Years ago I happened to take the Hope Valley line from Manchester to Sheffield, unprepared, as we dawdled through wintery grey suburbs, for the journey that unfurled. As though riding some magical polar express, we entered the snow-frosted, undulating Peak District. At the barely-there stations of Edale, Hope, Bamford, the occasional passenger would alight in their sturdy boots, and I fancied they were setting off on the Pennine Way, walking from inn to inn.
The Victorians laid tracks into our farthest-flung reaches, and those that remain can transport us into what are now Britain’s spectacular national parks, nature reserves and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Through the mountainous heart of Snowdonia or the North York Moors. Around the fringes of Dartmoor. Then there’s the wild romance of Scotland’s scenic railways (scotrail.co.uk), their names full of promise: the Far North Line, the Caledonian Sleeper, the West Highland Line, skirting dark pine forests, bracken-russet slopes and purple-heathered moors, lochs reflecting tumultuous skies.
Into these middles-of-nowhere you can simply step off with your overnight bag, as travellers have been doing long before cars were invented, when the grandest country houses and Scottish castles had their own request stations. Some still do, or are well placed near stations for guests arriving by train. And just as the trains themselves have come a long way since the industrial revolution, so country houses and inns have been spruced up over the years, once-draughty bedrooms now cosy and inviting, the cooking ever more accomplished.
So here is exactly where to step off to find Britain’s finest country hotels you can escape to by train. All within roughly a 10-minute taxi ride of a station, and some even close enough to stroll to – sturdy boots not required.
The Pig at Combe, Devon
Station: Honiton (3.7 miles; 12 mins)
Robin Hutson and his wife Judy have had many clever thoughts in their careers as groundbreaking hoteliers, one of which was to find homes for their “Pigs” within easy reach of train stations. The Pig at Combe, an Elizabethan house in the Otter Valley, is a beauty inside and out. Wisteria climbs around mullioned windows; steep gables house vaulted attic rooms; and the Hutsons’ signature design adds decadence to historic halls and drawing rooms. A garden folly-turned-bar remains charmingly unfinished; while two potting sheds now house treatment rooms. The destination restaurant uses what grows in the three kitchen gardens; anything that can’t be grown is sourced within a 25-mile radius.
Book it: Doubles from £255 (0345 225 9494; thepighotel.com)
The Newt, Somerset
Station: Castle Cary (2.9 miles; 6 mins)
The Newt is one of Britain’s most remarkable country-house hotels. Habsden house, the colour of Somerset cider and pure Jane Austen with its elegant Georgian windows, was reimagined by Karen Roos (ex-editor of South African Elle Decoration) with cutting-edge design that mixes playful details – art, lighting, furniture – with the exquisite antiques of an English stately: swing chairs and string chairs sit alongside taxidermied pheasants and gilt-framed oil portraits. This is not just a country house but an entire estate. Amid vast and beautiful gardens are orchards, a press and cider bar where you can drink homemade golden nectar. The Farmyard Kitchen cooks over fire; three-course set menus at the elegant Botanical Rooms draw diners from near and far. The spa has an indoor-outdoor pool, and a gym overlooking the vegetable patch. Truly a wonder of the West Country.
Book it: Doubles from £625, including breakfast (01963 577777; thenewtinsomerset.com)
Chewton Glen, Hampshire
Station: New Milton (1.7 miles; 7 mins)
Between the New Forest and Hampshire coast, Chewton Glen offers a highly polished five-star stay that’s also family-friendly. Everything’s immaculately groomed, from the gardens to the armies of staff. The full English is served on white tablecloths with silver flatware. The spa wows with its series of pools beneath frescoed ceilings and Grecian columns. Anyone for tennis, golf, croquet or archery? Even the famed treehouse suites have wood-burners and hot tubs on the terrace.
Book it: Doubles from £435, including breakfast (01425 282212; chewtonglen.com)
The Lamb Inn, Oxfordshire
Station: Shipton (1.2 miles; 4 mins)
When Giles Coren declared he had eaten “the best mouthful of his life” at the Bell Inn Langford, it became a Cotswold institution. Then head chef Tom Noest and co-owner Peter Creed opened a sibling in nearby Shipton – another smasher of a country pub, only this time you don’t need a car to get there. The 14th-century inn is all oak beams and low ceilings, bold tongue-and-groove and eclectic picture walls. The 10 rooms are dotted about the place, each uniquely charming with a personal touch – just like the welcome from the affable owners.
Book it: Doubles from £99, including breakfast (01993 832116; thelambshipton.com)
The Beckford Arms, Wiltshire
Station: Tisbury (2.1 miles; 7 mins)
On the Fonthill Gifford estate in Wiltshire, posh-boozer-with-rooms the Beckford Arms is a creeper-covered Georgian coaching inn. It’s the original property of the Beckford Group – a trio of pub-loving gents spiffing up one inn at a time in south-west England, who’ve hit on a winning formula: honest prices and unpretentious style that brings locals as well as Londoners through the door, plus beautiful interiors, local ales and upgraded pub classics such as steak and chips, game pie, and wood-fired pizza. There are eight bedrooms (plus a couple of lodges and new accommodation in the historic Fonthill Arch for more space); the Bramley products in the bathrooms are made by the co-founder’s wife.
