Travel

Traveling like Harry Potter

... by train from St. Pancras Station

by Elizabeth Samit


I was flown on a business trip in September 2009 to England. Or, more precisely, I was transported by plane, trains, and three rural bus routes.


“For orientation in the main office,” my boss in downtown Boston said.

“London,” I mistakenly thought.

As I embarked on web-surfing for the cheapest airfare, I realized my destination was actually York—a fascinating medieval city (founded by the Romans in approx. 71 A.D.) and two hours north of London by train. On closer inspection, the office was in “Yorkshire” in a small market town (population 2,000) bordering the North Yorkshire Moors, one of the most stunning and treasured national parks in England.

Following arrival, I rode the London Underground—called the ‘tube’— to King's Cross Station (film site of Harry Potter’s departure point to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry).

British Museum (Photo courtesy of www.britishmuseum.org)


While I could have flown into Manchester that Friday, I chose a direct flight into Heathrow Airport in order to spend part of Saturday in London meandering around the British Museum which is one of the largest art museums in the world.
 
Adjacent to King's Cross Station is St. Pancras Station, a major railway terminal and Victorian structure that feels more like a small airport.  

You can purchase a BritRail Pass for unlimited riding in England, but only if purchased in advance from the United States. Since I was only staying one week, I decided to buy a ticket in the St. Pancras terminal from Grand Central— one of the privatized railroad companies — because the schedule and cost matched my requirements.  

The change in 1993 from a nationalized rail system has created the need to choose and remember exactly which company issued your ticket, but I found it less annoying than the British passengers who explained it to me.  Purchased easily at the ticket counter, my round-trip train fare (second class) to York was Sixty British Pounds.  Because of a low number of passengers, I was allowed to move up to a first class carriage, which contained seating at tables.

We passed working class suburbs of London, and then miles of farms, flat countryside, and sheep. Approximately halfway to York, I observed from the window the unsettling view of concrete nuclear power plants towering up from the farmland. This reminded me of Three-Mile Island, and I fervently hoped none in this area would ever experience that type of nuclear accident. Two hours later, we smoothly rolled into York’s train station.  It felt like the difference between Boston and Providence in size, and there was an immediate sense of ‘laid-back’ friendliness in the terminal.

York is the site of the National Railway Museum—the largest railroad museum in the world (containing approx. 290 rail vehicles dating from the early 19th century).  I was fortunate to spend a half-day viewing the miles of historical trains with their elaborate furnishings as well as interspersed documentary films on train.
 

London and North Eastern Railway Steam Locomotive No. 4468 'Mallard', 1938. (Photo courtesy of the National Railway Museum in York, www.nrm.org.uk)


From one film clip, I learned that Queen Victoria loved trains, and 10,000 workers preceded her travels on them to ensure her safe passage around the country.  Indeed, there are trains to most cities and small towns in England — far more than here in the United States.  I enjoyed my train travel, and chatted with my fellow passengers from various parts of the United Kingdom for most of the trip.


Chinese government railway steam locomotive KF7 class 1935.
(Photo courtesy of the National Railway Museum in York, www.nrm.org.uk)


York is a very walkable, cultural-filled city in easy proximity to its train station.  One of its main attractions is the York Minster (built between 1220s-1470s), the largest medieval gothic cathedral north of the Alps.

West Front of the York Minster. (Photo courtesy of www.yorkminster.org)



Clifford's Tower, York


When I returned home, it seemed that nearly everyone in my life asked, “How was your trip to London?”  It was a silly question that demonstrated the limited perception of most Americans that England and London are synonymous.  Their well-meaning question was akin to flying back from Logan to London and then asked, “How was your visit to New York?”  Of course, in this country, we expect foreign tourists to know that we have more than just one city over here—and so do people in England!

If you are planning a one-week vacation in London, I highly recommend a side-trip by train to one of the other small cities, steeped in its own rich history and culture.

For a more adventurous trip, you can catch a bus or drive to the North Yorkshire Moors (with its historical sites dating back to the Normans).  A heritage steam railway (operated by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway) runs 18 miles from Pickering to the seaside town of Whitby, and is a favorite of tourists to the area.  In particular, I loved the picturesque town of Helmsley, accessible by bus directly from York and not far from Pickering.  


The North Yorkshire Moors Railway

As the North Yorkshire locals like to say, “Cheery-on!”


May 7, 2010


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