Is it the fact that the British invented them? Or that children know Thomas and Percy better than their own parents? Or that peaked caps, billowing steam and The Railway Children bring a strange quiver to grown men's hearts? Whatever the reason, there's something about the British and their steam railway heritage that only a ride down the line can start to explain. All aboard our pick of the steam.
Britain’s top five steam railways
West Somerset Railway
Ten stations in twenty miles, not to mention the rolling Somerset countryside, brings the steam buffs out in raptures. It’s all about tradition and nostalgia on this resurrected branch line of the old Great Western Railway, and what names to conjure with as the stations flit past – Crowcombe, Stogumber, Doniford Halt and Blue Anchor – each with a tale to tell.
The world’s oldest independent railway company (founded 1832) is surely the place to spark a love for steam, and the thirteen-mile journey through the spectacular North Wales countryside pulls out all the engineering stops, from full-circle loops to mountain tunnels. What’s more, with the completion of the link to the Welsh Highland Railway from Caernarfon, through Snowdonia National Park, Wales has a “Great Railway Journey” all of its own – forty magnificent miles of narrow-gauge steam.
There’s railway heritage packed into the very DNA of the NYMR – it’s one of the oldest lines in the country, built in 1835 by railway pioneer George Stephenson of Locomotion fame. It connects Pickering in the heart of the North York Moors to the coast at Whitby, puffing through a dramatic high moorland backdrop and stopping at time-warp village stations for cream teas and hearty walks. It’s pretty wizard all round, so no surprise to see Goathland station double as Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter films.
First indication that you’re not in Kansas any more? Probably the request halt that connects Ronaldsway Airport to Douglas on the Isle of Man. If you can get over the fact that you can go from baggage reclaim to island capital by steam train, ponder – as you rattle along fifteen miles of narrow-gauge countryside line – that this is still government-owned and run, no less, with trains and carriages that have hardly changed a jot since 1874.
Every steam railway worth its salt runs Christmas Santa specials and days out with Thomas the Tank Engine, but the fifty-year-old Bluebell is a hard act to beat with its annual calendar of platform Punch and Judy shows, Victorian picnics, brass bands and food festivals. An observation carriage from 1913 is hauled into service for the changing colours of the Sussex autumn, while out comes the best china in First Class for a traditional afternoon tea served in the burnished lounge car.
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