Take a journey back to the age of steam with a day trip on a heritage railway and enjoy a different view of the beautiful British countryside
Our pick of special events on Britain's steam railways this summer, from 60s theme days to Lego Festivals - and how you can be an engine driver for the day.
Image: Steve Trillwood
Sheffield Park, East Sussex, TN22
The UK’s first and most famous preserved steam railway was re-opened for business as long ago as 1960 and runs 11 miles through the Sussex countryside.
There are a range of special family days out on the Bluebell this summer 2018: from the Southern Classic Car show at Horsted Keynes station (13 May); a chance to travel behind the engine from Paddington 2 and to meet Paddington (28-29 May); and a mouth-watering model railway weekend (23-24 June). The Bluebell is even staging its first family music festival on 16 June: Trackfest is headlined by The Jive Aces – the swing band from Britain’s Got Talent – and 80s hitmakers Modern Romance.
Family tickets from £28 (one adult and three children); and £44 (two adults and three children)
You can also have a turn firing and driving one of the steam trains, on a Driver Experience Day for £650. The trip between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead includes breakfast and a buffet lunch.
Minehead, Somerset, TA24
This 22-mile branch-line of the old Great Western Railway is the longest preserved steam railway in England, with a route taking in countryside and coast as it runs from Bishop’s Lydeard (near Taunton) up to the seaside resort of Minehead. There are regular children’s activity days this summer, starting on 2 June, with live entertainment, a helter-skelter, free face-painting and crafts, and free vintage bus trips along the front at Minehead for railway patrons.
Family ticket (two adults and three children): £74
The railway also offers one- and two-day train driving courses for aspiring firemen/women and engine drivers.
Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11
The Great Central Railway, running between Loughborough and Leicester, is the only double-track preserved steam railway in the world – meaning it’s the only place you can see two steam engines passing each other at speed. There are special days out throughout the summer, including a Wartime Weekend (1-3 June), with a Spitfire fly-past, live music and a Saturday Evening dance; the Model Event (15-17 June), with model railway displays at each of the four stations on route; and events for all ages themed around everything from real ale to Peppa Pig.
Family runabout ticket: £30 (one adult and three children). £40 (two adults and three children)
Driving experiences: from £360.
Bitton, near Keynsham, Avon, BS30
Halfway along the Bristol and Bath Railway Path is the Avon Valley Railway at Bitton Station. Running heritage steam and diesel trains, it covers three miles between Oldland Common and Avon Riverside near Saltford. Railway special events are also held throughout the year, including Santa Specials, dining trains, a beer festival, and a Lego weekend in June.
Family ticket (two adults and up to four children): £23.50 for unlimited steam train trips during one day
Driver experiences: from £250.
Bo’ness, West Lothian, EH51
The BK railway runs a range of steam train family days out throughout the year, including Thomas the Tank Engine days (28-29 July; 8-9 September), with children’s activities, fairground rides and, of course Thomas himself doing the hard work. There is also a 1950s day on 1 September with the railway turning even more retro with extra vintage engines, music, dancing and vintage cars.
At the Bo’ness end of the line is Scotland’s largest railway museum, with three large buildings full of vintage trains and fun interactive displays: sort the mail on a night train – or have a pull on the old signal levers.
Family ticket (two adults and three children): from £28
Driver experience days: £500, but already sold out for 2018.
New Alresford, Hampshire, SO24
Closed in 1973 and re-opened as a preserved railway four years later, the Mid Hants railway runs 10 miles through the Hampshire countryside between Alresford (home to a museum) and the main line at Alton.
At the family fun days (28-29 May; 28-29 July and Bank Holiday Monday 27 August), families can enjoy unlimited travel between the four restored stations, have a guided tour behind the scenes and enjoy children’s activities in the Viewing Gallery at Ropley.
Family ticket (two adults and three children): £40
Driving Experiences: from £100 for a one-way 10-mile footplate ride to £500 for a full-day Driving and Firing Experience for £500. Also, for £150, you can spend a half-day working the signals (alongside someone who knows what they are doing) in one (or all) of the line’s four signal boxes.
Paignton, Devon TQ4
A ten-mile jaunt along the south Devon coast from Paignton includes the railway running right next to the beach at Goodrington Sands before a stop near Queen of crime Agatha Christie’s holiday home at Greenway Halt: now a National Trust property. It’s a lovely 30-minute walk there from the station, and a chance to breath in the age of steam even more deeply. The passenger ferry from the terminus at Kingswear across to the grand historic town of Dartmouth is included in the ticket and there are a range of train-and-cruise packages: if you’re lucky you may even get to see dolphins in the estuary.
Family ticket (two adults and three children): £39
Footplate Experiences: £89.
Pickering, North Yorkshire YO18
One of the oldest rail routes in the UK, the original (horse-drawn) North Yorkshire Moors railway was engineered by George Stephenson, the ‘father of the railways’. These days, steam trains run daily until 4 November, over 18 miles through beautiful Yorkshire countryside from Pickering to the seaside at Whitby; stations along the line are themed around different eras from the age of steam.
Special family days out include the 60s Fest (14-15 July), which sees retro happenings at every station down the line: from an Elvis impersonator at Levisham (renamed Elvisham for the day), to live bands at Pickering and a Cilla Black impersonator at Goathland! Plus classic cars, beer tents, children’s activities and more.
Family ticket (two adults and two children), Pickering to Whitby return: from £60
Footplate experience: £190.
Bury, Lancashire, BL9
Special summer family days out in 2018 include seven Thomas the Tank Engine days (with magic shows, activities and circus workshops as well as the blue-faced engine himself) and a massive 1940s-themed weekend (26-28 May) taking place at stations along the line, including a Spitfire flypast, live music, dancing and a Winston Churchill lookalike! There are also seven themed Wizard Academy days, taking children on an interactive quest along the line.
‘Freedom of the line’ family tickets, including admission to Bury Transport Museum: from £39.50
Driving experiences: from £399.
Douglas, Isle of Man IM1
The Isle of Man Steam Railway is still using the same engines and carriages it had when it first opened in 1874. The longest narrow gauge railway in Britain, its brightly coloured, slightly miniature trains look magical and other-worldly, even by the usual standards of steam railways.
The Rev W. Awdry took inspiration from railways across the UK for his 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books – but the idea of the (fictional) island setting of Sodor, just off the north-west coast of England, came on a 1940s trip to the Isle of Man. These days, the island’s railway network is a 15-mile circular route through the countryside out from the capital Douglas. Much of the rest of the Isle’s 50-mile rail network has been put down to cycle paths and waymarked walks, so the steam railway makes a great way for getting out to explore them.
Family day ticket (two adults and three children): £39
Driving experiences are available – drive an electric tram between Laxey and Ramsey, or a steam train from Castletown to Port Erin.