Travel Jottings

Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.

Preserved, Heritage & Narrow Gauge Railways

Station sign at Boat of Garten, Strathspey, Scotland

There is something about train travel that engenders a certain enthusiasm that persists to this day. Maybe it is the relaxing nature of the act on a train that is not overly busy or the pretty places through which you can pass. In an age when car and air travel is so pervasive, the ability of trains to move so many people at once never goes away.

Then, there is a nostalgia for times when things felt more elegant and an enthusiasm for old machines that anyone can use and maintain. Both of these have come together to create a swathe of volunteer-operated heritage railways. In Britain, the massive rationalisation of a sadly unsustainable railway network provide all sorts of opportunities from the preservation of steam locomotives to the acquisition to sections of then unwanted mainline railway wih all its paraphernalia.

Maybe that is why I often thought the pursuit a very British one but a look around the world finds that the aspiration has gone elsewhere. As if to prove that point, both Ireland and North America have their heritage operations and there is nothing to stop other places having them too.

The idea for this article first sprung to mind as an item for my transport blog but seeing its potential as a source of visitor information made me put it here instead. After all, rail travel holidays are common as you will see from the likes of Railbookers or Geoff's Trains. After all, travelling on mainline rail in other countries inspires feature articles in travel magazines because it is such a great way to orient a visit to another country. Escapes like these remain outside the scope of this piece though I plan to make it more international than it already is.

Of what you find mentioned below, I can claim only to have sampled the Strathspey Railway on an unexpectedly wet morning in Aviemore but there's nothing to stop my extending my experiences beyond that given how many similar operations there are to be found. Some run over lines formerly reserved for freight usage and a number of these have a narrower gauge than that standard for the mainline. Wales seems to have more than its fair share of these and they pass through some stirring countryside too. That may seem ironic but it shouldn't when you consider that many minerals are found in the vicinity of hills. Saying that, it'd surprise you where mining has occurred in the past and in special places where the activity wouldn't be tolerated today either.

Many things start small and the same applied to what you find here. It also was focused on British preserved railways but now includes those in Ireland and may extend its reach to other parts of the world now that my interests are more international. What it never will be is comprehensive but my hope that it will grow on an ongoing basis. If that happens, more new entries are set to appear.

England

Churnet Valley

In its mainline days, this was part of the line that linked with the present West Coast Mainline at North Rode, between Macclesfield and Congleton, and Uttoxeter. So far, a 5.5 mile section between Cheddleton and Kingsley & Froghall. On one of the maps on the site, there seem to be indications of plans to extend to Leek and onto Oakamoor but there is little mention of this elsewhere.

Dartmouth

This is one of the more unusual custodians of preserved railways that I have found to cross my online journeying. They started off with the Totnes-Buckfastleigh branch line that was transferred to the South Devon Railway Association in 1991. Before then, they got to acquiring the Paignton-Kingswear line after British Rail decided that it was surplus to their requirements. That move took them within a ferry crossing of Dartmouth itself and the river cruising business beckoned. In fact, it was the acquisition of River Link that resulted in the change of name to Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company plc more than a decade later.

Unlike many of the other organisations associated with the railways listed on this page, the aforementioned company is a commercial venture, albeit with enthusiasts involved and there seems to be a commitment to excellent customer service too if testimonials are to be believed. The website has so much on there to inform the prospective visitor of the various options on offer that it's best to take your time when perusing it and they do their best to make this look an attractive part of Devon.

Dean Forest

Another standard gauge branch line that has made it from British Rail ownership into preservation though with a good deal of restoration along the way, this operates between Lydney on the banks of the Severn and Parkend in the Forest of Dean. Usefully, the Lydney Junction terminus is a short walk away from the town's mainline station so you should be able to visit a heritage railway by train too.

East Lancashire

In a way, it's amazing that a branch line just outside of Manchester was closed but British Rail may have thought it surplus to requirements at the time. However, the Heywood-Bury-Ramsbottom-Rawtenstall railway is one example and made it into preservation.

With the Metrolink terminus at Bury offering easy access for Mancunians, it might be surprising to see that it mainly is a year round weekend operation, albeit with weekday running at certain times of the year. Nevertheless, it is a busy railway by the looks of things and long may that continue.

