Passenger rail travel was one of the great British contributions of the Victorian Age. In the 20th century, railway enthusiasm and railway hobbyists seem to have proliferated almost as fast as the railways themselves. Historic steam trains, special scenic journeys, and narrow gauge railways have been restored and are maintained by groups of enthusiasts and preservationists all over Britain. These are some of the best steam train and heritage railway journeys in the West Country counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.
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The Bodmin & Wenford Railway is Cornwall's only full-sized railway still operated by steam locomotives, was also the first steam railway in Cornwall and one of the first to carry passengers in Britain. It was founded in the early 1830s to carry sand inland from the Camel Estuary for farm fertilizer.
Steam passenger services ended in 1963 but the line continued to carry passengers with diesel locomotives until 1967, and part of the line carried china clay until 1983. The railway has been restored and is currently operated by volunteers and a small staff.
Where It Goes
The train climbs onto Bodmin Moor from the mainline railway station at Bodmin Parkway (to the south) and connects with the Camel Trail, between Bodmin and Padstow, at Boscarne Junction in the north.
Bodmin General, the train company's headquarters station high on Bodmin Moor, is midway along the line and trains change direction there.
Colesloggett Halt, a station built in the 1990s on the southern half of the route, is a good stop for nearby woodland walks. The full route between Bodmin Parkway to Boscarne Junction is about 6.5 miles.
The train crosses two rivers, the Camel in the north and the River Fowey in the south. The Fowey crossing is over an interesting multi-arched bridge. Bodmin General Station, at the center of the line, has been restored to reflect the 1950s. There is a station buffet, a shop, toilets, and baby changing facilities.
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The Dartmouth Steam Railway is a combined steam railway, riverboat, and vintage bus venture. The company took over one of the many smaller railway lines abandoned by British Rail during the controversial and now much regretted Beeching's cull of the British Rail system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, it operates four vintage steam locomotives and a diesel engine. Services run April through October.
Where It Goes
The Dartmouth Steam Railway makes regular trips across the headlands from Paignton on the English Riviera and then along the east embankment of the Dart Estuary to Kingswear. From there it's just a short passenger ferry ride across the river to Dartmouth. The operators of the scenic little steam train also run combined boat and train excursions going as far as Totnes at the head of the Dart Estuary.
Regular passenger excursions are combined with riverboat services to the historic Naval town of Dartmouth and to Agatha Christie's summer home, Greenway, on the River Dart at Galimpton. A new steam train station, Greenway Halt, allows passengers to arrive at Christie's circa 1950s house in appropriately vintage style.
Special out-of-season Santa excursions and Christmas outings are also scheduled. "Round Robin Trips" combine train, boat and bus transportation to take full advantage of the popular summer visitor destinations along and close to this line.
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The Swanage Railway service started in 1885 and was abandoned by British Rail in 1972. Now owned by a charitable trust, it has been restored and is run by volunteers. It claims a more "intensive" heritage steam and diesel train service than any other heritage railway system in Britain.
Frequently scheduled services on the line, particularly from April to October but in fact, year-round, mean the heritage line provides a convenient transportation option for local people.
Where It Goes
The line runs about six miles through the center of the area of Dorset known as the Isle of Purbeck. It has regularly scheduled services from the Norden Park & Ride station, under scenic Corfe Castle to the Dorset beach resort of Swanage.
A full schedule of special events includes Steam Galas and Vintage Transport Rallies, Family Fun events, and winter Santa Specials. In 2009, a steam locomotive from this line was the first to bring a train, by steam, into London since 1966.
Steam train enthusiasts can have a go themselves by signing up for one of several Driver Experience days. Diesel Experience days are also available by special arrangement. They also host a series of special events that are very popular.
By late June 2018, their Friday Night Bistro dining dates were booked solid to late August with only September and October dates left - and even bookings for Christmas lunch dates, Saturdays and Sunday in December, were about to open.
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More Steam Railways
Steam and heritage railways are increasingly popular all over the UK. Here are some more in England's West Country, that are worth checking out:
- Dartmoor Railway: With a nostalgic Old Station Tearoom at Okehampton Station.
- East Somerset Railway: Dining, Driving and footplate experiences with afternoon teas, cream teas, and Sunday lunch excursions. And it's dog-friendly.
- Helston Railway Preservation Company Ltd: Britain's most southerly railway as excursions every Sunday, Thursday and Bank Holiday Monday between March and November.
- Lappa Valley Railway: A railway theme park built around a collection of miniature railways you can have a ride on. 15-inch gauge, 10 1/4 inch gauge and even a 7 1/4 inch gauge railway to catch a lift on.
- Launceston Steam Railway: Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays take a ride through the Cornish countryside on a narrow gauge train pulled by a Victorian locomotive.
- Lynton and Barnstaple Railway: Daily steam locomotive excursions.
- Plym Valley Railway: Operated by a group of enthusiasts and volunteers who aim, one day, to reconnect Plymouth and Tavistock by rail. Meanwhile, you can enjoy 3/4 miles run on heritage tracks to their heritage center with a collection of locomotives and vintage trains.
- Somerset and Dorset Railway: A short heritage railway run by volunteers in the Mendips of North Somerset. There are a gift shop, bookshop, a tiny museum, a buffet coach and several other modest attractions for vintage enthusiasts.
- South Devon Railway: Another way to see the Dart Valley between Buckfastleigh and Totnes.
- West Somerset Railway: A country branch line of the old Great West Railway.