England’s preserved steam railways offer a fabulous day out for families and train buffs.
Staffed mostly by passionate volunteers, steam railways of England are mostly run by private companies or charitable trusts. Not only do they help to preserve an important part of England’s history, but they also maintain links and provide tourist income for the towns and villages that they serve.
These favourites represent a small selection of the many steam railways of England. They all run steam-hauled trips for at least some of their journeys, and typically some will have special engines such as Thomas the Tank Engine for kids’ events, Santa Specials and the like. Some offer fine dining experiences in restored Pullman carriages. Most have shops and tearoom or buffet facilities.
Many of the railways have their own engineering works, and do fantastic work to restore steam engines and old Pullman and British Rail carriages to their former glory. I love seeing these wonderful examples of our industrial heritage being brought back to life.
Some of the lines have featured in period TV series and films, such as Harry Potter and The Railway Children.
To avoid the risk of boring my readers, I have refrained from the temptation of going into any detail about the locomotives and carriages held by each of the companies. While this sort of thing is fascinating to me, I appreciate that not everyone is a train spotter. For those fellow enthusiasts who like this stuff, you can find plenty of information on the relevant web sites.
The Watercress Line
Also known as the Mid Hants Railway, the Watercress Line runs from Alton to Alresford in Hampshire, around 10 miles. The journey takes 35 minutes, with a 25-minute turnaround time at Alresford before heading back to Alton.
The Watercress Line is so called because it was once used to transport locally-grown watercress to London. This connection to London makes it easy to reach for visitors today. Alton station is regularly served with direct trains to London Waterloo.
I love this line because of the vintage feel of the stations and also the attractive countryside that it passes through. If you take an early train, you can choose to spend a little longer in Alresford, which is well worth lingering in. It’s a pretty town alongside the river Itchen, offering country pubs and tea rooms and some lovely walks.
The railway offers dining experiences and special events such as real ale days and children’s parties.
The Kent and East Sussex Railway
I was fortunate enough to spend a year living and working in the historic city of Canterbury. In my spare time I really enjoyed exploring this region which – in my experience – is one of the prettiest in England. It’s ‘Darling Buds of May’ country – oast houses, hop fields, castles and weatherboarded cottages. It was during this time that I discovered the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
The line even appeared in some episodes of ‘Darling Buds’! It runs for 11.5 miles through the Rother Valley, from the charming town of Tenterden in Kent to Bodiam in East Sussex. The fields around Bodiam used to grow hops for Guinness, and the line was once a busy transit for hop workers. Today’s travellers can enjoy being transported back in time, and can visit the ruins of Bodiam Castle, which is managed by the National Trust.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Like the Kent and East Sussex Railway, the North Yorkshire Moors line has featured in period TV dramas in the UK, such as Hartbeat. It also appeared in the first Harry Potter film.
The line is one of my favourite steam railways of England and it’s also one of the longest, at 24 miles. The journey takes you through the beautiful Yorkshire Dales from Pickering to the historic seaside town of Whitby in around 1 hour and 45 minutes. They have an awesome collection of restored vintage carriages and locomotives like the Eric Treacy (see picture).
There are lots of special events on offer including Pullman dining (which I loved), footplate experiences, steam galas and Santa specials. They also host weddings and there are even camping carriages and a station cottage where you can stay the night!
Whitby is a great place to spend a weekend. You can visit the Captain Cook museum, stroll around the narrow cobbled streets, and visit the historic abbey. You can also enjoy Yorkshire hospitality in the pubs and taste some of the best fish and chips in the country.
The Dartmouth Steam Railway
This picturesque line runs for 7 miles along the river Dart from Kingswear to the coastal town of Paignton in south Devon. Kingswear is a harbour town, a short ferry ride across from Dartmouth.
Even though the journey only takes half an hour, it gives you a snapshot of Devon’s attractions, with pretty riverside villages and traditional coastal holiday towns with golden sandy beaches.
The line passes close to Greenway, which was the holiday home of novelist Agatha Christie. If you want to visit Greenway (which I highly recommend), you can alight from the train at Greenway Halt and walk up the path to the house.
Dartmouth is a beautiful town, long associated with the Royal Navy and with lots of maritime history to explore. There are plenty of old atmospheric pubs and traditional tea rooms where you can enjoy your Devonshire cream tea.
The Bluebell Railway
One of the oldest preserved railways, the Bluebell Line runs through 11 miles of glorious Sussex countryside from East Grinstead to Sheffield Park. Its four stations have been preserved in different period styles, so you can literally journey through history! A one-way trip takes 40 minutes.
When I first visited, there was an option to stay overnight in a sleeping car, which was a real thrill. Unfortunately this is no longer available, but there are plenty of other local accommodation options available for anyone wishing to spend more time exploring the area.
The Bluebell Railway offers family fun days, Santa specials and various dining experiences including traditional afternoon tea. They also do fish and chip specials and ‘rail ale’ days!
You can visit Sheffield Park and Garden, which is a short walk from Sheffield Park Station. The beautiful gardens, designed by the renowned landscape gardener Capability Brown, are owned by the National Trust. Also in the area is the Bluebell Vineyard Estate, which produces world-class sparkling wines.
Regular rail services run from London Victoria to East Grinstead. The journey from London takes about an hour, depending on which service you take and how many stops there are en route.
South Devon Railway
Yet another gorgeous line along the river Dart, this time from Totnes Riverside to Buckfastleigh. Like the Dartmouth line, this was a branch of the Great Western Railway (GWR). It’s the oldest preserved line in the south west.
The journey is 7 miles long and takes half an hour, meandering along the riverside and through the hills. At Buckfastleigh you can visit the fascinating Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary and spectacular Buckfast Butterfly Farm. Important breeding programmes and conservation work are carried out at these centres.
At Buckfastleigh Station there’s a museum, gift shop, picnic area and a model railway which the kids will love.
Dining trains offer traditional Sunday roast lunches, afternoon teas and themed evening meals. Thomas the Tank Engine specials run from time to time, and for the big kids there’s the opportunity of a footplate experience. The latter is the dream for many of us steam train enthusiasts and I’d love to do one. The closest I’ve come was in New Zealand – an ad-hoc ride on the footplate alongside the fireman, but without the ‘hands on’ element!
Totnes Riverside station is about 500 yards from the main Totnes GWR station which has regular services to London. Totnes itself is a pleasant working town with lots of interesting shops. It has a reputation for being a little bit bohemian and ‘new age’, so it tends to attract artists, thinkers and alternative healers.
Keighley and Worth Valley Railway
Back to Yorkshire for my final favourite line, which runs for 7 miles along the Worth Valley from Keighley to Oxenhope. Its main claim to fame is that it was the location for the film ‘The Railway Children’ starring Dinah Sheridan and Jenny Agutter. In fact, the 50th anniversary of the film is in 2020 – a fact that is quite shocking to me as I remember it well! Many other programmes and films have been made in the locality.
This line is rather different in character from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. It is more industrial in feel, and indeed was funded by local mill owners. The countryside is wild and stark, worthy of Wuthering Heights which was written here. The locomotives have to heave themselves up some steep gradients through the Pennines.
A major attraction of the line is that it calls at the Bronte family’s home village of Haworth. The parsonage that was their home is now a museum. You can visit and see the dining room where Emily, Anne and Charlotte did most of their writing.
Keighley main line station is served by trains from Leeds, Bradford and London.
If you enjoy vintage rail travel you might like my post about the British Pullman.
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