COASTAL RAILWAYS WITH JULIE WALTERS features the newly ennobled Dame exploring the UK’s coastal regions by way of the railways that connect these often remote communities.
In between seasons of Strictly and the X-Factor, you may have noticed a burgeoning phenomenon in the form of a freight train’s worth of programming about the wonderful world of rail. From Crossrail documentaries to Chris Tarrant's 'Extreme Railways'. This appears to be the golden age of rail related programming, dominated by cross-country connoisseur Michael Portillo.
I’ve pondered in vain why there are quite so many programmes featuring trains chugging doggedly through the nation’s TV schedules. Instead, it may be more productive to ask what does Coastal Railways with Julie Walters add to the mix?
The first episode starts with a serenely beautiful journey along the famous West Highland Train Line, as Dame Walters wends her way between Fort William and Inverness via a clutch of obscure coastal havens. The opening credits alone feature glorious, sweeping aerial photography of vintage locomotives weaving through some of the most splendid landscapes that Britain has to offer.
Despite this (accompanied by several minutes of celebratory narration about the coast and the railway), we open, with a boat on a canal. Turns out that despite the seismic impact of the railway’s arrival on the nation’s formerly dominant waterways, they remain a vital part of the transport network for some of the UK’s more secluded destinations.
Eventually Walters does clamber aboard the Jacobite Engine, a quintessentially retro steam train that found fame as Walters’ co-star in the Harry Potter series. Yes, that’s right - Walters is touring Scotland on the Hogwarts Express.
This may be disappointing for ardent train enthusiasts expecting a more hardcore history lesson on the role of steam engines in the rise and fall of coastal communities. For the rest of us it’s a very welcome signal that Coastal Railways is mainstream programming for folk that believe the destination is at least as important as the journey.
What an intriguing itinerary it is, traversing some of the toughest and most remote land in the world on a line that is both a tourist attraction and a vital lifeline for the local communities it connects. From pretty fishing ports to a WW2 spy training base, Coastal Railways brims with spectacular views, fascinating histories and more than one Harry Potter reference.
Choosing to focus more on the people than the rail infrastructure makes for an interesting and delightfully romanticised show. This is in no small part due to Walters herself, who makes for an appealing and amiable host as she encounters everything from charming soldiers to spellbinding Scottish storytellers.
More coastal travelogue than trainspotters’ guide, Coastal Railways revels in creating a genuine sense of place as Julie Walters explores the hidden nooks and crannies that are home to 3m coastal dwellers and an anthology of interesting stories. Whether you’re a committed staycationer or a global jet setter, it’s difficult to resist her warm celebration of Britain’s lush green landscapes, wandering waterways and cosy coastal communities.
- Aired on Channel 4, November 26 2017 at 20:00.