Embsay & Bolton Abbey

Another part of what was one time part of the mainline, this is the only remaining part of the former Skipton to Ilkley railway. Bolton Abbey station is only a short walk away from Bolton Priory and the delights that surround the River Wharfe around there.

Gloucestershire Warwickshire

There are two train stations in Cheltenham: one on the national rail network called Cheltenham Spa and the other being the terminus of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire railway at Cheltenham's famous racecourse. The preserved line extends twenty five miles from there to Laverton and passes through part of the Cotswolds. That makes it of interest to anyone fancies combining a ride along there with a walk among the nearby hills. The timetable is such that it is best to check the website for running times though trains operate on more days during the summer season as well as during the December holiday season.

Heatherslaw

Until I met up with this example, I was under the impression that narrow gauge railways were in the business of conservation as well as being visitor attractions. This seems to buck that trend in that it seems to be a modern innovation designed to draw visitors to a quiet corner of Northumberland, the villages of Ford and Etal as it happens. If that's the case, it demonstrates that the lure of such train lines isn't all about railway heritage.

Keighley & Worth Valley

In truth, I have lost count of the number of times that I have passed through Keighley when trains have been running on the former mainline branch line. In addition, explorations of the South Pennines have taken me in and around places like Oxenhope and Haworth too, places served by this preserved railway, though without a ride on a train back to the national rail network. Like many operations of its kind, services are mainly at the weekends with all week running during holiday periods. Should I be making some time for a trip?

Mid Hants

This section of railway between Alton and Alresford in Hampshire also styles itself at the Watercress Line. It is mainly a steam locomotice hauled railway but diesel traction appears from time to time too and they have an ongoing project to restore a Canadian Pacific steam locomotive too.

North Yorkshire Moors

This well established operation keeps the Grosmont to Pickering branch line in use with connects with the Esk Valley Railway, still part of the national rail network, at the former. The latter reality makes it a good way to explore the North York Moors National Park, somewhere that I have never been up to now.

Peak Rail

This runs over part of the Midland Railway between London St. Pancras and the Manchester Central, which is an exhibition centre these days. The heritage trains run between Matlock, where they can connect with East Midlands services, and Rowsley on days when the railway is in operation. A walk between Baslow and Matlock shadowed the line in its latter stages and that is my only encounter with it so far.

Ravenglass & Eskdale

Iron ore mining is not something that you'd associate with the Lake District but that was why this line was constructed. Even so, it soon gained passenger traffic though financial troubles visited not long afterwards. Nevertheless, the railway has survived a chequered history to be with us today. It does run daily for more of the year than other such railways and offers a useful way of getting from the national network at Ravenglass to Eskdale, from which some attractive hill walking is available. With that in mind, I have been surveying the last departures from Dalegarth and I suppose that checking the same for getting home again from Ravenglass would be an idea too.

Ribble

To my mind, this sounds more like a museum with a short stretch of railway attached rather than the longer ones that you also find here. The track is around a mile and a half in length so there are occasional running days along what used to be the site of Preston's docks. That location plants it in the heart of the city but it seems that the museum could take up more of your time with its collection of industrial locomotives. Still, this offers a day out for anyone with a partiality to railway heritage.

Severn Valley

There was a time when a railway line ran all of the way from Kidderminster to connect with that between Birmingham and Shrewsbury. Because it was never economically viable, it never had a very sound future and it amazes me to learn that Great Western Railways, one of the predecessors to British Rail, persevered with running four trains along it daily. When Beeching's modernisation program came along, it was closed but a sixteen mile section between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth made it into preservation. By all accounts, it seems to be well frequented operation with an interestingly designed website and leaflets that are larger than those circulated by counterparts elsewhere. Of course, its being in the West Midlands must help though it did have to issue an appeal when extensive storm damage came its way. Even PLC status does not assure funding to deal with emergencies like that, it seems and that's a fact that highlights that these enterprises are primarily charitable concerns.

