Heritage railways are not just for rail enthusiasts – they offer everything from the thrill of travelling in a carriage from a bygone era, to romantic dining experiences and festivals offering a look back in time. Naomi Mackay has a selection to tempt you.
Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways
This Welsh operation offers the chance to explore Snowdonia on 40-miles of narrow-gauge railway. Head to Caernarfon, visit the castle, and take a train to the historic harbour town of Porthmadog, with its maritime museum, shops and cafés.
A shorter trip takes you to the stunning scenery surrounding Beddgelert, one of the prettiest villages in Snowdonia, and inspiration for the adventures of Rupert Bear.
Take a short ride to Waunfawr and the Snowdonia Parc Brew Pub, which has just been voted the best pub in the National Park by CAMRA.
Dates: Caernarfon Food Festival May 14; Rail Ale – the Welsh Railway-based Beer Festival May 20-21; Victorian Weekend October 7-9.
Leighton Buzzard Railway
England’s friendly little line is believed to be one of the only remaining lines that owed its existence to the surplus materials and equipment from the First World War battlefield supply lines.
Celebrating its 100th birthday in three year’s time, it now houses one of the largest and most important collections of narrow-gauge stock in England. While it doesn’t boast the spectacular scenery of the railways in Snowdonia, the railway is in a great location, close to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Woburn Safari Park, and Bletchey Park, home of the Code breakers.
Dates: The Ale Trail, celebrating some of the local micro-breweries June 18; The railway will recreate a World War One rail-served supply base – August 28-31 and September 1-5.
Coach parties (max 60) receive a discount (adult fare, £8.10) and reserved seating. Driver gets free train ride and refreshment. Free coach parking. Larger groups can hire a train. Email @lbngrs.org.uk or 01525 373888. For more information visit www.buzzrail.co.uk.
This railway takes passengers through a site of Special Scientific Interest and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty along 10-miles of track through the picturesque Dee Valley to the town of Corwen, following the River Dee.
Passengers can enjoy cream teas, afternoon teas, and real ale trails. There are Thomas the Tank Engine events for youngsters, and a 60s weekend on July 23 and 24 for anyone who fancies heading back to the days of mini skirts and The Beatles. For more information visit www.llangollen-railway.co.uk.
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch
This Kent railway boasts the most complete collection of one-third full-size steam locomotives in the world. Just 10 minutes from the M20, the track runs across picturesque Romney Marsh from Hythe to Dungeness, which is designated a National Nature Reserve. There’s also a model railway exhibition at New Romney Station, and two cafeterias each seating up to 70 people.
Groups can enjoy a variety of visits, ranging from a half-hour trip in a steam train to a full-day 1930s themed-guided tour. Discounts are available for groups of 20 or more, plus free coach parking. For more information visit www.rhdr.org.uk.
Bodmin and Wenford
When in Cornwall, you have to have a cream tea – and at the Bodmin and Wenford Railway, you can combine this West Country treat with a steam train trip. Sit back and enjoy this English tradition in one of the luxury carriages of the Cornish Belle as it travels to Boscarne Junction, Bodmin Parkway then back to Bodmin General. Luncheon and Evening Dinner trains run with dining coaches fitted out in the style of a bygone age. Check out the Steam, Beer & Jazz, and Murder Mystery events.
Pre-booked groups receive a discount and reserved seating, except on dining trains. Prices start at £8 a person. Groups of 20-plus receive a 20 per cent discount; groups of 10-19 receive a 10 per cent discount. Guided tours can be booked. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01208 73555. For more information visit www.bodminrailway.co.uk.
The North Norfolk Railway offers a 10.5-mile round trip by steam train through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with wooded hills to the south and the sea to the north. A vintage Routemaster bus service also runs from Holt to the station.
For a real taste of history, visit on September 17-18 for the immensely popular 1940s weekend when visitors are welcomed to dress in wartime style – remember your ration book and gas mask.
To book group visits call 01263 820800. For more information visit www.nnrailway.co.uk.
A rail trip combined with a visit to the beach is sure to attract family travellers. The Swanage Railway offers a journey through six-miles of beautiful scenery passing Corfe Castle, and travelling down to the blue flag beach at Swanage. It also hosts steam and diesel galas, family events and regular Evening Dining and Sunday Lunch services.
Tours, including a visit to a signal box, can be arranged in advance. Groups of 80-100 can hire their own train. Free familiarisation visits. (Group bookings not available on special event days.) For more information visit www.swanagerailway.co.uk.
Mid-Suffolk Light Railway
The ‘Middy’ is Suffolk’s only standard gauge heritage railway and recreates the era of Edwardian travel. It closed in 1952, but this year celebrates its 25th anniversary of being ‘reborn’ – there will be four steam locomotives in residence for 2016. The museum site at Brockford Station includes a café, shop, ticket office and museum.
Groups get 10 per cent off normal admission price. Coach parking is available. Guides are available to take groups around the site. Call 01449 766899. For more information visit www.mslr.org.uk.
Bressingham Steam and Gardens
This is the perfect day out for families and couples who don’t necessarily share the same interests. There are a number of steam locomotives to enjoy for the rail enthusiasts, while children will enjoy the train rides and carousel. Keen gardeners, meanwhile, will enjoy exploring the beautiful gardens, including the famous ‘Foggy Bottom’ created by Adrian Bloom, part of the family behind the well-known Blooms of Bressingham Nursery. There are four different rail routes to try and the Dad’s Army museum – especially topical with the February release of the new movie.
