Britain’s most beautiful narrow-gauge railways, from Norfolk to Wales

Chris Arnot names the five British railways that every train lover should have on their bucket list.

Chris spent months travelling on many of Britain’s loveliest narrow-gauge railways while researching his book Small Island by Little Train

And exclusively for Country Life, he’s picked out his all time-favourite – Wales’s Ffestiniog Railway – while also naming the rest of his top five.  

The Ffestiniog Railway, Wales

Narrow-gauge railways

Narrow Gauge Steam train of the Ffestiniog Railway passing Tanygrisiau Reservoir in Snowdonia

The Ffestiniog is the daddy of them all – the historic railway that pioneered the pathway for narrow, winding lines from Darjeeling to Romney Marsh. Like many another in Wales, Scotland and northern England, it was built originally to transport the products of backbreaking work underground. Slate freight in this case was carried from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog 13.5 miles downhill to Porthmadog, known as “the Tyneside of Wales” in the days when it was awash with ships jostling to ferry those slabs of slate to the rooftops of the world.

Today the harbour is a haven of peace and quiet while the biggest employer in Porthmadog is the fabled railway. Like many another narrow-gauge line, it still relies heavily on volunteers. Many travel considerable distances to drive a train, shovel coal or simply serve bottles of Prosecco or Welsh Gold to thirsty travellers. Their enthusiasm is touching.

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Narrow-gauge railway

Ffestiniog Railway sign, in Welsh and English

As for the scenery en route, that’s simply sensational. The voluptuous landscape of Shropshire and Herefordshire looks ravishing enough. But once over the Welsh border, hills become steeper and greener. You start to ask yourself: how did that sheep get all the way up there, and how is it managing to stay upright when it appears to be 90 degrees to the ground?

Sheep are still much in evidence, clinging to improbably steep crags or lurking in the bracken as the train winds its way through mile after mile of stunning countryside. Waterfalls cascade and streams froth down mossy rock-sides. Swathes of deep green grass soar on one side while valleys dip away spectacularly on the other, affording the chance to look down on tree-tops far below.

Narrow-gauge railway

Ffestiniog railway Station, Blaenau Ffestiniog

Sharp bends in the line offer splendid views of the engine as it chugs onward and upward to Blaenau where there’s a chance to travel on an even smaller train into the bowels of a former slate mine. The slate-waste landscape at the top of the line makes a fascinating contrast with the natural beauties below.

Those who created that landscape lived dangerously. If slabs of slate tumbling from the high roofs of those quarries didn’t flatten them, then their lungs would be infected by inhaling lethal dust. A graveyard full of former slate miners is clearly visible from the carriage window at one point. The average age of those buried there was 32.

Planning a trip to ride the Ffestiniog? Find places to stay in Porthmadog

The Welsh Highland Railway

Narrow-gauge railway

The Welsh Highland bills itself as “the longest heritage railway in the UK”. It also starts at Porthmadog but thereafter takes a very different route across the Snowdonia National Park, all the way to the historic walled town of Caernarfon.

Narrow-gauge railways

No. 143 Garratt Steam locomotive pulls train southbound from Caernarfon to Porthmadog on The Welsh Highland Railway

The 25-mile journey takes the best part of two hours, but you can enjoy a meal and a drink while taking in the usual glut of glorious scenery, including Snowdon itself and the Aberglaslyn Pass, voted “the most beautiful spot in the UK” by the National Trust. There’s plenty of competition in Wales and several more narrow-gauge lines from which to savour the scenery.

Find a place to stay in Caernarfon

The Ravenglass and Eskdale

Narrow-gauge railways

A steam train with people on the Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge railway in Cumbria

The Ravenglass and Eskdale sets off from Ravenglass, the only coastal town in the Lake District National Park, and climbs steadily through the sort of Cumbrian idyll that inspired the pen and paintbrush of Alfred Wainwright. England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, dominates the horizon while, much closer, are glimpses of nature red in tooth and claw.

You may see a buzzard and, if you’re very lucky, a rare red squirrel. Dalegarth Station, at the end of the line, offers walks galore and the chance to see a spectacular waterfall surging down a rock face and into the river below.

Find places to stay in Ravenglass

The Bure Valley

Narrow-gauge railways

Bure Valley narrow-gauge railway

The Bure Valley line starts or ends at Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads, a landscape as different from Cumbria or North Wales as it’s possible to imagine. The train trundles through gently undulating arable land offering occasional glimpses of a scene worthy of Constable.

Horses grazing by tree-fringed ponds overlooked by church spires and stone cottages are evidently common to Norfolk as well as neighbouring Suffolk. The railway terminates at Aylsham, a delightful market town harbouring an historic pub, the Black Boys, where Admiral Lord Nelson attended a ball in 1792.

Find places to stay in Wroxham

The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway

Narrow-gauge railways

Romney Hythe and Dymchurch light railway train on crossing at Greatstone, Dungeness, Kent

Like many a narrow-gauge railway, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch has a fascinating history. Started by a racing driver from the Roaring ‘20s, the line runs through Kentish marshland and played a key part in transporting troops and supplies to the front line in World War Two.

Learn all about it from the museum at New Romney Station. Then get back on the train and prepare for Dungeness – the end of the line and the end of England. Two lighthouses stand side by side on acres of flat shingle, and flocks of exotic birds burst over the expansive skyline of the UK’s only official desert.

Find places to stay in Dungeness