South Devon

This line is unusual in that it was re-opened in 1969 by the commercially-minded Dart Valley Railway (now Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company) after being unused by British Rail for a number of years. Over time, the changes in the interests of the Dart Valley Railway meant that it felt it was better to transfer the former Totnes-Buckfastleigh branch line to the South Devon Railway Association in 1991. That transaction is yet another of the line's unique attributes.

A peak at a British railway atlas from 1947 shows the line extending to Asburton but that no longer is the case and I wonder if the old alignment from Buckfastleigh to there has been used to aid road building and improvement works. Still, Buckfasleigh is on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park and the well-known Buckfast abbey (its fame being ensured by the production of a certain liquor...) isn't far away either. The website has all the usual timetable and fare information that you'd expect and the line does look worthy of a visit.

South Tynedale

As if to really prove that Wales doesn't have a monopoly on narrow gauge railways on mainland Britain, here's this entry on the list. It wasn't always that gauge though because the mainline or branch of it did extend to Alston from Haltwhistle on the Carlisle-Newcastle line until closure in 1976 (something that may have made exploring the North Pennines more than a little awkward). An attempt by enthusiasts to acquire that railway failed and the present operation between Alston and Kirkhaugh must have been a pragmatic approach. There are plans to extend the line though to Slaggyford and you have to wonder if ambitions extend beyond this again.

Spa Valley Railway

Preserved railways are everywhere in the U.K. and this example is shared between Kent and Sussex. It starts from its own station in Royal Tunbridge Wells and goes west to Groombridge with some trains extending to Eridge, a 5.5 mile journey that takes in part of the Sussex Weald.

Weardale

Here's a heritage and community railway based in County Durham that operates from the present extremity of the National Rail networks that is Bishop Auckland up the course of the River Wear as far as Eastgate. Passenger services using a diesel railcar operate between Bishop Auckland and Stanhope with stops at Frosterley and Wolsingham; last time I looked, there were four journeys each way on weekdays. In addition, there are rail tours and steam running days too with the line being used for freight into the bargain. That the area would appear to be good walking country is a bonus.

Wensleydale

There was a time when there was a railway line running all of the way from Northallerton to Garsdale, where it connected with the Settle-Carlisle railway. The Wensleydale Railway Association wants to restore the full forty mile route and currently operates trains on the seventeen miles between Leeming Bar and Redmire, where track already is in place. Setting in place a practical extension into Northallerton itself is the next priority before attention is turned to getting honeypots such as Hawes and Aysgarth connected by rail again. The whole focus seems to be on providing a transport service that benefits the area rather than just offering a tourist attraction but that is now bad thing either. Still, there are heritage diesels plying the track that should interest the railway enthusiast and there isn't year around seven running thus far.

West Somerset

This claims to be the longest heritage railway in England but I am sure that others may contest that claim. As things are, the former Great Western Railway branch line see twenty miles traversed by steam trains today. They run from Bishop's Lydeard in the south to Minehead in the north and pass the Quantock Hills, Exmoor and Bridgewater Bay. There is an unofficial website where maps of the route can be found and they are absent from the unofficial one. Otherwise, this looks like an option for countryside enthusiasts as much as their rail counterparts.

Ireland

Railway preservation is not something that you hear about often in Ireland so I was surprised to encounter the Waterford & Suir Valley Railway (W&SR) that follows part of the now removed Cork-Waterford line around Kilmeadan. It also is not alone with other like the West Clare Railway at Moyasta, the Lartigue Railway at Listowel, Co. Kerry, the Fintown Railway in Co. Donegal and the Downpatrick & County Down Railway. This is an eclectic collection with only the Northern Irish entry being the sort of operation that anyone from mainland Great Britain would expect: Irish standard gauge railway with steam trains travelling over it. Two of the others reflect the difficulty of operating commercial railways in a country with a dispersed rural population. The Lartigue Railway once was the only commercially viable steam monorail operation as it went between Listowel and Ballybunion and the West Clare Railway was narrow gauge over its full extent from Ennis to Kilkee and Kilrush as was the railway network in Co. Donegal. Much of the current rolling stock is not as original as it might appear with W&SR using an former industrial diesel locomotive amd the Lartigue Railway using replicas. The Fintown Railway uses something based on a vintage bus, which must make the travelling experience very unusual. The, the remaining routes are a shadow of their former selves so some must feel very short runs and I wonder what visitors often make of this. Nevertheless, what is there could be a start and it will be interesting to see where things proceed from how things are now.