Groups of 12-plus get a discount. Tickets for steam days are £9 for adults, £7.50 for children. Garden tours are available. For more information visit www.bressingham.co.uk.
Great Central Railways
Located in Loughborough, Leicestershire, Great Central Railway is the only place in the world where full-size steam engines can be seen passing each other – just as they did in the good old days of steam. Special events include Steam Galas, a Peppa Pig event, Bonfire Night, 1940s Wartime Weekend and Santa Specials.
Groups get a 20 per cent discount, and guided tours of the main station, museum and engine shed can also be booked. Prices start from £13. Call 01509 632323 or email email@example.com. For more information visit www.gcrailway.co.uk.
Kent and East Sussex Railway
The light railway at Tenterden winds its way through 10.5-miles of rural landscape, ending near beautiful Bodiam Castle. Coach operators often drop their group at the station and pick them up at the end of the day at the castle. It is also possible to charter a train. The Wealden Pullman offers a trip in a 1920s or 1930s dining carriage. There are also Sherlock Holmes mystery evenings, and roast lunches on Sundays from April to October.
Groups get a 10 per cent discount on adult fares costing £17 return, (children 11.50) and catering options range from a picnic hamper to ploughman’s lunches and cream teas. Book a big breakfast in the 48-seater restaurant for £8.95 a person. Call 01580 765155 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.kesr.org.uk.
Heatherslaw Light Railway, South Tynedale Railway
Northumberland has two railways – the Heatherslaw Light Railway offers stunning countryside by the banks of the River Till and the chance to spot herons, ducks – and maybe an otter! Hop off at Etal Station and visit the castle, or walk to the village with its thatched cottages and pub.
The South Tynedale Railway runs between Cumbria and Northumberland and is the north of England’s highest narrow gauge railway, offering the chance to see deer, birds of prey, or even a red squirrel! At Alston, pop into the café and visit the discovery centre or the old Railway Shop. For more information visit www.visitnorthumberland.com/experiences-workshops/ford-etal-estates-with-heatherslaw-light-railway or www.south-tynedale-railway.org.uk.
Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company
For a full day out, this company offers a Steam & Cruise package, with a steam train trip from Paignton to Kingswear, cross the River Dart on a foot passenger ferry to Dartmouth, before boarding a riverboat for a circular cruise around the river and estuary. It passes Kingswear and Dartmouth Castles, Dittisham village, Britannia Royal Naval College and Greenway House – home to the late Dame Agatha Christie (It is possible to visit this National Trust house as part of your train journey).
Watch out for wildlife too – you could see seals, buzzards and kingfishers and even dolphins! Other excursions are available.
There are special rates for groups – call 01803 555872 or e-mail email@example.com for steam train enquires or firstname.lastname@example.org for boat enquiries. Coach drop-off is available at the embankment, with longer term parking near Sainsbury’s – fees apply. For more information visit www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk.
Gloucestershire and Warwickshire
The GWSR offers a 25-mile round trip between Cheltenham Racecourse, Winchcombe and Toddington Stations and on to Laverton (no station), through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Cotswolds.
The journey takes in views of the Malvern Hills, the Vale of Evesham, across to the Black Mountains in Wales, all with rolling Cotswold Hills along the other side of the track. Close to Winchcombe is Greet Tunnel which, at 693 yards, is the second longest on a preserved railway. North of Toddington Station, the route traverses the 15-arch Stanway Viaduct.
The GWSR’s extensive timetable takes full advantage of the railway’s facilities, as well as holding a variety of special events throughout the year to suit all tastes. Trains are hauled by heritage steam or diesel locomotives and restored railcars. Journeys start from any of the stations, and various journey options and durations are possible depending on the starting point. There is free parking for cars at all three stations.
There are Steam & Ale weekends in May and August, a Festival of Steam Gala in June, Classic Vehicle Days in June and September, Classic Bus Rally in July, Diesel Weekends in July and October, Teddy Bear Specials in August, Cotswold Food and Drink Fayre in October, a Steam & Scream Halloween Special, a Day Out With Thomas in June and September and Santa Specials in December.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Tickets to ride behind the legendary locomotive sold out within weeks of going on sale, however you can still enjoy the 24-miles of Yorkshire’s amazing scenery through the North York Moors National Park on an alternative steam engine. Services run daily between Whitby and Pickering from March 21 to October 30.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway offers discounted rates for pre-booked groups of 20 or more. Benefits include reserved seating on the day and a free place for the group travel organiser.
Visitors can travel on a steam or heritage diesel train on one of the most historic lines in the UK, experiencing 24-miles of Yorkshire’s amazing scenery at this must-see visitor attraction. Visit nymr.co.uk for further information on daily services, group bookings and Flying Scotsman updates.
Darlington Head of Steam
Darlington is the birthplace of the railway in England, so it’s fitting that we mention the Railway Museum in Darlington. Situated on the 1825 route of the Stockton, its star attractions are Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1, built for the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and Derwent, the earliest surviving Darlington built locomotive.
Groups get one free pass for every 10 paying visitors. Adult – £4.95, Children – £3. For more information visit www.darlington.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/head-of-steam.
National Railway Museum
We can’t leave out the National Railway Museum in York, home to 300 years of railway history. Visit Queen Victoria’s Royal carriage, then return to the present day and see the only Bullet train that exists outside of Japan. Ten minutes’ walk from York city centre, all-day coach parking is available for £10. Groups also get a two for one deal on the road train and a 10 per cent shop discount. Call 01904 621261 or email email@example.com. For more information visit www.nrm.org.uk.