What is it that makes British steam trains so captivating? Is it their invention by the British themselves? Or could it be the evocative imagery of peaked caps, billowing steam, and nostalgic tales like The Railway Children that stir a unique emotion in the hearts of grown men? Whatever the reason, there's something about the UK heritage railways and their steam trains that only a ride down the line can start to explain. All aboard our pick of the steam.
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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. West Somerset is the longest heritage railway in England. This line goes past infamous stops such as Crowcombe, Stogumber, Doniford Halt and Blue Anchor – each with a tale to tell.
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The world’s oldest independent railway company (founded in 1832) is surely the place to spark a love for steam. The thirteen-mile journey through the spectacular North Wales countryside is one of the best things to do in Wales and pulls out all the engineering stops, from full-circle loops to mountain tunnels.
What's more, the recent completion of the link to the Welsh Highland Railway from Caernarfon offers a magnificent and unforgettable experience. This line spans an impressive forty magnificent miles of narrow-gauge steam.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
There’s railway heritage packed into the very DNA of the NYMR. This is one of the oldest UK heritage railways, 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. It puffs through a dramatic high moorland backdrop and stops at time-warp village stations for cream teas and hearty walks. It’s pretty wizard all around, so no surprise to see Goathland Station double as Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter films.
Isle of Man Steam Railway
The 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 the 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. And yet, the trains and carriages have hardly changed a jot since 1874.
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Every steam railway worth its salt runs Christmas Santa specials and days out with Thomas the Tank Engine. However, 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.
The main attractions of Aviemore are its outdoor pursuits. However, train enthusiasts are also drawn to the restored Strathspey Steam Railway, which chugs the short distance between Aviemore and Broomhill, just beyond Boat of Garten village. Originally part of the Inverness & Perth Junction Railway (later the Highland Railway), which opened in 1863, the line was axed in the 1960s as a result of the infamous Beeching cuts.
However, by 1978, services had been restored between Aviemore and Boat of Garten, which were then extended to Broomhill in 2002. The return journey takes an hour and a half, with glimpses of the Cairngorm Mountains visible through the trees. For the best views sit on the right-hand side leaving Aviemore.
Ready to lose yourself in Scotland's wildest natural scenery? This tailor-made trip to Scotland is a breath of fresh air and perfect to explore the most enchanting landscapes of the Highlands. It will allow you to get to know the wildest landscapes of Scotland, its fast-paced history and its amazing traditions.
The Great Central Railway - the only double-track UK heritage railway
The Great Central Railway has the unique distinction of being the only double-track UK heritage railway. It is also the exclusive place in the world where you can watch the sight of full-sized steam locomotives passing each other, reminiscent of the glory days when steam power dominated the railways.
You can travel by train at any weekend or bank holiday, and sometimes on weekdays during the summer. In First Class coaches on the route between Loughborough and Leicester, you can enjoy a 5-course lunch, among other things.
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Dartmouth Steam Railway
One of the finest UK heritage railways, the Dartmouth Steam Railway offers scenic journeys along the Torbay coast. This railway runs through the spectacular Devon countryside and across the Dart River, running between Paignton Resort and Dartmouth.
This steam railway has a fleet of beautifully restored steam locomotives, including those of the Great Western Railway. When you visit, you can enjoy the allure and elegance of a bygone era as you ride through the spectacular countryside, passing sandy beaches, rolling hills and enchanting villages. The ride is approximately 30 minutes long and offers breathtaking views of the coastline.
Snowdon Mountain Railway
The Snowdon Mountain Railway is the only rack-and-pinion UK heritage railway, completed in 1896. Trains pushed either by century-old steam locos or a dinky diesel engine climb to the summit in just under an hour along the most heavily maintained track in the country. The rails follow the shallowest approach to the top of Snowdon, grinding up a mostly one-in-eight gradient for five miles and 1000ft.
Whether steam or diesel, the full round trip takes two and a half hours, with half an hour on top for a cuppa (or a beer) in the summit café Hafod Eyri. From mid-March to May (and during high winds) services terminate three-quarters of the way up at Clogwyn Station, thirty minutes’ walk from the summit.
Bure Valley Railway
The Bure Valley Railway is a narrow-gauge UK heritage railway located in Norfolk. The route of the steam railway runs through the town of Aylesham and the town of Wroxham and is about 18 miles long. The railway is famous for its collection of charming diesel and steam trains, a ride which allows visitors to take in the beauty of Norfolk's scenery.
As well as enjoying the surrounding countryside, the Bure Valley Railway offers a range of events that will appeal to adults and children alike.
Isle of Wight Steam Railway
The seasonal Isle of Wight Steam Railway makes the delightful ten-mile return trip from Smallbrook Junction (where it connects with the Island line) to Wootton Bridge, between Ryde and Newport.
Its impeccably restored carriages in traditional green livery run through lovely unspoilt countryside, stopping at Ashey and Havenstreet, where there’s a small museum of railway memorabilia. The adult return fare (cheaper online) is valid for any travel on that day.
Ready to take your trip? See our guide to the Isle of Wight.
- For a relaxing escape: Weston Manor
- For price and quality: Channel View Hotel
Where to stay on the Isle of Wight
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Wherever you are in Llangollen, the hills echo the shrill cry of steam engines easing along the standard-gauge Llangollen Railway. Shoehorned into the valley's north side, it runs from Llangollen’s time-warped station past the Horseshoe Falls to Corwen, ten miles west. Using a restored section of the disused Ruabon–Barmouth line, belching steam engines haul ancient carriages sporting the liveries of their erstwhile owners.
Most visitors simply ride to the end of the line and back (1hr 40min) but consider getting off partway along and walking back to town along the Dee Valley Way, perhaps stopping for a pint in the riverside Grouse Inn at Carrog. Equally, from Berwyn station, you can cross the rebuilt Chain Bridge to the Horseshoe Falls and stroll back along the canal towpath to Llangollen.
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