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Top 10: Railway lines, reborn

The Camel Trail. Image: Mary Neale

This month sees the opening of the first new passenger railway line in the UK since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Happily, many of the lines that were then axed have been repurposed — Andrew Eames highlights the ones to visit


1. Two Tunnels Greenway
A number of ex-branch lines have now been repurposed as footpaths or cycling trails. Two Tunnels Greenway follows a four-mile stretch of the disused Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway track, linking the Georgian spa town of Bath with the pretty village of Midford. The path weaves from city to lush valley and, with well-lit tunnels and smooth tarmac paving the way, is a popular route for families. twotunnels.org.uk

2. Seaton Tramway
Not far away is another rail-based revival — with a twist. West Devon’s Seaton Tramway is a slice of British eccentricity taking up a three-mile stretch of defunct branch line. Running along the River Axe from the seaside resort of Seaton, it was transported here from Eastbourne in 1970 at a time when trams were rapidly going out of fashion. Today, the vintage tramcars rumble and sway through bird-rich wetlands to the station at Colyton, where riders can disembark for a tasty cream tea. tram.co.uk

Dartmouth Steam Railway. Image: George Lloyd.

Dartmouth Steam Railway. Image: George Lloyd.

3. Dartmouth Steam Railway
Many abandoned branch lines have found new life as private railways. There are some 80-odd lines open to the public across the country, many with functioning steam locomotives. One of the most impressive is the Dartmouth Steam Railway in Devon, which runs along the back of Paignton’s beaches, climbs the hills by Agatha Christie’s house Greenway and then descends into the Dart Valley to Kingswear. From there, you can cross the creek to Dartmouth and return to Paignton by boat. dartmouthrailriver.co.uk

4. Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve
A resurrected railway doesn’t just have to be a transport route. What’s now the Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve, run by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, was once a section of the Darlington to Tebay line. The reserve is now home to butterflies, red squirrels and a host of bird species — from treecreeper to wood warbler — and features an array of natural habitats all connected by the Smardale Gill Viaduct. cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Image: John Firth.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Image: John Firth.

5. North Yorkshire Moors Railway
The 24-mile North Yorkshire Moors Railway, running on the once-disused track between Whitby and Pickering, carries more passengers than any other heritage railway in Britain. Its key attraction is, ironically, the very same rugged moorland landscape that once made it an impractical transport development. Period stations and large steam locomotives only add to its romanticism, while feature roles in films including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have drawn a steady stream of visitors over recent years. nymr.co.uk

6. Speyside Way
Scotland’s 65-mile Speyside Way runs from Aviemore to Buckie along the track of the old Strathspey Railway. Attracting hikers, bikers and canoeists, the trail bumps over the foothills of the Cairngorms and follows the glorious River Spey on its tumbling journey to the sea. Should you get thirsty along the way, fear not — Speyside is home to numerous malt whisky distilleries including Knockando, Tormore and Dufftown. speysideway.org

Speyside Way. Image: Bob Jones.

Speyside Way. Image: Bob Jones.

7. The Monsal Trail
The Monsal Trail cuts through the Peak District’s spectacular limestone dales, winding from Blackwell Mill to Bakewell. The visions of 19th century railway engineers are clear to see, with six tunnels and two viaducts in just 8.5 miles. The Wye Valley is dotted with timeworn mills and, where once there stood a train station in Hassops there is now a bike-hire cafe. Trail-goers often feel strongly incentivised to reach Bakewell — home of the nation’s most famous tart. peakdistrict.gov.uk

8. Camel Trail
Sir John Betjeman, the celebrated English poet, once described the Atlantic Coast Express along Cornwall’s Camel Estuary as “the most beautiful train journey I know.” Alas, trains no longer run here — but the rail-replacement Camel Trail, reaching from Blisland and Bodmin to Padstow is one of the nation’s most popular multi-use leisure routes. Moorland villages are dotted along its 18-mile stretch and the route provides stunning views over the Camel estuary. cornwall.gov.uk

Water Way Railway. Image: Visit Lincoln.

Water Way Railway. Image: Visit Lincoln.

9. Water Rail Way
Laced with rich fenland and ditches, the Water Rail Waylinks the cathedral city of Lincoln with the market town of Boston. The former railway clings to the banks of the meandering river Witham for over 30 miles and offers a blend of nature and creativity, with Lincolnshire-themed artworks dotting the route. canalrivertrust.org.uk

10. Crab and Winkle Way
The track of the world’s first passenger railway line — running from the cathedral city of Canterbury to the seaside resort of Whitstable in Kent — has been regenerated as a 7.5-mile rural leisure route. The Crab and Winkle Way winds along track-bed and forest, and is a perfect path for walking or cycling. The route combines two very different destinations — one famous for pilgrimages and archbishops, the other for oysters and ice cream. crabandwinkle.org

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