Experience the sounds, smells and sights of Britain’s glorious past with a visit to one of Britain’s heritage railways, writes Daniel Wright.
Britain’s heritage railways offer the chance to marvel at the ingenuity of Victorian scientists and engineers, to visit charming towns and to experience dramatic views. They give the chance to ride on preserved trains, from the ‘golden age’ of rail travel, usually behind a lovingly restored steam locomotive with its evocative smell of steam. Countrywide, as our map on page 49 indicates, many venues operate throughout the year, and with group discounts, on-train dining options, museums, gift shops, and combined entry deals with nearby attractions, a nostalgic trip to the railway is the perfect group outing.
The South and Southwest
This year marks the Bluebell Railway’s arrival in the Sussex market town of East Grinstead, and the extended line now runs for 11 miles. The railway takes its name from the section of the line running between Hosted Keynes and Sheffield Park stations, which was ‘nicknamed’ Bluebell by the early drivers of the Southern Railway. Interestingly, the stations, restored to represent different periods from the 1880s to the 1950s, have featured in films and television dramas such as Downton Abbey. There are joint entry deals for groups with the National Trust’s Sheffield Park Gardens, famous for their display of autumn colours, which is only a short walk from the station. Discounted travel applies to groups of 10 or more, with reserved seating on trains. Free coach parking is available at Sheffield Park station.
On a six-mile line running between Norden and the seaside town of Swanage, the Swanage Railway offers passengers stunning views through Purbeck and of the ruins of Corfe Castle. The castle (owned by the National Trust) is easily visited from Corfe Castle station. Groups can choose a round trip or a one-way journey with coach pick-up/drop-off points at both Norden and Swanage stations. The stations at Norden, Corfe Castle, Harmans Cross, Herston and Swanage provide access to Dorset’s historic villages, country walks and the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
Discounts are available for groups of 15 or more passengers, and larger groups can hire the railway’s luxury Wessex Belle dining train for daytime or evening meals.
Dorset’s Seaton Tramway operates for three miles between Colyton and the seaside town of Seaton, giving superb views of the Axe Estuary. Its fleet of 14 vintage trams gives a choice between open air and enclosed saloon seating, and although each takes about 35 passengers, additional trams can be put into service for larger groups. Discounts are available for groups of 12 or more; those with 20 or more paying passengers get a reserved tram for their own use and exclusive running times. The group leader and coach driver travel for free. The tramway offers a combined package for groups, comprising a return tram trip in the morning, a two course lunch in the cosy Tramstop Restaurant in Colyton, and an afternoon guided tour around Sidmouth’s nearby Donkey Sanctuary, topped off by afternoon tea.
Steaming through Hampshire
The 10-mile Mid Hants Railway runs through gentle Hampshire countryside between Alton and Alresford, and is more often known as the ‘Watercress Line’ because of its history of transporting watercress from the beds in Alresford all the way to London. This heritage railway, saved from extinction by a band of enthusiastic volunteers in 1973, was re-opened as a visitor attraction in 1977, and extended to Alton in 1985, where the services connect with South West trains. Group rates apply for 15 or more, and 30 or more, passengers. On-train cream teas or Ploughman’s lunches are available, and for something a little different, the railway offers ‘behind the scenes’ tours of the locomotive shed at Ropley, guided by one of the railway’s knowledgeable volunteers, to gain a close up view of locomotives undergoing restoration or maintenance. Twice a month Real Ale Trains (RAT) serve real ale from a restored bar carriage pulled by a steam locomotive. Two local ales from local breweries in Hampshire and the surrounding counties such as Bowmans and Itchen Valley, are selected for each train and advance booking is essential. The railway is close to several other visitor attractions for which combined entry deals are available, including Jane Austen’s House, at Chawton, INTECH Science Centre and Planetarium and boat trips on the Basingstoke Canal. Free coach parking is available for coaches at Alresford station if pre-arranged.