Scotland

Bo'ness & Kinneil

This isn't a straight resurrection of a former railway line though part of the route that it takes is on a pre-existing trackbed. Much of the course taken involved some new construction and there's a museum attached to the thing too. Both are operated and maintained by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society. All in all, this really could use up a free day for you and there is the Fireclay Mine at Birkhill and the nature reserve at Kinneil too.

Strathspey

This is the only preserved line along which I have ever travelled. Today, it extends from Aviemore to Broomhill, just outside of Grantown-on-Spey and made a pleasant ride even on a damp if ever drying morning. Ironically, this used to be the route of the original Perth to Inverness line before a newer one via Carrbridge superceded it. In time, it is hoped that the line will extend into Grantown and a charitable trust has been formed to do just that, leaving the railway to get on with its day to day work without distraction.

Wales

Bala Lake

What I find surprising about this narrow gauge operation is that it is headquartered in Llanwchllyn and that is where the main facilities are available. That makes me why they didn't go for the Bala terminus instead of a small (and quiet) village a few miles away. After Bala would be where folk gravitate and a walk of half a mile would bring you to that terminus. Nevertheless, this sounds like a good day out for anyone wanting to spending some time in one of the quieter corners of the Snowdonia.

Brecon Mountain

This narrow gauge line runs from Pant near Merthyr Tydfil to the back of the Brecon Beacons hills, following part of the old mainline railway between Merthyr Tydfil and Brecon. While I wonder if an extra halt at where trains turn around at the northern end wouldn't go amiss, especially for walking into hill country, it does look an alluring prospect given where it is. Trains may go along the shore of a reservoir but these can blend into the countryside rather better than wind farms, it has to be said.

Fairbourne

This always has been an operation geared towards the visitor to the lower reaches of the Mawddach estuary. It started life as a horse drawn tramway linking with the Cambrian railway, operating much like that which continues to operate in the summer months along the promenade at Douglas in the Isle of Man. Later, it became a narrow gauge steam railway and, though thick and thin, it has stayed that way until now. These days, it is in the hands of a charitable trust after a series of private owners. With the increaser in the numbers of folk holidaying in their home country, you have to wonder if it now is facing a brighter future despite the current economic downturn.

Ffestiniog

This is one of those little Welsh railways that was constructed to take slate and, because of the visitor of the countryside though which it passes, later carried passenger traffic. However, the incursion of standard gauge railways into the area was the cause of its decline and it took a collection of volunteers a Trojan effort to bring into being the narrow gauge line that links Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog today. The construction of a hydroelectric generating station resulted in a major deviation from the original route due to flooding as part of the creation of a new reservoir. However, those exertions have been repaid and their energy hasn't been sapped because they are applying themselves to another railway project now too.

Gwilly

This is part of the erstwhile Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway line that was closed to passenger traffic in 1965. The route goes north from Bronwydd Arms and follows the river Gwilly, hence the name. The plan is to continue south to Carmarthen but it seems that there is quite a bit to do in order to achieve that end. It'll be interesting to see how one of the few preserved railways in south Wales progresses from here.

Llanberis Lake (Llyn Padarn)

While many come to Llanberis because of the village's proximity to mountains like Snowdon and the Glyderau, the area's industrial heritage is on view. The old slate mining galleries remain as gashes in the sides of Elidir Fawr and Elidir Fach, still presenting an unpretty sight though nature is attempting to make good some of the wreckage. Perhaps ill-advisedly, I spent my first day around Llanberis up among these and industrial historians might have a field day around there though those of seeking less brutalised surrounded would do better to look elsewhere. Quite what sent me around there is beyond recollection but it might have been views of Snowdon that drew me.

Those disused workings used to be a major employer in the area (numbers like 3,000 have been quoted) and the slate needed to be got to the coast for onward shipping. To do that, a narrow gauge railway was built and it is part of that which is operated by the shores of Llyn Padarn these days. The locomotives were rescued from the old quarries and given a new life within years of the slate extraction stopping. The main station formerly was part of the mining enterprise and the hangover from then doesn't stop there with views along part of the route being restricted by the work of yore. Nevertheless, it must be those views of Wales' highest mountain that bring folk here.

