You may have previously read about my dad taking us on rail journeys when we were children. Be it anything from our local suburban stopping service to obscure little diesel lines out in the country, dad used to frequently take us on rail adventures new. These journeys created a fire in us for rail travel.
My love of railways still burns brightly. I don’t know what it is about rail journeys that gets me excited. The more obscure the line, the better. I love railways so much that my now husband even proposed to me on a dining car on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway five years ago!
Amongst the railways we used to visit was the Mid-Hants Railway, also known as the Watercress Line. Being one of the heritage railways in the southeast, it was never too far away for us to visit, and gave us a fantastic day out travelling on board majestic steam trains in the heart of the Hampshire countryside.
So I was beyond thrilled when I got the opportunity to visit the Watercress Line over the August bank holiday, except this time as the parent. Accompanied by my elder son and husband, we drove down from southwest London to Alton, which took roughly an hour.
The line runs from pretty Alresford (7 miles east of Winchester) to Alton. The main station is Alresford, which has a car park uniquely for Watercress Line visitors, but you can begin your journey at Alton and park in the Network rail car park. I was advised that parking may be tricky at the Alton end, but there were plenty of spaces and parking cost us £2 for the day. The availability and price of parking may be different during the week when there may be more commuters using the route from Alton in London on Southwest Trains.
The line itself is 10 miles long and is nicknamed the Watercress Line because it used to transport watercress to London markets. (Yummy – watercress is one of my favourite salad ingredients). The line operates a timetabled service which you can see in more detail on their website. As well as the standard services, they also run real ale trains, dining cars as well as a variety of seasonal special events. You can even book the chance to ride on the footplate or have an introductory driving lesson! My personal favourite would be experiencing the real ale train; I love ale, I love trains, it has got to be a win-win.
It was a beautiful sunny day, not too hot and just perfect for visiting a steam railway. We were greeted by the friendly staff in the shop at the Alton end, who advised that there would be freight trains running along the line during the day (we like freight trains, so this was great news for us). We had enough time to pop a conveniently placed Waitrose at Alton to pick up some refreshments for the journey, and we got back to the platform in time to see our train pull into the station.
For the outbound journey, our train was pulled by ‘Lord Nelson’, a beautifully shiny, green tender engine. My son was totally captivated by the sight of Lord Nelson, as it was nothing like he had ever seen before – a far cry from the Class 450 Desiros on Southwest trains (one of which was standing on the other platform at Alton).
We boarded our train and despite it being a sunny bank holiday weekend, we were able to get seats to ourselves. By the time the train was ready to depart, the carriage was fairly full, but not packed, which made for a comfortable journey. The journey took a little under an hour and comprised of three stops, including our final destination at Alresford.
We were aware of the West Country Buffet at Alresford, but our son was keen to stretch his legs once we’d left the train, so as much as we’d have liked to, we didn’t stop there for any food. I was told by a fellow enthusiast on the Alton platform that the West Country Buffet is excellent, providing hot and cold food as well as snacks and drinks. There are also refreshments available on board the train in the buffet car as well as the other stations on the line. We had a wander around pretty Alresford, which is a short walk from the station. We picked up some food from a local bakery, before deciding to head back to get the next train back to Alton.
We had the majestic Wadebridge (see below) pull us on our return journey. We were able to see Wadebridge couple up to the train before we boarded for Alton.
What struck me about the line was how incredibly well-kept the stations were. They were clean and tidy, the gardens were immaculate and there was no sign of wear and tear on the paintwork or trains. Everything was kept in such beautiful condition, and it was clear that the line is clearly well-loved by the people that run it. I later learned that most of this hard maintenance work is done by volunteers who travel from great distances to help keep this valuable piece of rail heritage working and looking stunning.
We would have stayed for longer and perhaps alighted at the other stations if our son was a little older and able to tolerate a longer day out. He loved his first ride on a steam train, but he was totally wiped out by the time we arrived at Alton. He was half asleep on the walk back to the car, but simultaneously requesting to go back on the steam train (and has since been).
If you have ever been curious about visiting a heritage railway, then please do just head down to the Watercress Line. It is a fantastic day out like no other. Your ticket will cover you for travel up and down the line all day. Children and adults will be captivated by the magic of those old engines, from their sheer appearance to their smell and their sound. Even the novelty of the slam-door carriages in an era of automatic, beeping doors will bring a smile to your face. There is nothing comparable to the experience and atmosphere of a British steam railway, and the Watercress Line is a fine example of such a railway.
Here is a little video clip of some of the footage I shot while we were out. I had no plans to video anything that day, but nevertheless found myself filming a bit.
Have you been to a heritage railway? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.
Disclosure: The team at the Mid-Hants Railway very kindly supplied us with a family pass for the purpose of this visit. This review was written by me (Fiona @ Free Range Chick) and all opinions are my own.