Grab your friends and family for an exciting day out this winter at one of these must-visit heritage train attractions.
Each of these five family-friendly railway experiences were once booming train lines, however over time they all sadly lost their passenger services. Rescued by trusts; charities; and volunteers; visitors from all over can re-live the golden days of travel with fun steam and diesel train rides, which are now operating across these five long forgotten tracks.
Read on to learn why each railway branch closed and discover when and where to visit each of the fantastic heritage railway attractions below.
Totnes to Ashburton
Closed 3 November 1958
The Buckfastleigh, Totnes & South Devon Railway was incorporated in 1864 to build a single-track broad-gauge branch line up the Dart Valley between Totnes and Buckfastleigh. The following year an extension to Ashburton was approved. From its opening day in 1872 the 9½-mile line was worked by the South Devon Railway. Conversion to standard gauge came in 1892 before being taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1897. Passenger services ceased in 1958 although freight traffic continued until 1962. Fortunately the track was not lifted following complete closure and a group of enthusiasts calling themselves the Dart Valley Railway (DVR) reopened the line in 1969 using restored GWR locomotives and rolling stock. Now operated by the South Devon Railway this scenic line sees steam heritage trains running between a new station at Totnes Riverside and Buckfastleigh where you can enjoy a 14-mile round trip through the glorious Devonshire countryside. Visitors can also explore the insightful museum on site, a gift and model shop, a children’s play area and more.
Plan your visit: www.southdevonrailway.co.uk
Taunton to Minehead
Closed 4 January 1971
The railway from Norton Fitzwarren to Watchet opened in 1862 with trains being worked by the Bristol & Exeter Railway. The separate Minehead Railway opened an 8-mile extension from Watchet to Minehead in 1874. The entire branch line was converted to standard gauge in 1882. With the coming of the railway, the once small harbour village of Minehead grew into a popular holiday destination and by the 1930s major improvements were introduced to cope with the increased traffic. Decline in passenger traffic had set in during the 1950s and cost-saving measures such as singling of track and the introduction of diesel multiple units were implemented. The opening of Butlin’s holiday camp at Minehead in 1962 brought increased summer traffic with many holidaymakers carried on through trains from Paddington. Despite all this, and against strong local opposition, the line closed in 1971. Reopened as a heritage railway in 1976, the West Somerset Railway currently operates steam trains between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. Visitors can spend a day exploring the many iconic sites and landmarks along the line including the Quantock Hills, Dunster Castle and more.
Plan your visit: www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk
Shepherdswell to Wingham
Closed 30 October 1948
The East Kent Light Railway (EKLR) was part of the cheaply built rural light railway empire run by Colonel Holman Fred Stephens. Authorised in 1911, the 10¼-mile single-track railway was opened between Shepherdswell and Wingham Colliery in 1916. The EKLR also offered a sparse passenger service.
A 2¼-mile branch from Eastry northwards to Sandwich Road was opened in 1925 and in 1928 this was connected to Richborough Port. Wingham Colliery closed in 1935 and the eccentric railway struggled to exist with just a skeleton passenger service. The EKLR was nationalised in 1948 and British Railways withdrew the sparse passenger services on 30 October of that year. Today the 2½ miles of the EKLR between Shepherdswell and Eythorne via 477-yd-long Golgotha Tunnel is a heritage railway operated by the East Kent Railway Trust. Visitors will find an award-winning visitor centre; fun miniature railway; pretty woodland; and a unique café in a lovingly restored Southern Region Scenery Van along the line.
Plan your visit: www.eastkentrailway.co.uk
Rugby Central to Nottingham Victoria
Closed 5 May 1969
Following the closure of the former Great Central Railway as a through route between Marylebone and Sheffield in 1966, the 43¼-mile section between Rugby Central and Nottingham Victoria was reprieved until withdrawal in 1969. Today, the line from Loughborough to East Leake is still open for gypsum traffic – this latter section as far north as Ruddington is also operated as a heritage railway by the Nottingham Heritage Railway. Finally, the 8-mile Great Central Railway now operates between Loughborough Central and Leicester North – reopened in stages since 1973 it is the only heritage railway in Britain featuring double track (from Loughborough to Rothley) – and the only place on heritage railways where full size steam engines can be seen passing each other. It’s a truly magnificent sight to behold. Steam train trips run every weekend and there are plenty of special events for the family to enjoy all-year-round including Santa Steam Trains and Winter Wonderlights throughout the festive period.
Plan your visit: www.gcrailway.co.uk
Ulverston to Lakeside
Closed 5 September 1965
Built by the Furness Railway, the 9½-mile branch line from Ulverston to Lakeside at the southern end of the Lake District was opened in 1869. At Lakeside, trains connected directly with railway-owned steamers that plied up and down Lake Windermere. The branch remained popular with tourists until the Second World War but a rapid decline in passenger numbers had set in by the 1950s. The line closed to passengers in 1965. Fortunately, the 3½ miles from Haverthwaite to Lakeside was reopened as a heritage railway by the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway in 1979. Steam trains once again connect with steamers at the restored Lakeside station and pier. Tickets for return train rides or return train and boat rides are available to purchase for the 2023 season, which runs throughout April and October. Haverthwaite station also boasts a number of family-friendly facilities including a delightful station tea-room, gift shop, woodland playground, picnic area and engine shed.
Plan your visit: www.lakesiderailway.co.uk
Find out more about Britain’s fascinating history of long forgotten railway lines in Julian Holland’s new book End of the Line, which is out now and available to buy online and from all good book shops.
Covering the period from 1948 to 1996, The Times End of the Line chronologically traces the history of more than 400 long forgotten railway lines, region by region, from their opening to closure and a few cases to reopening. This book by Julian Holland is publishing on October 13.