British Isles Slow Travel Transport

England’s best heritage railways

Very few people aren’t moved to a wistful nostalgia at the sight and sound of an old locomotive in full steam – here are some of the most popular places in England to enjoy the experience. All aboard!

Very few people aren’t moved to a wistful nostalgia at the sight and sound of an old locomotive in full steam – here are some of the most popular places in England to enjoy the experience.

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway

This railway uses a part of the old Great Western Railway’s main line from Birmingham to Cheltenham via Stratford-upon-Avon. Steam trains now run for ten miles between the village of Toddington and Cheltenham Racecourse, no mean feat given that the track and the stations have been restored entirely by volunteers and enthusiasts. The next part of the project is to open the line from Toddington through to Broadway.

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway Cotswolds UK by Jack Boskett heritage railways
© Jack Boskett

The current route from Toddington to Cheltenham passes through some pleasant Cotswold countryside with views of the surrounding hills and further afield to Tewkesbury Abbey and the Malverns on a clear day. Trains run from March to December with numerous special events. There’s also the opportunity to step on the footplate and learn how to drive a steam or diesel locomotive or try your hand at being a signalman.

Bluebell Railway

Named after the bluebells that bring a vivid splash of colour to the views from the window of Sussex countryside in spring, this is in many ways the king of Britain’s many heritage railways. It’s run by an army of 700 volunteers, and unlike nearly every other heritage railway operates entirely on steam.

© Tim Locke 

In all, the railway vividly evokes the feeling of travel through the countryside as it was in the steam era, and for the most part the views can hardly have changed in a hundred or so years.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

The scenic route of this railway through the North York Moors from Pickering to Grosmont is quite spectacular. Most of the journey follows the spectacular valley of Newtondale, a deep and precipitous ravine with the incongruously small Pickering Beck trickling down the middle.

North York Moors Railway North York Moors UK by North York Moors Railway heritage railways
© North York Moors Railway 

Your journey will call at four stations, each renovated in a different period style: Pickering recreates the 1930s; Levisham has been decorated as it would have been in 1912; Goathland boasts a 1922-style tea room; and finally, Grosmont has been left how it was in the 1950s just before closure, and also features the fascinating locomotive sheds. If you want to complete the story and visit a modern station then stay on the train because some of them now continue the extra six miles into Whitby courtesy of Northern Rail.

The Bodmin & Wenford Steam Railway 

In the 19th century, Bodmin lay between two rival rail companies racing along the south (via Plymouth) and the north (via Launceston) of Cornwall to lay the fastest route from London to Wadebridge and points west.

Bodmin and Wenford Railway by Cornwall UK Al Pidgen, Shutterstock heritage railways
© Al Pidgen, Shutterstock

A connecting line, which curled into Bodmin just next to the regimental barracks, was eventually completed in 1895 and for almost 70 years, until Beeching’s axe fell, Bodmin’s residents could chug across Cornwall without having to walk more than a few hundred yards to their station.

The line and much of its steam and diesel rolling stock were rescued from dereliction in 1986 by a group of local enthusiasts, who formed a trust to preserve this colourful remnant of Cornish train history.

Chinnor–Princes Risborough Railway

The real interest of Chinnor – a town in the Chilterns – lies in its status for the past 25 years as the terminus for the Chinnor–Princes Risborough heritage railway line. British Rail closed its passenger line back in 1957, so we have a brave band of devoted volunteers to thank for the service which now runs through a combination of diesel and steam. Some of the locomotives date back to the 1930s.

Chinor & Princes Risborough Railway Chilterns by Charlie Jackson Wikimedia Commons heritage railways
© Charlie Jackson, Wikimedia Commons

The 25-minute journey crosses ‘Donkey Lane’ (along which donkeys used to carry turned chair legs to the next stage in furniture making) and gives excellent views on the right of Bledlow Cricket Club, some watercress beds and, in the middle distance, Whiteleaf Cross.

Swanage Railway

You don’t need to be a train buff to be charmed by the lovingly restored steam and diesel trains of the Swanage Railway. The railway operates over almost six miles between Swanage and Norden, which is just northwest of Corfe Castle and four miles from Wareham. You can leave your car at the Norden Park and Ride (off the A351) and take the train to Swanage via Corfe Castle, Harman’s Cross and Herston.

Swanage Railway Dorset UK by Swanage Railway heritage railways
© Swanage Railway

The train travels at no more than 25mph and provides expansive views of Corfe Castle and the surrounding countryside (keep your eyes peeled – on some days deer, pheasants and other wildlife can be seen in the fields). The railway stations and the uniforms of the staff are those of a bygone age and add to the romanticism of the journey.