Meanwhile The Severn Valley Railway (SVR) running between Kidderminster, Worcestershire and Bridgnorth, Shropshire is a popular option for groups. Many GTOs choose to take the 16-mile ride one way, arranging for their coach to meet them at the arrival station. Groups of 15 or more qualify for discounts and reserved seats can be booked. The SVR organise many themed events annually including the ‘Autumn Steam Gala’ from 20th to 22nd September. And, to help your group access the gala, Steam-Link 9 (contact TML Travel Group for information), is providing a coach transfer service from various points around the country on Sunday 22nd September. In the heart of Leicestershire, the Great Central Railway is the country’s only double-track mainline preserved railway, and aims to recreate the speed and thrill of mainline steam operations on its eight and a quarter-mile line Operating between Leicester North and Loughborough, its trains and stations are recognisable from many film and TV productions. Coaches can park at Quorn station at weekends, or on street in Loughborough. Groups of 15 or more qualify for a 10% discount on fares; coach drivers and tour leaders travel for free. Dining facilities are available on trains and the railway offers a range of dining trains for private hire, including glamorous Art Deco coaches and an observation car from the 1930s. The railway also offers a ‘behind the scenes’ tour at Loughborough with a chance to see the railway’s big locomotives being maintained.
The Churnet Valley Railway is hidden in the Staffordshire Moorlands and recreates the classic days of railway travel on a rural line that passes through beautiful countryside once known as Staffordshire’s ‘Little Switzerland’. Its picturesque stations offer visitors a complete range of facilities – Grade II listed Cheddleton Station has a small relics museum and locomotive sheds, while Kingsley & Froghall has a souvenir shop, an award-winning tea rooms, and coach parking. In addition to the 10 and a half-mile return journey through the wooded valley, visitors can enjoy contrasting moorland scenery on the 16-mile round trip along the recently restored Cauldon branch line on certain days throughout the year. Groups of 15 or more qualify for discounted travel, while coach drivers and tour leaders travel for free and benefit from a £5 lunch voucher.
Wales, Cumbria and Scotland
Wales is famous for its narrow gauge railways, originally built to carry slate from quarries down to ports or mainline railways, along twisting valleys where full-sized railways could not be constructed. The Talyllyn Railway was the first preserved railway in the country. It runs for seven miles along the picturesque Fathew Valley in Snowdonia National Park in north Wales between Tywyn and Nant Gwernol. Reduced fares are available for groups of 15 or more, and compartments can be reserved. Catering is available at Tywyn Wharf (which hosts the line’s museum) and Abergynolwyn, complimentary refreshments available for coach drivers.
Even smaller trains run in the Lake District National Park on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, in Cumbria, on rails just 15 inches apart. It is a real railway though, with four steam engines taking visitors on a scenic seven-mile trip between the coastal village of Ravenglass, and Eskdale at the foot of Scafell. Travel and food packages are available at the line’s two cafes, and the railway offers a range of combined deals with other local attractions. These include cruises on Ullswater, and visits to Muncaster Castle and the World Owl Centre, or real ale manufacturer Jennings Brewery. Tour guides and drivers qualify for free travel and parties of 10 or more qualify for group incentives (advanced bookings only). Free coach parking is available at Ravenglass.
Alternatively, why not let the train come to you and experience a bygone age of luxury with a trip on the mainline railway? Orient-Express Hotels runs three vintage Pullman-quality trains, some pulled by steam locomotives, in different parts of the country. The carriages have been restored to a “palaces on wheels” specification and gourmet cuisine is served on-board. The British Pullman and Northern Belle trains offer day trips to destinations including Bath, York and Edinburgh as well as a range of historic properties, with free coach transfer included. The Royal Scotsman offers longer journeys to destinations such as the Highlands of Scotland. Overnight accommodation is provided in mahogany-lined state cabins on board the train, and there’s also a kilt hire service! Group rates are available and all three trains can be privately chartered for larger groups, who’d like to set their own itinerary.
Travelling north, the Dean Forest Railway runs for just over four miles and in the Royal Forest of Dean, between Lydney and Parkend, Gloucestershire and recreates all the glamour of the Great Western railway. Groups can opt for the round trip or alight at one of the stations to explore the enchanting Dean Forest, or visit local pubs and shops. Groups of 20 or more qualify for 15% discounts on ticket prices. Free coach parking is available at Norchard, the line’s main station, where a café, museum and gift shop can also be found. The railway offers reserved seating on the Royal Forester dining train, while groups of 22 passengers (maximum) can hire the First Class Officers’ Saloon with an on-board finger buffet. Larger groups can hire their own train or the whole railway, or go ‘behind the scenes’ by operating the whole railway (under supervision!) on a Branch Line Experience day. The railway can organise combined visits with other attractions in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley, and can provide a Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Official Tour Guide for your coach or minibus.