If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that Sebastian is train mad, particularly “steamies” as he loves Thomas the Tank Engine. For his godfather’s birthday I intended to take him and Sebby to “A day out with Thomas” on the Watercress Line, but sadly he was unwell at the time and this was the first opportunity when we could all get together.
We headed to Winchester to the picturesque town of Alresford in time to see the first train of the day at 11am. I thought that we would catch the steam train to Alton and come back again but didn’t realise that there was so much to do along the track.
The Mid Hants Railway is affectionately known as the ‘Watercress Line’ due to their connection with transporting watercress from the beds in Alresford all the way in to London and this heritage railway was saved from total extinction by a band of enthusiastic volunteers in 1973. The railway currently runs the full 10 miles between the market towns of Alresford and Alton, preserving an important piece of the UK’s 1940’s – 70’s railway heritage for this generation and many more to follow.
We purchased a standard fayre which cost £40 for two adults and two children and gives you all day travel so you can make the most of your day riding the trains, exploring our stations and visiting the towns!
The first part of our morning involved exploring the station and climbing on the bridge to watch the steam trains coming in. Sebastian was fascinated by the to-ing and fro-ing, although wasn’ t too sure at first at being covered in steam when the train went underneath.
The staff are wonderful and are all kitted out in traditional uniforms. They are obviously very proud and knowledgable about both the line and the trains and were more than happy to share their knowledge with the kids both on and off the train. Sebby was so excited when we finally climbed aboard and waved to everyone and everything he saw.
The Watercress line operates a fleet of steam locomotives, most of them of the larger classes, as they are required to work hard to haul trains up and over the steeply graded line which runs through the stunning Hampshire countryside. On the day we visited they were running two trains and the first one we boarded was the SR West Country Class Wadebridge.
Each station along the route is styled from the 40’s era and look stunning with beautiful flower beds and manicured hedges. There are four stations; Alresford, Ropley, Medstead & Four Marks and Alton. We decided to travel all the way to Alton on the way out and then got on and off the trains to explore each station on the way back.
The station at Alton has small gift shop which has a working miniature railway that Sebastian didn’t want to leave, but we persuaded him back out with the promise of another ride on the real steam train, only this time we found the first class carriages and felt like students on the way to our first day at Hogwarts.
Medstead & Four Marks station is the highest in Southern England. It is a very small, pretty and peaceful station. The gardens are worth a visit and there is an interesting display of photos in the downside platform waiting room. Medstead is the base for their Permanent Way and Signal & Telegraph Departments who tend to the track and signaling equipment, making sure the railway runs smoothly! It was between here and Ropley where the conductor told the kids a story all about a dog that belonged to one of the workers on the railway who was buried at the side of the track.
Ropley Station was our favourite though as it had the most to do for the kids with a large picnic area set in an orchard with lots of picnic tables and a climbing frame. I thoroughly enjoyed following in some famous footsteps by crossing the newly opened Kings Cross footbridge that featured in the Harry Potter films.
Over the other side of the Handyside Bridge were and we could get up close to their current restoration projects. Sebastian was in his element at being so close to all these trains and Isaac asked lots of questions as some of the engines had been stripped right back to their shell.
Also at Ropley station is a viewing platform over the engine workshop which also had a large photo display and lots of activities for the children, including colouring and dressing up. Back downstairs there was also a mock up of the Station Masters office to see too.
There was so much to see and do we spent a good two hours at Ropley and over 5 hours on the Watercress Line as a whole and that was without exploring the local towns as we stopped.
The second train we travelled on was the SR Lord Nelson Class, Lord Nelson, which looked more like the traditional steam engine I imagined.
If you want to show your kids a piece of history that is fun at the same time, this is for you “Choo Choo!!”