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Britain’s best places to see: Heritage railways 5

Nothing offers escapism quite like the sights, sounds and smells of a heritage railway. Here are some of our favourite lines that take you on romantic journey to days gone by

West Somerset Railway

photograph of black steam engine at station platform with conductor and driver

West Somerset Railway © Crowcombe Al (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In Somerset you’ll find England’s longest heritage railway, spanning more than 20 miles of countryside and coast between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. Ten of the line’s stations have been preserved and can be visited and you have the freedom to sit back and enjoy the journey, or alight and combine your trip with a visit to Dunster Castle, or a walk in the Quantocks.


Dartmouth Steam Railway

aerial photograph showing steam train coming across a high bridge

Dartmouth Steam Railway © Andrew Barclay (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the grand South Devon coastline you can embark on an expedition combining travel on steam trains, buses and paddle steamers. The Round Robin trip allows you to indulge in the incredible scenery of South West England. This heritage railway has been meticulously maintained over the past 30 years by Dart Valley Railway PLC.


Swanage Railway

photograph of steam strains at station

12-246 BR Standard 4MT 2-6-4T No. 80104 awaits the road at Norden with the 14.30 departure to Swanage © Clive G’ (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This line operates one of the most intensive train services of any preserved heritage railway in the country. It took seven weeks to controversially lift the 6.5 miles of track in 1972 and almost 30 years to relay them. Whilst there, you might find yourself on their BR Standard Class 4 80104 engine. It has been in regular service since 1997 after a long and challenging restoration.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway

photograph of blue steam engine pulling red and green carriages past a station platform

Hunslet Austerity 0-6-0ST ARMY NO.WD192 – ‘WAGGONER’. Haven Street, Isle of Wight Steam Railway © nigelmenzies (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Boasting around 40 awards, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway owns an impressive collection of steam locomotives. Their W24 ‘Calbourne’ engine is the flagship of the fleet. It was the first engine acquired by the embryonic Steam Railway in 1967 and the last survivor of a class that once numbered sixty strong.


The Lavender Line

photogrpah of end of railway carriage alongside a station platform

Isfield Station © grassrootsgroundswell (CC BY 2.0)

The sense of nostalgia here is unwavering due to the care taken to recreate the original stations. A restored signal box sits at Isfield station and provides insight into railway life in the early 1860s. They also showcase an original LBSCR dock crane. This would’ve been used to load and off load precious goods like cattle or coal — a key feature of countryside stations.


Bluebell Railway

photograph of blue steam engine with name 'bluebell' in gold

Bluebell locomotive at the Bluebell Railway © Kate McNab

This line is a relative of the Lavender line. It branched off from it at Culver Junction before junction closure in 1958. It is one of the first preserved heritage lines and boasts almost 150 carriages and wagons, most pre-1939. The line has become a popular setting for film and television — you might recognise it from Downton Abbey. With over 30 engines it has almost the largest collection of steam locomotives in the UK, just behind the National Railway Museum, which has the largest.


Spa Valley Railway
Tunbridge Wells

photograph of entrance to railway station with sign reading 'trains today'

Trains today, none tomorrow © Anthony shepherd (CC BY ND 2.0)

The headquarters of the railway is Tunbridge Wells West stations. The ’75F’ 1886-built engine shed is the only one in southern England still performing its original purpose. In the town you can visit The Pantiles, a beautiful Georgian colonnade. There is also the historic Chalybeate Spring where you can taste the iron-rich water.


Kent & East Sussex Railway

photograph of steam engine coming towards camera with two men aboard

Bodiam: Kent and East Sussex Railway (East Sussex) © Michael Day (CC BY NC 2.0)

The line begins at Tenterden, snaking its way through Rother Valley countryside, and terminates at the grand Bodiam Castle. You can ride the no.8 Knowle — one of the ten still surviving AIX class ‘Terrier’ locomotives. Engines of this class are dubbed ‘Terriers’ due to their capacity for hard work despite their diminutive size.


Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway

photograph of miniature steam train on track laid on pebbles

The 2 O’Clock departing Dungeness © Smudge 9000 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For something a little different, the RH&DR line is 13 miles long 15 inch light gauge railway. The line operates a fleet of one-third full size steam and diesel locomotives travelling at 25 mph. All engines were built in the 20s and 30s. In 1940 the line was taken over by the military during World War Two, when it was also used in the construction of PLUTO — ‘Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean’. which was an operation to build underwater oil pipelines between England and France.


The Shakespeare Express

photogrpah of black steam engine at station with name plate reading 'the shakespeare express'

The Duchess of Sutherland hauling the Shakespeare Express, Moor Street, Birmingham © tony Hisgett (CC BY 2.0)

This railway is the operating wing of Tyseley Locomotive Works. Formerly known as the Birmingham Railway Museum, TLW handles the engineering of Vintage Trains — operator of The Shakespeare Express. It also hosts an extensive collection of steam engines. To visit this and then ride the train to Stratford-upon-Avon, home to William Shakespeare, feels like genuine time travel.


