On the right track to a fun family day out
PUBLISHED: 17:50 24 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:09 25 February 2019
Over the last 50 years Britain has seen a major growth in the number of heritage railways – attracting millions of visits from people of all backgrounds.
These vary from families with youngsters keen to see a real-life “Thomas the Tank Engine” to die-hard enthusiasts who dedicate many thousands of hours to restoring rusting scrapyard hulks to shiny locomotives or carriages ready to take the punters on another nostalgic trip back in time.
East Anglia is lucky to have a wide selection of heritage railways – from one of the longest standard gauge lines in the country to impressive narrow gauge routes and a sprinkling of museums that feature train rides.
Most have special events during the year aimed at really appealing to the enthusiast market – but also attracting families who want the chance to see a number of different trains and locomotives in action.
Here’s what you can expect to see at some of our top heritage rail sites:
North Norfolk Railway:
This is one of the original heritage rail lines set up as the Beeching Axe was in full flow in the late 1960s. The line between Sheringham and Weybourne carried its first passengers in the early 1970s – but not before Weybourne station itself played a role in one of the best-loved Dad’s Army episodes!
Since reopening the line has evolved steadily – it extended from Weybourne to a new station on the outskirts of Holt in the 1980s.
And it is now one of the finest heritage railways in the country.
It is home to two now-unique steam locomotives that were once ubiquitous across the Great Eastern network – the GER Y14 and LNER B12 locomotive which took one of the most bizarre routes to restoration in the country.
In the early 1960s when all these engines were due to be scrapped, the shedmaster at Norwich Motive Power depot Bill Harvey was determined to save one.
So he “hid” it in unlikely corners of the Norwich yard every time his bosses from London came up to inspect what was happening in his kingdom – until a group of enthusiasts were able to buy it for its scrap price and take it away.
It then had to wait until the 1990s, and the discovery of a steam locomotive repair works in what had been East Germany, until it could be restored to working order. It is now the line’s flagship.
The North Norfolk is also home to three of the largest working steam locomotives in the country and a wide selection of other steam and heritage diesel engines.
It isn’t the longest line in the country at just over five miles, but the three miles from Sheringham to Kelling Heath is among the most attractive – earning it the nickname the Poppy Line.
Mid Suffolk Light Railway:
Suffolk’s only standard gauge heritage line is something of a minnow, with a short distance of track – but that should change soon with an extension under way.
But it will always remain a small recreation of a country by-way rather than a major long-distance steam line - you won’t see Flying Scotsman visiting the Middy!
What it lacks in length, it makes up for in charm with its loving recreation of the light railway that closed in 1952.
Its base at Wetheringsett and Brockford station really captures the “light railway” feel – and watch out for special events during the year which capture the mood of what it was like to chug through the East Anglian fields.
Nene Valley Railway:
Opened in the mid 70s, the line runs beside the river from the heart of Peterborough to an attractive nature reserve at Yarwell Mill – through its main station and depot at Wansford.
The seven-mile route is attractive and also gives visitors access to the Ferry Meadows country park. What really makes the NVR special for visitors is its proximity to the East Coast Main Line, and its accessibility for visiting celebrities from Flying Scotsman to Tornado. Its engineering facilities have been used to carry out repairs on both these engines over the last two years.
It has the first gala event of the year in East Anglia on March 9-10 when it hosts a “Southern Steam” weekend when its main locomotive, Battle of Britain class “Spam Can” light pacific locomotive “92 Squadron” will be joined by “Schools” class loco “Repton” and “Martello” from the Bressingham Steam Museum for a weekend of Southern Railway nostalgia.
The Nene Valley’s Peterborough station is a short walk from the mainline station – and is signposted along footpaths and cycleways over the River Nene.
Mid Norfolk Railway:
The longest heritage railway in the region is 15 miles long from Wymondham to Worthing (between Dereham and Fakenham) but is currently restoring a further two and a half miles to North Elmham. It also owns the trackbed between North Elmham and a restored station at County School – which would give a total length of 19 miles once restoration is complete.