South Devon Railway

This is one of those lovely dollops of nostalgia that Devon is good at. The scenic branch line of the Great Western Railway which runs along the River Dart was axed by Dr Beeching in 1958, but only 11 years later it was reopened – ironically by Dr Beeching himself – and is now run by a charitable trust and operated by volunteers. Buckfastleigh’s vintage railway station is a delight, with its evocative advertisements and memorabilia.

South Devon Railway Devon UK by Visit Britain
© Visit Britain

The line between Totnes and Buckfastleigh is one of the prettiest in the county, following the river closely for most of its seven-mile route. Steam locomotives run between four times and nine times a day in summer (April to October) and on Sundays and the odd weekday during other months; the occasional diesel loco also operates.

Lynton & Barnstaple Railway

Although only two miles long, this narrow-gauge railway is the highest in England and puffs its way through some of Exmoor’s best scenery, making it a rewarding family excursion or a nostalgic trip for oldies.

Lynton & Barnstaple Railway North Devon UK by Lynton & Barnstaple Railway
© Lynton & Barnstaple Railway

The enthusiasm of the volunteers who run this stretch of the original Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, which operated from 1898 to 1935, is evident in every detail, from the loving maintenance of the steam locomotives to the tea room which surely must have been the scene of many a Brief Encounter. The station was originally planned to serve the actual Woody Bay (or Woodabay, as it was then called) nearly two miles away with a branch line. This was never built.

South Tynedale Railway

This famous Northumberland railway line trundles through the wooded South Tyne Valley for five miles from Alston to Slaggyford offering glimpses of moorland scenery and passing over the Tyne Viaduct. A one-way journey takes around 35 minutes but you might want to hop off at Kirkhaugh Station and wander up to Epiacum (Whitley Castle) Roman Fort or down to the river.

South Tynedale Railway, Northumberland, UK by Andy Stephenson, Wikimedia Commons
© Andy Stephenson, Wikimedia Commons

Originally a branch of the Newcastle–Carlisle railway, the Alston to Haltwhistle line opened in 1852 and closed in the 1970s. A decade later it reopened under the care of the local railway preservation society who replaced the trackbeds and then restored the station buildings, allowing the first narrow-gauge steam engines to enter passenger service in 1983.

The West Somerset Railway

Bishops Lydeard is the southern terminus for the wonderful West Somerset Railway, which wends its way through rolling hills along the western flank of the Quantocks and a short stretch of coast before terminating at Minehead, some 21 miles distant – this makes it the longest heritage railway in the country.

West Somerset Railway Somerset by Don Bishop
© Don Bishop

Trains run most days between April and October, sometimes using diesel engines as opposed to steam. In addition, there are all kinds of special event days and themed runnings, including festive trains throughout December, the details of which can be found on the website. Bikes and dogs are welcome too.

And for something a little different…

Crich Tramway Village

A few miles off the A6 in the Lower Derwent Valley, this tramway is popular with history buffs, transport-spotters, retirees, families and just about anyone else who enjoys a good old-fashioned, fun day out. Start your visit at Town End Terminus where the museum curators have done their best to recreate a pre-war British street scene.

Crich Tram Museum Peak District UK by Northern Imaging, Shutterstock
© Northern Imaging, Shutterstock

The carved stone facade of Derby’s original assembly rooms (exhibiting the recent revival of British trams) sits side by side with the Red Lion, a Stoke-on-Trent Edwardian pub that was dismantled and taken to Crich to be recreated brick by brick.

Jump on a tram and trundle up to Glory Mine, or visit the depot below the hill with its impressive range of stock, mostly trams from British cities, interspersed with the odd European and North American model. They are a real mix of old wooden cars with ornate railings to more modern heavy-duty metal vehicles.

Bridgnorth Cliff Railway

Bridgnorth signal box Shropshire UK by Arena Photo UK Shutterstock

© Arena Photo UK, Shutterstock

This is England’s oldest and steepest inland electric funicular railway. Built in 1892, Bridgnorth Cliff Railway in Shropshire operates two cars on parallel tracks which counterbalance each other via steel ropes.

The original design used a water ballast system and wooden cars but the model you’ll ride today has aluminium cars (from 1955, so still agreeably vintage) powered by an electric winding engine. It’s an inexpensive ride, and because it makes at least 150 trips every day, you’ll never have to wait for long.

Seaton Tramway

Such a popular attraction: colourful traditional trams (from a fleet of 14, built between 1904 and 2007) rattle up and down the Axe Valley between Seaton, Colyford and Colyton, with beautiful views out over the river and marshes.

Seaton Tramway East Devon UK by Heart of Devon Images
© Heart of Devon Images

The whole trip, there and back, is around an hour, but the tickets are ‘hop on/off’ so you can explore Colyford and Colyton too, and travel as many times that day as you want for just one fare. Apart from birds (which, if you’re lucky, may include kingfishers) look out for otters, deer, foxes, badgers, water voles and distinctive Devon ruby red cattle.

For more on Slow travel in England, see our Slow Travel series: