Like fellow train enthusiast Michael Portillo, Chris Tarrant has spent the last three and a half years circling the globe, for his Channel 5 show Extreme Railways, from Stalin’s 2,000-mile “railway of death” in Siberia to Zimbabwe’s rickety railroad.
“I see Michael quite often and he goes, ‘How are your railways? Mine are really nice.’ And I go, ‘Mine are a bit rough, Michael.’ He’s always got his hair beautifully combed like he’s stayed in a nice hotel, which he probably has. I’ve stayed in some of the worst hotels because that’s all you can find. Sometimes I can’t get a bath for days.”
Last September Tarrant decided to take a break – not because he wanted a plusher hotel, but to brush up on his history. “I realised I knew lots about the history of the railways in the Congo, Japan and Namibia, but I knew nothing at all about the railways in this country. It’s a hell of a story – I didn’t know how big a role they played during the two World Wars, for example.”
For his latest series on Britain’s railways Tarrant cheerfully confides that he’s become a bit of a train nerd and seeks out interesting journeys whenever he’s travelling around the country. Here he tells us about three favourites, from a Sussex heritage railway to the dramatic Kyle Line in the Scottish Highlands.
Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh
“The most beautiful train ride in the British Isles goes from Inverness across the Highlands to a village called Kyle of Lochalsh, which is the gateway to the Isle of Skye and the Inner Hebrides. It takes about two and a half hours and it’s just forests, mountains, lochs and moors everywhere you look. It’s probably looked exactly the same for the last 500 years. It’s just amazing there’s still a chunk of Britain like that.
“I did it very early in the morning in late summer, so the sun was just coming up and there was still mist on the trees and the ground. I had just come back from the Rocky Mountains in Canada saying, ‘This must be the most stunning journey I’ve ever travelled on.’ Then I did this and thought, ‘Actually, this is even better.’ I saw a lot of deer that came right up to the railway tracks – massive stags with big antlers. It was really stunning.”
The Bluebell Railway
“Out of all the journeys I filmed for this series, my favourite was the Bluebell Railway, which is in a really pretty bit of East Sussex. At certain times of year there are bluebells everywhere you look. It’s a heritage railway and the old steam trains are kept going by volunteers. It goes from a place called Sheffield Park to East Grinstead, past stations that look exactly as they did in the 1930s. You just sit back and enjoy how it must have been back then.”
London to Penzance
“When I was a little boy, our holidays were always in Cornwall and we travelled on these big steam trains from London Paddington. Me and my dad, mum, grandad and grandmother did that trip every summer for years. A couple of times we stayed by the seaside but mostly we stayed on a farm near a place called Polperro, which is a lovely little harbour. My dad and grandad were both keen fishermen so I’d go fishing with them. I loved being on the farm: I learnt how to milk a cow, bring the herd in, all sorts of stuff. It was such an adventure.
“I did it again this year and it was a trip down memory lane: from the beautiful Berkshire countryside, which is where I live now, through Wiltshire, Somerset and along the Devon coast to Cornwall. The towns are bigger but much of the countryside was the same. It only takes five hours, which is pretty cool – you’d never be able to drive that distance in a million years.”
The Railways That Built Britain with Chris Tarrant begins on Monday 13 February, 9pm, Channel 5
Radio Times Travel holidays
Scottish Highland Railways, 4 nights from £459pp. Visit the heart of the Highlands to enjoy three spectacular train journeys. Ride the famous West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig, take a trip on the charming Strathspey Steam Railway and enjoy a breathtaking run from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh. Click here for more details and to book
Historic Railways of the Isle of Man, 4 nights from £499. Join us for a marvellous short break to a place where life is lived at a slower pace, against a background of rolling hills and wonderful beaches blessed by clean air and unpolluted skies. An independent Crown dependency, the island is full of fascination – its unique heritage railways offering a marvellous way to discover and explore. Click here for more details and to book
Steam Railways of Austria, 7 nights from £679pp. Join us in the scenic Austrian Tyrol, where in addition to a stay in a wonderful Alpine paradise, you’ll enjoy journeys on some delightful vintage railways, and a visit to Imperial Innsbruck, the glorious Tyrolean capital. Enjoy all the delights of a welcoming, traditional hotel, and in addition to the included tours, join some wonderful optional excursions. Click here for more details and to book