In the long-term it has aims of running nearer to Fakenham, but that is many years away.
The Mid Norfolk is a “new generation” railway that only started operating between Wymondham and Dereham in 1999 – and its permanent residents are all heritage diesel locomotives. However it hires in steam locomotives for its summer seasons – and has had some spectacular visitors for its steam gala events.
These have included LMS giants Royal Scot, Scots Guardsman and Duchess of Sutherland, LNER icons Union of South Africa, Great Marquess and Mayflower, and the GWR’s King Edward II.
Epping Ongar Railway:
In the south of the region, this six-mile line has an interesting history. Originally part of the Great Eastern Railway, it was transferred to London Transport in the 1940s and eventually closed by London Underground (there are no tunnels on the line) in 1994.
Since then it has been taken over by enthusiasts and the EOR runs steam and heritage diesel trains from Chipping Ongar to Epping Forest – it is not able to access London Underground’s Epping Station, but that remains its goal.
Its main base is at North Weald station where there are engine sheds, a buffet and souvenir shop. The railway organises very good steam and diesel galas aimed at enthusiasts. On most operating days there are heritage bus links from North Weald to Epping station for visitors from London and between Shenfield on the main line and Chipping Ongar.
Colne Valley Railway:
Based at Castle Hedingham in Essex this mile-long line was saved from closure three years ago – as well as train trips it also has a museum and family activities.
As well as the standard gauge railways, there are several narrow-gauge lines which give visitors a different feel.
Bure Valley Railway:
This nine-mile 15-inch gauge line runs from Aylsham to Wroxham in Norfolk – and was built on the trackbed of a disused standard-gauge line. It has been successfully operating since 1990.
The attractive ride and the ability to book a “boat-train” ticket including a short tour on the Broads make it a favourite destination in this tourist centre.
Wells and Walsingham Railway:
Another miniature line built on a former standard gauge route, this four-mile line claims to be the longest 10-inch gauge line in the world.
Linking two tourist honeypots with very different claims to fame, it offers a trip with a real difference.
Audley End Railway:
A one and a half-mile railway built in the woods beside Audley End House near Saffron Walden on the Essex/Cambridgeshre border, this is firmly aimed at the family market with its “Enchanted Forest” theme – although miniature railway enthusiasts flock to its special events.
The main line is built to the same gauge as the Wells and Walsingham Railway – but there are also smaller gauges used by enthusiasts to run their own locomotives on special occasions.
Not out of steam yet? East Anglia also has several rail-themed museums.
Bressingham Steam Museum:
With three narrow-gauge railways and a standard-gauge running line, this is a major steam honeypot for the region – not forgetting its “Dad’s Army” exhibits that also delight visitors.
The former home of steam icons Oliver Cromwell, Royal Scot and Duchess of Sutherland – who have all returned to the main line – it retains a very interesting collection of exhibits, some on loan from the National Railway Museum.
And its narrow gauge lines give passengers attractive short rides through woodlands, gardens, and the former nursery area at Bressingham.
The East Anglian Railway Museum:
Based at Chappel and Wakes Colne station on the Sudbury to Marks Tey line, this museum is a remnant of a preservation scheme that was eventually never needed!
The Stour Valley Railway was set up to try to take over the Sudbury line which was under threat of closure in the years after the route to Cambridge through Long Melford and Haverhill closed in 1967.
In the event the Sudbury line was reprieved, so the rail enthusiasts concentrated on turning Chappel and Wakes Colne station into a fine railway museum, largely dedicated to the Great Eastern Railway.
The rail museum at a farm near Burnham on Crouch has a somewhat eclectic mix of exhibits and a short standard-gauge running line giving rides to visitors.
With exhibits ranging from a former London Underground train to an American caboose, this really does have something eye-opening for any rail enthusiast.