cornwall when he was just three weeks old. The gentle motion of the train meant he slept like, well, a baby.

I have always found the motion of the train immensely settling too and I fight to keep my eyes open for the final part of the journey. And just five hours after setting off, the train pulls into the tiny station at Penzance, a lifetime away from the hubbub of Paddington.

It may be the end of the line but this is only the beginning of the adventure for many; boats, buses and even helicopters await those inquisitive travellers who wish to delve deeper into Cornwall, to Land’s End or the Isles of Scilly.

For many, rail travel remains purely utilitarian, a business tool to get from A to B, but plan ahead and you can explore Britain in a wonderful and cost-effective way.

Say goodbye to traffic jams and road closures; sit back and admire the legacy of Brunel and Stevenson.

Getting there

Visit to find the latest deals and offers from all Britain’s rail operators. The website also offers deals on entry to attractions, theatres and exhibitions when you travel there by train.

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