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21 days in England by rail

I am planning a trip for my husband and I for this September to tour England by rail. Instead of jumping around every day to a new accommodation we would like to stay longer in small apartments. I can find plenty of these but the real difficulty I’m having is knowing where to stay as base locations especially since we will mainly rely on trains and buses to get around.
Our interest is in history, architecture and museums. Right now I’m looking at Bath, Stratford upon Avon, Chester, York, London and a port city such as Portsmouth. Assuming We would use each of these places as a center and travel out from there. Hints also on how many days to allow for each area. Am I stretching to do all this in three weeks?

Posted by
5113 posts

What fun to plan such a great trip! Take a good look at a map of railway lines for England and identify where the true hubs are. My first reaction is that Portsmouth really wouldn't be considered a train hub. It is easy to get to by rail and depending on what you want to do from there ferry or bus might take care of things.

Posted by
2133 posts

There’s no quick answer to a question like this. There’s so many variables - have you been to England before? Are any of these cities repeat cities for you?

In general, when I try to sort out pacing for a trip, I take each city and list my desired sites for that city. Then I map my sites out and see what pairs well. Then, I use a guideline of two big sites per day - two museums plus some general wandering. This two sites per day plus wandering does not always work but it’s a nice starting point.

For your list, you might have time to do all of these - but I actually think you might have too many cities for 21 days. You might enjoy the pacing of a 5 stop trip in 21 days - so maybe consolidate one. As to day trips from these places, well, I have only been to Bath, York and London from your list. But if you have 5 cities and 21 days, well you’ve got 4 nights per city - really 3 days. You could easily fill 3 days in York. Bath could fill 3 days and you could add on one day with something like a Mad Max Cotswolds and Stonehenge tour.

And London? Well you could keep busy in London for weeks. For a first visit, you might want to at least give London 5 nights. I have a roughed out trip itinerary for a third visit to London for 2023, and when I made an list of all the musuems/sites I want to see (and I’ve seen the biggies!) it made a list of ten solid touring days - just for London!

Hopes this helps:)

Posted by
56 posts

Have a good look at a rail network map. This one has the main stations and some secondary stations: https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/static/documents/content/OfficialNationalRailmapsmall.jpg

The places you mention aren’t all great hubs (Stratford-u-Avon is nicely central to a lot of things by road but quite badly connected by rail.) Bath is not so bad, in that it’s a short hop from Bristol which will give you access to a lot of places. Bath is also good for escorted coach tours eg to the Cotswolds. Or you could consider Bristol itself - a big hip city with some great historical stuff plus maritime attractions. York also works well for a lot of places, including the wonderful North-East. Portsmouth has good access to the Isle of Wight and is an interesting (though not hugely attractive) city with maritime history and a long shingle beach.

The best rail hub of all is London. The second best is probably Birmingham, but I don’t recommend it for your planned trip.

Posted by
5533 posts

How long do you want in London? Have you been before? A week would be ideal if you haven’t been.

Assume that each time you move location you will lose between 4 and 7 hours door to door for your planned itinerary. Most of the places you have listed have enough to keep you occupied for 3 days without any side trips. SuA is the exception and 2 days would suffice. IMO there is also less to see from here as day trips by public transport. With day trips, you could spend a week in each place.

With a week set aside for London, I would suggest picking 3 other places for your 14 nights. SuA would be the first place I would drop, unless you are an avid Shakespeare fan. The town itself is a tourist trap disappointment. Of the places you mention, I prefer York and Chester. The option then would be to add Portsmouth or Bath? Chalk and cheese. Portsmouth has the naval history and coastline whereas Bath is Georgian plus the Roman Baths etc. If budget is a consideration, Bath will be significantly more expensive.

Posted by
3175 posts

I would definitely include York and Bath. I'm not a big fan of Bath itself, but it is convenient for a day trip to Salisbury and maybe Wells and Mad Max tours to Avebury or Stonehenge and Cotswolds. You're going to have a great trip.

Posted by
11221 posts

I have been all over the UK by rail.

The first thing you need to do is make a list of the places you want to visit. Your base cities should really be ones with numerous trains to various places. (Stratford Upon Avon doesn't cut it.)

Personally, I think you are trying to move quite a bit but let's wait to see where you want to go and then we can help you choose base cities.

Posted by
457 posts

Six 'bases' in 21 days is much too much. You need to cut out at least one. Unless you are really into the whole William Shakespeare thing, then Stratford upon Avon would be the most obvious one to drop. It's not very good as a transport hub compared with else where.

Posted by
2939 posts

Regarding Stratford--upon-Avon, I'll mention that I've been there twice and each time lacked enough hours to visit all the places I would have liked to see. If I ever get to go again, I'll plan two full days, ideally sleeping there two nights.

The HoHo bus is very convenient, but it can get stuck in traffic so it doesn't always run on schedule. Then you have have to realize that once you get off the bus to walk around, say, Mary Arden's Farm, you have to wait for the next time it comes around again to take you to your next location.

If you want to see a Royal Shakespeare Company play, book well ahead. It happened that the night we stayed in SuA was the first Friday of a new production, so the only available seats were not next to each other and were in an upper balcony with VERY little legroom.

I agree with the others that SuA is not good for rail connections, so if it's not a top priority for you, you should probably scratch it from your list.

Posted by
9 posts

Thank you all so much. These are all remarkably clear answers and just what I need to move my plan along.
When I have have had a chance to take some of the suggested steps I will get back to you for your opinions. Thanks again, Barbara

Posted by
70 posts

I disagree that Bath is not worth a trip. Just go as a day trip from London. You can also take day trips to places like Whitstable or Margate if you want to see the beach. Not sure I would travel down to Portsmouth unless there was something specific you wanted to see. Also with 21 days you can also head up to Scotland (Edinburgh is a fantastic city to explore on your own. Plus lots of guided bus trips that check out places like Stirling Castle). Or consider a trip to St. Ives in Cornwall from London. The entire trip takes a full day, but there is a lot to see and explore in that fishing town. We also have taken the train to Wales (Conwy) from London. It was a fun long weekend trip, but not a place I would visit if I have never been to the UK.

Posted by
1887 posts

If you want to see what trains run from any particular place - click the following link and then put the place in the location box. Then click through the day and note what places are served & the frequencies & how long it the trains take to reach different places - by clicking on the train(s) .https://www.realtimetrains.co.uk/search/detailed/

Posted by
11221 posts

Regarding booking tickets.....if you are comfortable using a smartphone, download the individual rail lines apps. I booked two tickets yesterday on different lines using different apps. It couldn't have been easier.

Posted by
5456 posts

We did England and S. Wales by rental car for four weeks in 2017 and loved it. The British countryside is amazing. You will see more of it driving than by rail.

Still, with the places you want to visit, rail is clearly an option.

One issue, is getting to your lodging from the rail station. That probably means a taxi and $$$. Also, we prefer B&Bs to renting apartments, since apartments are usually in residential areas that are not as close to the city center. That means taking local busses or a taxi again to site see.

For Bath, I recommend the Brooks Guest House, it is walking distance from the city center. Also, the amazing Scallop Shell restaurant with the best fish and chips in England. Suggest two night in Bath.

York is great, don't miss walking the ancient walls, the Minster (Cathedral) and a couple of great museums (including the National Railway Museum).
Suggest three nights in York.

Stratford Upon Avon is great, suggest at least one full day there.

For three weeks, your places are good.