Gareth Evans examines a selection of Britain's best heritage railways and what they can offer to groups.
You are never far from a heritage railway in the UK. A trip behind a vintage steam or diesel locomotive can enable your group to soak up the scenery from a different perspective, in a charming, atmospheric fashion, while providing your driver with the perfect opportunity to gain a ‘Driver's Hours’ break.
The Bodmin & Wenford Railway is Cornwall's only full-size railway still operated by steam locomotives. Visitors can relax in style and enjoy a leisurely 13-mile round trip through beautiful countryside, taking in the sights, sound and smells of a bygone age, experiencing the charm of Cornish branch line in the 1950s.
The line runs from Bodmin Parkway through to Boscarne Junction, via the principal station at Bodmin General. Steeply graded with many curves for most of its length, the railway’s ruling gradient is 1:37 to 1:44. As a result, engines have to work hard, adding to the enjoyment of riding behind a steam locomotive. It is recommended that journey be started and finished at Bodmin General as this provides the best access to the train, especially for anyone with any physical impairment.
Pedestrian access at Bodmin Parkway station, which serves as the junction with the Great Western main line from Paddington to Penzance, is via a bridge with steps – while the nearest road access to Boscarne Junction is 800 yards away. Groups of 25 or more people will receive 20% discount and groups of 10 to 24 will receive a 10% discount. While group rates are not normally available on the railway’s Dining Trains, they may be available on other themed journeys, such as Beer & Jazz and Murder Mystery Trains.
The best value ticket is for the whole line round trip. This normally takes about two hours but it is possible to do a journey of 40 to 50 minutes if required. The whole line trip is, for example, Bodmin General to Boscarne Junction and return then on to Bodmin Parkway and back. The shorter return journeys are from Bodmin General to either Boscarne Junction (40 minutes) or to Bodmin Parkway (50 minutes).
Optional extras for groups include a Cornish Cream Tea served during the journey in either the railway’s dining coach or at the Steamers Café. Other food options are available – it is advised to call the railway to discuss your requirements. Guided tours of Bodmin General Station, including locomotive shed and maintenance workshops are also available subject to access.
T: 01208 73555 W: www.bodminrailway.co.uk
Located in a popular North East Wales town famous for its International Eisteddfod, the Llangollen Railway offers a even and a half mile picturesque journey.
The line, located within an area of outstanding natural beauty, passes through one of the most scenic and historically interesting valleys in Britain, with the Berwyn Mountains towering above on either side as it follows the course of the River Dee. The line is currently being extended another two and a half miles from Carrog to the town of Corwen, which is hoped to be open this summer.
Groups who pre-book are offered some attractively-priced packages – with fares starting at £5 for a single trip. Optional add-ons include cream tea to enjoy onboard the train. Trains run daily from April to September. Special events include Jazz Trains, Real Ale Trains, Santa specials and Days Out With Thomas.
Conveniently located on the A5 near the English border, it makes an ideal attraction to incorporate into a day trip from the Midlands or North West, a break in the Welsh marches – or perhaps a stop on the way to Snowdonia.
T: 01978 860979 W: www.llangollen-railway.co.uk
Located in the heart of Snowdonia with a rail system linking Caernarfon, Beddgelert, Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog, the popular Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways can offer a choice of trips for groups, and a wide range of reasons for travelling. A brand new interchange platform at Porthmadog opening in spring 2014 makes it even easier to do the full route.
Most groups do a one-way trip along part of the line, making it an ideal excursion to add into a tour of Snowdonia. For instance, passengers join a Welsh Highland train at Caernarfon and enjoy a two-hour ride through the national park, via the spectacular Aberglaslyn Pass and Beddgelert to Porthmadog while the coach travels along the main road and there is time for a 'Drivers Hours' break before collecting the group.
Trips from Blaenau to Porthmadog and vice versa are also popular, with a journey time of about an hour and a quarter. The scenery on both lines is stunning and changes all the way along as the train twists and turns through the landscape. Light refreshments are served on board and pre-booked catering is available for groups. Spooners’ award-winning café and bar at Porthmadog station also welcomes groups and makes an ideal coffee or lunch stop.
Trains run daily between the end of March and early November. There is a limited winter service which is ideal for groups staying nearby with heated carriages and seasonal refreshments. Group fares are available for pre-booked parties of 20 passengers or more (10 or more if disabled) which give substantial savings on our normal fares. Free coach parking is available at Porthmadog station.
T: 01766 516024 W: www.festrail.co.uk
A ‘must-do’ rail trip in the South West of England is that between Minehead and Bishop’s Lydeard, four miles outside Taunton. At 20 miles long, the West Somerset Railway is England’s longest heritage railway.
For the first half of its journey, the railway passes through the Quantock Hills, and for the second part the trains follow the coastline between Exmoor and the Bristol Channel. Anyone who was a child in the 1950s and remembers gazing in awe at steam engines, with the noise, smells and sense of power, will love a day spent on this railway.
Remaining true to its origins, the line has adopted the ‘theme’ of a seaside branch line. Each station is beautifully cared for by dedicated volunteers – it’s literally a time warp. A single trip takes 75 to 80 minutes, although groups are welcome to make a part journey. Of the intermediate stations, Watchet or Williton are best placed to accept coaches. Services run for most of the year, on selected dates in January, February, March, April, May, October, November and December and daily in the peak part of the holiday season.
Pre-booked Groups of 16 passengers and above enjoy discounted travel on the railway. However, group rates are only available if pre-booked. There is free parking at Bishops Lydeard Station – and coaches can conveniently set down by the booking office. The new coach park at Minehead is adjacent to the station and the Beach Hotel. Coaches also continue to set down and pick up at the bus stops outside the
T: 01643 704996 W: www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk
Coach groups can be assured of a warm welcome at the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway's Woody Station in North Devon. The narrow gauge railway makes a
fine addition to a tour in the South West of England.
The two-mile return trip, which offers stunning views out to the Bristol Channel, takes 40 minutes. Steam and diesel-hauled trains operate almost daily from April to the end of October, although it is advised to consult the timetable before visiting. Group rates apply to parties of eight or more, but should ideally be booked at least seven days in advance. The railway says it promises to do its best to tailor pricing to the individual needs of groups.
The delightfully restored Woody Bay Station is conveniently located alongside the A39, half-way between Blackmoor Gate and Lynton, a mile to the east of Parracombe. It also makes an excellent coffee stop. Devon cream teas, sandwiches, cakes and other light refreshments are served in a delightful period tea room, which comes personally recommended by GTW’s Managing Editor and his better half. It has a five star hygiene rating and all food is locally sourced.
Entry and parking is free with plenty of space on what is predominantly a level site.
T: 01598 763487 W: www.lynton-rail.co.uk