Book it: Doubles from £130, including breakfast (01747 870385; beckfordarms.com)
The Gunton Arms, Norfolk
Station: Gunton (1.9 miles; 5 mins)
The Gunton dazzles in many ways: art, design, food, location and value. Art dealer Ivor Braka bought this Norfolk inn just over a decade ago, and drafted in his brilliant friends: the late Robert Kime designed the interiors, and Stuart Tattersall cooks the food (including the estate’s own venison). Meanwhile Braka’s contemporary art collection (Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Frank Auerbach) hangs irreverently about the place, with sculpture in the deer park on which the inn sits.
Book it: Doubles from £105, including breakfast (01263 832010; theguntonarms.co.uk)
Langar Hall, Nottinghamshire
Station: Bingham (5 miles; 12 mins)
This manor in the East Midlands has all the elegance of a Tuscan villa, painted as it is a shade of sienna and approached along an avenue of lime trees. Yet it is wholly English, from the William Morris wallpapers and country-house florals to the moat stocked with carp and Capability Brown-style parkland. It’s run by Lila Arora Niclasson, whose family has owned the house since 1860; her grandmother Imogen opened it as a hotel 30 years ago, hoping guests would feel “as if they had been invited to dinner by a dear friend”. It’s lived-in but stylish, and there’s a room to suit all guests: with its curtained-off bed, Bohemia is utterly romantic, once an artist’s studio; while the brooding, wood-panelled Barristers has its own entrance. The food is far more accomplished than home cooking, though, including a vegetarian tasting menu.
Book it: Doubles from £150, including breakfast (01949 860559; langarhall.com)
The Charlton Arms, Shropshire
Station: Ludlow (0.8 miles; 5 mins)
The black-and-white market town of Ludlow has earned a name for itself as a foodie destination in recent years, utilising the great produce from its rural surroundings in Wales and England’s wild west. Try it for yourself at the riverside Charlton Arms, which has held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2019 for its super-tasty, hearty food (the Scotch eggs alone are something to write home about).
Book it: Doubles from £120, including breakfast (01584 872813; thecharltonarms.co.uk)
Losehill House, Derbyshire
Station: Hope (1.7 miles; 6 mins)
The Northern line between Manchester and Sheffield unfurls across the Peak District like a ribbon – outside the city suburbs it becomes, suddenly and unexpectedly, one of the prettiest rail journeys in Britain. Hop off midway, in the Hope Valley, where Losehill House sits alone, a beacon of white stone in undulating folds of green. It’s out on its own too in terms of luxury, with fancy food and well-dressed rooms. The spa is the champagne-and-pampering sort, and the outdoor hot tub a highlight, overlooking Hope Valley and Win Hill by day and a sky full of stars at night.
Book it: Doubles from £172, including breakfast (01433 621219; losehillhouse.co.uk)
Gilpin Hotel & Lake House, Cumbria
Station: Windermere (2.8 miles; 12 min) or Oxenholme (10.6 miles; 20 mins)
Family-run and family-friendly Gilpin is a five-star hotel in two parts: the original hotel and its collection of cabin-like standalone suites with their own hot tubs, and the newer six-bedroom Lake House, a secluded, grown-up lodge overlooking its own lake. Source has a Michelin star and there’s also a pan-Asian restaurant, while the Lake House’s Jetty Spa is a fantasy of hygge. Post-treatment you can have afternoon tea in the boathouse and champagne in the onsen tub no matter how filthy the weather. Even when the offering is this good, it’s hard to compete with the location: you’re surrounded by sensational Lake District scenery, and you can start straight from the door.
Book it: Doubles from £220 (015394 88818; thegilpin.co.uk)
Middleton Lodge, Yorkshire
Station: Darlington (4.7 miles; 10 mins)
Owners James and Rebecca Allison have breathed new and sustainable life into this 18th-century estate set in 200 acres on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. The light, open spaces have been designed by Rebecca, a mix of limed wood, ticking upholstery and sheepskin rugs – Scandinavian meets Yorkshire in natural shades of stone and milk; plants and glassware echo the greens of the Dales outside. Some rooms have the most wonderful flagstone terraces with outdoor baths beneath wooden arbours. There’s fine dining in Forge: a tasting menu includes creative combinations such as trout, blackcurrant and caviar. In the relaxed Coach House, heartier dishes are inspired by what’s grown in the two-acre walled garden.
Book it: Doubles from £250, including breakfast (01325 377977; middletonlodge.co.uk)
The Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa, North Yorkshire
Station: Ilkley (5.4 miles; 12 mins)
The Devonshire Arms is one of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s collection of hotels on their estates in Yorkshire and Derbyshire – three of which are called the Devonshire Arms, which is in no way confusing at all. This particular one is a 40-bedroom building set around a courtyard of box hedging in the village of Bolton Abbey, beside the River Wharfe, across which rise the Dales to the capricious Yorkshire skies. At certain times of year you can even arrive in Bolton Abbey by steam train on the (impractical but charming) heritage line.