Llangollen

Yet another remaining piece of a former mainline railway, that linking Ruabon with Morfa Mawddach, near Barmouth. Various visits to the area have confirmed this to be a busy railway, thanks no doubt to the scenic drama of the Dee Valley. For now, trains run only as far as Carrog but I believe that there are designs on its extension to Corwen, ten miles from Llangollen.

Rhyl Miniature

I get the sense that this was set up as a seaside attraction and it is one that has lasted over a hundred years too. That has given it enough time to tap into the nostalgia that there is for steam trains and you can see the inspiration in what they do. The journey may only be a mile in length as it goes around an artificial but that seems to have sustained things, albeit with a long break in the 1970's when there was a disagreement with the council. Now, the enterprise is being looked after by a charitable trust so one would hope that things would be on a steadier footing from now on.

Talyllyn

Amazing, this narrow gauge line never anywhere near as close to Tal-y-llyn as the name suggests; perhaps more logically, it should have been called the Fathew Valley Railway instead. Like others in Wales, it was conceived as a freight only affair and served a working slate quarry before it turned to passenger carrying duties too. Over its lifetime, it has had a chequered financial history until the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society took over its operation in 1951 after the death of its previous owner, Sir Hadyn Jones.

Though never part of mainline, the line extends from Tywyn inland as far as Abergynolwyn and Nant Gwernol with the quarry no longer served. Steam haulage at the relaxed pace of 9 mph is what you'll get and over rails that have been improved massively since the preservation society took over. Still, you have to ask if it ever will reach the lake after which it is named. To me, it looks hardly likely.

Teifi Valley

Based at Henllan near Newcastle Emlyn, this narrow gauge railway runs along part of the trackbed of the former standard gauge line between Carmarthen and Cardigan. There was an attempt to acquire the line when British Rail were closing it but less enlightened times meant that preservation enthusiasts weren't allowed to do such things. A collapsed bridge may have stalled ambitions of extending the line for now but it's good to see that part of a piece of railway history hasn't been left to go to waste.

Vale of Rheidol

The history of this line amazes me in that it passed straight from British Rail to a charitable trust in 1989. Quite how the public sector firm operating Britain's railways was doing owning a narrow gauge steam railway up to that point is beyond me but that's what happened. It also meant that no one needed to rebuild a tracks and other infrastructure, a good thing that have been happening with previous closures. The railway extends inland from Aberystwyth as far as Devil's Bridge in the Vale of Rheidol. Somehow, it sounds like an intriguing day out.

Welsh Highland

Most volunteer railways stick but that isn't the case for the Ffestiniog Railway given that they have thrown themselves into connecting Caernarfon, Beddgelert and Porthmadog with another narrow gauge line. It is as yet incomplete but good progress has been made with any restoration work as well as the building of new narrow gauge railway. Completion is scheduled for 2011 when the last few miles are put in place. When you see the scenery through which it passes, you can see why someone is trying to put in place in the 40 mile link, even if it means building some new railway as well.

Welsh Highland Heritage

There seems to be some confusing naming going on around Porthmadog and all with an interest in restoring the narrow gauge railway between there and Caernarfon too. However, the reason for the inclusion of this grouping is that they have their own little railway that runs as far as Pen-y-mount. Quite what will happen when the full WHR is in place place remains to be seen but the section between Pont Croesor and Pen-y-mount is under construction as I write these words. It looks as if everyone will be working together to ensure that the newly restored link between Caernarfon and Porthmadog will be a success.

Welshpool & Llanfair

It now looks as if what always has been a troubled railway line has lasted the test of time and was one of the earliest lines to make it into preservation. There was a time when the railway crossed the town of Welshpool to reach the mainline station but the local council put a stop to that. On one hand, it deprived the line of some publicity though it must have been quite a sight seeing trains snaking through somewhere that was never designed for them. Now, you have to walk across Welshpool to reach the line's Raven Square station if arriving by mainline train. It all sounds rather colourful and the line is decent length at eight miles too.