Gareth Evans and Caroline Gregory take a look at some of the best group days out on Britain’s heritage railways

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West Somerset Railway. Leaving Bishops Lydeard in the snow

There isn’t much that is more evocative of England’s bygone era than the sight of a steam train puffing through green fields and past quaint red brick stations, complete with ancient metal advertising signs, hanging baskets filled with colourful blooms and preferably a fat ginger cat sitting on the platform. Whether you credit George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick or William Murdoch with being the ultimate inventor of the steam engine, there is no question that Britain is the birthplace of the railway.

Britain is lucky to have many heritage railway enthusiasts who have, over the years, protected, resurrected and campaigned to save many ancient stations and lines, not to mention the trains themselves. Gone are the days when visiting a steam railway was the preserve of trainspotting types; these days, heritage railways offer wonderful days out suitable for all ages and especially for groups. The combination of a bit of history, experiencing an actual ride and other hands-on activities, beautiful surroundings and good food and drink makes an ideal trip for any type of group at any time of year.

West Somerset Railway. c.Gareth Evans

West Somerset Railway. c.Gareth Evans

England’s longest heritage railway runs between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead, passing through the Quantock Hills and along the Exmoor Coast. The West Somerset Railway follows a 20 mile route boasting a wide variety of interesting and beautiful places to see and visit – the return trip takes about an hour and a half, the single trip about 35 minutes. Crowcombe Heathfield and Stogumber are traditionally good starting places for walking groups to explore the Quantocks. Watchet is an ancient harbour town with a long history, narrow streets, absorbing shops, plenty of places to eat and drink and two museums. Washford Station is the stop for English Heritage’s Cleeve Abbey and the Torre Cider Farm, while Dunster is a medieval village overlooked by a 1000 year-old castle. The traditional seaside town of Minehead ends the route.

The West Somerset Railway was shortlisted in the Best UK Short Visit at the Group Travel Awards in 2012. Over the 35 years since its re-opening in 1976, the railway has established an excellent reputation as a day out for groups and coach company bookings, with a lot of corporate and repeat business year after year.

The trains include a well-equipped buffet and bar, where passengers can purchase hot and cold drinks, including wine, beer, cider and spirits, along with sandwiches, hot pasties and a range of sweet and savoury snacks. At Minehead Railway Station there is also the Turntable Café, serving speciality coffees and teas and food, for eating in or taking away. For groups of 16 or more, West Somerset Railway offers a party catering menu which should be ordered when making the group booking; it will then be served at a specially reserved table.

The railway will be appearing at various trade and travel shows throughout 2013 and has an exciting programme of events for the year. They offer ticket discounts for groups of 16 or more. The tour guide and, if applicable, the driver can travel free with their group, or alternatively the driver can get a refreshment voucher at the station.

Rushden platform in the snow

Rushden platform in the snow

The West Somerset Railway is a typical example of a heritage railway resurrected from the ashes by a committed group of enthusiasts; British Rail closed the line in 1971 but a determined team were able to reopen the line as a heritage railway just five years later. It was only after many years of campaigning that Rushden Station was thankfully saved from demolition and purchased by the Rushden Historical Transport Society in 1996. This picturesque redbrick station really does tick all the boxes for an historical railway, including the fretwork, chimneys, old tin advertising signs and even, believe it or not, the requisite plump ginger platform cat. Rushden Station runs special events regularly throughout the year, working hard to promote the railway and the museum. The renowned Real Ale Bar and Social Club helps to raise funds for the ongoing renovations and is situated in the charming former Ladies’ Waiting Room, which retains an open fire and gas lighting to recreate the club’s Victorian atmosphere. Santa Specials, 1960s and 1940s weekends, Real Ale Festivals and ‘railway operating’ weekends for everything from Easter to Fathers’ Day all feature on their annual programme of events. Groups should contact the secretary Mr. David Stuttle as below for more information.

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Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway puffs through 25 miles of stunning Cotswold scenery, including beautiful views across the Vale of Evesham, the Malvern Hills and many significant points of interest such as Tewkesbury Abbey. An award-winning heritage steam railway, the route is a round trip between Laverton and Cheltenham Racecourse Station. The station at Toddington is close to Broadway, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold, all outstanding and famous Cotswold destinations. The railway has worked hard to recover the line to full working order after landslides in 2010 and 2011 – such is the popularity of this line that not only did the public raise a staggering £70,000 for the restoration works, but one anonymous donor alone donated £7,000 after visiting the railway.

Visitors travel along the route in restored rail carriages hauled by historic steam locomotives. Refreshments are available on the train (and can be pre-booked), in the Flag & Whistle Tea Rooms at Toddington Station and in the cosy 1950s-style café at Winchcombe Station.

In fact, everything about the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway is designed to make days out easy, especially for groups, and no matter what the matter. There is ample free parking for both cars and coaches at the stations, facilities for disabled passengers at all stations and disabled access and seating areas on the trains. A flexible booking system for groups, in addition to generous group discounts, means that GTOs can arrange to visit the railway as part of a larger tour or trip, or as an entire day out in itself.

Something to look out for in 2013 is the programme of special events. Murder mystery evenings, Mothers’ Day cream teas, themed jazz, the ‘Easter Eggspress’ and a weekend of ‘Wartime in the Cotswolds’ are all coming up throughout the year.

Ffestiniog Railway. Running alongside Llyn Ystradau

Ffestiniog Railway. Running alongside Llyn Ystradau c.Gareth Evans

With a rail system which links Caernarfon, Beddgelert, Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog, the popular Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways offer a choice of trips for groups, and a wide range of reasons for travelling. Located in the heart of Snowdonia, both lines are run by the Ffestiniog Railway, which is the oldest independent railway company in the world, founded by an Act of Parliament in May 1823.

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 Pont Croesor, while the coach travels along the main road. There is time for a driver’s 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. Spooner’s, the award-winning café & bar at Porthmadog station, also welcomes groups and makes an ideal coffee or lunch stop.

Winter train services usually run every week from November through to March – on two to five days per week – with a daily service between Christmas and New Year, and for February half-term. Carriages are heated to keep passengers warm on chillier days.

Group fares are available for pre-booked parties of 20 passengers or more (10 or more if disabled) which give substantial savings on normal fares. Free coach parking is available at Porthmadog station. A downloadable Group Travel brochure is available from the website.

www.festrail.co.uk – (01766) 516024 – enquiries@festrail.co.uk

www.gwsr.com – (01242) 621405/07800 651306 – grouptravel@gwsr.com

www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk – (01643) 704996 – info@wsrail.net

www.rhts.co.uk – secretary@rhts.co.uk – (01933) 353111