Book it: Doubles from £210, including breakfast (01756 718100; devonshirehotels.co.uk)
The Talbot Malton, North Yorkshire
Station: Malton (0.3 miles; 2 mins or an 8-minute walk)
Everyone who was anyone in Yorkshire frequented the Talbot in its 17th-century heyday, after King Charles II revived the sport of horseracing and Malton, a spa town on the edge of the North York Moors and the Howardian Hills, became a staple on the circuit. These days Malton is known as the food capital of Yorkshire. The Talbot is at the heart of this farm-to-fork scene. The stone coaching inn has all the bonhomie of a pub, albeit a very good-looking one. Winter-hearty seasonal dishes include rabbit ragu and slow-braised ox cheek. After Yorkshire cheeses, and plum and hazelnut pudding, bag an armchair by the fire in the bar and they’ll have to roll you upstairs to bed. Perhaps a frilled four-poster – though there’s much to love about the classic doubles, not only for their deliciously democratic room rate but for their richly layered colours and fabrics – tweed and velvet and bold-painted panelled walls. It’s child- and dog-friendly, too.
Book it: Doubles from £92 (01653 639096; talbotmalton.co.uk)
Scotland and Wales
Station: Gleneagles (2.2 miles; 6 mins)
It was the manager of the Caledonian Railway Company who had the idea to build a spiffy country club in Tayside’s glorious Strathearn valley, aimed at the leisure class of the Roaring Twenties, and easy to reach thanks to its very own train station. In summer 1924 it opened with a grand ball; the music was broadcast by the BBC and Gleneagles was hailed “the playground of the gods” – still very much the case today. Huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ remain the order of the day, along with horse riding, golf (on three Championship courses) and more niche pursuits: archery and ferret-racing. There’s also a world-class spa. And while the leisure class still idle over martinis and Michelin-starred food, children get to fire bows and arrows and drive mini Land Rovers around the 850-acre estate. True to classic house-party style, there are wellies and Barbours in every size for guests to borrow, and a chauffeur will pick you up from the station if you’re in the wrong shoes for the stroll through the grounds.
Book it: Doubles from £575, including breakfast (01764 290004; gleneagles.com)
Boath House, Nairn
Station: Nairn (3.1 miles; 8 mins)
Artist Jonny Gent (who is also behind the Sessions Arts Club restaurant in Clerkenwell) opened Boath House as a retreat for creatives, with equal emphasis placed on art, food and hospitality. Inside the isolated country house set in soul-stirring Highland surroundings, contemporary interiors move from dark and atmospheric to pale and monastic; 10 bedrooms and a four-bedroom lodge are sparsely decorated so that the architectural details of the house shine. There’s also a writing and a drawing studio, both with beds. The gardens include a walled kitchen garden where ingredients are grown to accompany the likes of locally caught langoustines and pheasant; and there’s an armadillo-like sauna beside the river, with steps down to the water if you fancy a cold dip.
Book it: Doubles from £195, including breakfast (01667 454896; boath-house.com). Reopens Jan 23 and dining on Jan 24
Killiecrankie House, Perthshire
Station: Pitlochry or Blair Atholl (3.4/9 miles respectively; both around 8 mins)
Fife-born Matilda Tsappis and her husband Tom left their city lives to transform a run-down Victorian manse in the Cairngorms into a truly special restaurant-with-rooms, which opened last year. Interiors are fabulous – dark and moody panelled walls offset with antique pink Murano chandeliers, antique oak and cane chairs, four-posters in each of the five bedrooms. But it’s the food that brings gourmands from all over the country; Tom is a chef and Matilda a sommelier, and both are convivial hosts, serving up memorable tasting-menu dinners of modern Scottish cooking with a Japanese influence nodding to Matilda’s heritage. Work it off with a dip in Loch Faskally or a walk up a mountain – or perhaps just to the distillery down the road.
Book it: Doubles from £520 a night including dinner and breakfast for two (01796 473213; killiecrankiehouse.com)
Bodysgallen Hall, Conwy
Station: Llandudno Junction (1.2 miles; 5 mins)
Now in the safekeeping of the National Trust, Bodysgallen began life as a mediaeval watchtower for Conwy Castle. To climb the tower is to ascend through the ages in reverse: from Victorian stairs to Georgian, Jacobean, and finally up a 13th-century spiral staircase with its lofty view of Conwy’s battlements, where the train puffs past, to the sea beyond. It was rescued from neglect relatively recently and transformed into a hotel, original oak panelling intact and fireplaces you could park a horse-drawn carriage in. Rooms in the main hall are gorgeously old-fashioned with four-poster beds, plus a couple of cottages, while a stone farmhouse holds a large spa offering great-value treatments, pool and gym. The arts and crafts-style grounds have been restored to splendour too, with parterre and follies and, in the distance, Snowdonia.
Book it: Doubles from £260, including breakfast (01492 584466; bodysgallen.com)