Nene Valley Railway

photograph of orange and yellow railcar

Swedish Railcar no 1212, Yacht Club Crossing, Nene Valley Railway © Steve Edge (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Connecting Peterborough and Yarwell in Cambridgeshire, this 7.5-mile-long line calls at three stations on its short but picturesque journey along the River Nene and through Ferry Meadows Country Park. The line’s main station, Wansford, is home to the engine sheds which can be explored via a pre-booked Shed Tour and you can see a range of steam engines and diesel locomotives including a life-size replica of Thomas the Tank Engine, named Thomas by the author of the beloved children’s series, Rev. W. Awdry.


East Lancashire Railway

photograph of two workmen aboard dark red steam engine

LMS Hughes Crab 13065 at Ramsbottom Station. © James Johnstone (CC BY 2.0)

What better place to experience transport heritage than the North West, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution? The East Lancashire Railway takes you on a 12.5-mile journey from Heywood in Greater Manchester to Rawenstall in Lancashire, transporting you back to a time when steam power shrank the world while expanding possibilities. Alight in Bury to visit the nearby Bury Transport Museum if you want to take a more in-depth look into the history of transport and industry, or at the new station Burrs Country Park, for a stroll around 36 hectares of countryside.


Bowes Railway

photograph of blue and red wagons on rails

Bowes Railway, public domain

Originally opening in January 1826, Bowes railway is a colliery railway, the earliest section having been designed by mechanical engineer and ‘Father of the Railways’ George Stephenson to transfer coal from pits in Durham to the River Tyne. Now the only operational preserved standard gauge cable railway in the world, Bowes Railway is an internationally important example of railway and mining heritage. It used a combination of steam power and gravity to move wagons up and down the steep hills from the pits; two of these rope-worked inclines remain from the original eight – a fascinating example of industrial innovation.


Strathspey Railway

photogrpah of black and red steam train

The Strathspey Railway, Ivatt No.46512, departing from Broomhill Station. © Peter Trimming (CC BY 2.0)

A ten mile stretch of restored line, Strathspey Railway boasts spectacular views from its position in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands. The railway, which runs from Aviemore to Broomhill (which Monarch of the Glen fans will recognise as Glenbogle) was once an export route for whisky made in the Speyside region. Visitors to this line, which was lovingly restored to working order by dedicated volunteers in the 1970s, can indulge in fine dining or, if the mood takes them, a spot of whisky tasting.


Volk’s Electric Railway

photograph of people riding in red and yellow painted miniature railway carriages

Volk’s Electric Railway © R~P~M (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Proving you don’t need to be shrouded in a cloak of steam to enjoy a nostalgic train journey, Volk’s Electric Railway takes you back in time on the oldest operational electric railway in the world. Running just over a mile along the Brighton seafront, this railway was designed by inventor and electrical pioneer Magnus Volk and has three stations. At Halfway Station you can watch volunteers maintaining the railway’s original carriages, and at Aquarium Station an exhibition tells the story of Magnus Volk and his wonderful inventions.


Ffestiniog & Welsh Highlands Railway

photograph of steam engine passing in front of grey stone cottage with man in overalls operating train

Ffestiniog Railway © Andrew (CC BY 2.0)

Taking you on a luxurious and nostalgic journey through the beautiful Welsh countryside in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highlands railway is the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway, transporting you through ancient woodlands, into the mountains, and along rivers and coastline. With three original locomotives, dating over 150 years old, the sights, sounds and smells of this anachronistic railway evoke a time when rail travel was a real treat, rather than a chore.


North Yorkshire Moors Railway

photograph of black steam engine at grosmont station with hills visible in the background

Impala at Grosmont, North Yorkshire Railway © Michael Greenhill (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Originally planned by George Stephenson in 1831, and opened in 1836, the North Yorkshire Railway negotiates 24 miles of dramatic landscape, journeying through the scenic North York Moors Country Park. Making its way from the 1930s themed Pickering Station, through Goathland (or Hogsmeade to the Harry Potter fans) and up to Dracula’s old haunt, Whitby, the popular railway and its ‘celebrity’ stations are sure to capture the imagination of young and old alike.

5 comments on “Britain’s best places to see: Heritage railways

  1. Brian Neale on

    Such wonderful Trains. I was born in 1943 so I brought up knowing the age of steam and travelled many times on a steam train with the smut and smoke from the trains funnel as it chuffed along merrily. Travelled on a Express train too a few times Really massive they were and could travel at a real pace too. From Cardiff to Paddington on the Great Western Railway company trains.


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