Best Heritage Railways in the UK

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As a nation, we’re pot on the old trains. Currently, there are around 200 heritage lines open to the public in the UK and every year that number is growing. This selection has 12 of the best, and they’re in some really nice places, too.

Main photo: The Dartmouth Steam Railway behind the beach huts at Goodrington Sands (Alamy)

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Keighley and Worth

1. Keighley and Worth, Yorkshire

Summer 2022 sees the The Return of the Railway Children, from a story by Edith Nesbit. It was first made into a classic film in 1970 and was filmed on the Keighley and Worth Railway. The line is no stranger to gripping fiction, with one of its stops being Haworth: Home of the Brontë Sisters. The steam railway was originally funded by local mill owners and runs eight miles between Oxenhope and Keighley. Train enthusiasts especially love its tumultuous heights, with tall pillars of steam and the sound of hard-working locomotives echoing down the steep valley sides. The Dales National Park lies just to the north.

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The Bluebell Line is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
Bluebell steam train at Sheffield Park station (Alamy)

2. Bluebell Line, East Sussex

For its 2000 remake, the Children of the Railway migrated south to the Bluebell Line, one of Britain’s first private railways when it opened in 1960, just three years after it closed as a public service. This authenticity means the 11-mile route between Horsted Keynes and Sheffield has long been popular with TV producers, while its stable of 30 steam locomotives attracts many die-hard rail fans. If you’re not a loco fanatic, there are always beer trains and restaurant trains, and this part of Sussex is well stocked with vineyards and ornamental gardens, including at Wakehurst Place. The South Downs National Park lies just to the south.

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The Watercress Line is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
Watercress line

3. Watercress Line, Hants

Like the now defunct Sprat & Winkle which traveled up the Test Valley, the Mid-Hants Railway is best known after one of its original base cargoes, at a time when the ten rural miles between Alton and New Alresford were well supplied with watercress beds. Its field stations, particularly Ropley, may appear to have been preserved in aspic, but virtually everything – bridge, clock, signal post, water tank, canopy – has been imported from elsewhere and restored. Family specials with Thomas the Tank Engine are popular, and for drinkers and non-drivers, the Watercress has the advantage of hooking up to the national rail network at Alton.

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4. Dartmouth Steam Railway, Devon

Usually with a heavy-duty tank engine at the helm, this funky vintage train has three character changes during its short seven-mile journey from Paignton to Kingswear. At the start, it’s a Riviera train, which gently leaves Paignton and skirts the sumptuous Goodrington Sands; then it’s a mountain climber, sniffing inland to pass Agatha Christie’s house in the woods at Greenway. And finally, it’s a river steed, meandering along the banks of the Dart to sunny Kingswear, where there’s a ferry to Dartmouth. The railway company also operates river boats (including a paddle steamer), so train/river tickets are popular.

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The Swanage Railway is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
Corfe Castle (Andrew PM Wright)

5. The Swanage Railway, Dorset

The Isle of Purbeck, that lumpen peninsula between Poole and Lulworth, is Famous Five territory. Enid Blyton used to come here on holiday, by train, to the old-fashioned railway station at Swanage. Its journey can still be made on this same railway, now carrying more passengers as a preserved entity than when it was part of the national network. Its locomotives travel 14 kilometers down the valley to the ruins of Corfe Castle, an imposing romantic 11th century henge, with a secret tunnel – and the Five do love a good tunnel.

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6. West Somerset Railway, Somerset

Passengers rave about the distance-to-pound ratio on West Somerset, whose 20 odd miles make it the longest (standard gauge) heritage line in the UK. There are ten restored stations on this route from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead, which is the old branch line from Taunton to the coast. The line winds around the Quantock Hills through cider orchard and church steeple country, and its extra capacity creates windows for learner drivers to take to the tracks. Key stops are the pretty medieval village and castle of Dunster, as well as the ever-popular tourist resort of Minehead itself.

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Ffestiniog Railway is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
Ffestiniog Railway crossing The Cob

7. Ffestiniog Railway, Snowdonia

This narrow gauge railway in Snowdonia National Park is run by the world’s oldest still operating railway company, and three of its blowing billies are over 150 years old. It was originally created in the early 19th century to connect the slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog with waiting ships at Porthmadog, some 13.5 miles and 700 feet below. It ceased operations in the mid-20th century, but was revived for passengers in 1955, its vintage carriages crisscrossing a mix of mountain and forest scenery. Much more recently it has also been connected to the Welsh Highland Railway, which travels another 25 miles from Porthmadog to Carnarvon, climbing to cross the foothills of Mount Snowdon.

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8. Severn Valley Railway, Shropshire

This bucolic line follows the course of the River Severn for 16 miles on its way to the sea from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster, where it joins the national rail network. He has acted on screen in the likes of sherlock holmes and the Chronicles of Narnia, and regularly organizes steam galas and diesel festivals. The SVR is also a good whistle to turn that childhood dream into reality, with all sorts of footpeg offerings aimed at budding motor riders. Most of its diesel engines and locomotives have been rebuilt by volunteers and, when not in action, remain visible in the buffer zone of the engine room.

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9. North Norfolk Railway, Norfolk

Nicknamed the Poppy Line after the profusion of wildflowers that often dominate its immediate hinterland, this heritage railway stretches just five miles from the elegant Victorian seaside resort of Sheringham to the Georgian town of Holt, just inside the ground. The line was originally built for holidaymakers, running part of its route along coastal dunes with sand between your toes. Vacationers remain its biggest fans, especially for its specialty cream teas, fish-and-chips and even gin tasting. The seaside resort of Cromer, with its famous crab sandwiches, lies just beyond Sheringham.

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North Norfolk Railway is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
North Yorkshire Norfolk Railway (Philippe Benha)

10. North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Yorkshire

A combination of three seasons of TV documentaries on Channel 5 and one of its stations (Goathland), playing Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter films, really put that line with its roster of big steam locomotives on the map. It has one of the longest stretches of private track, the 17 miles from Pickering to Grosmont, with some departures offering the option of continuing another seven miles along the main line to the popular seaside resort of Whitby. Much of the route is uphill through moorland, with excellent walks from station to station. Whitby offers crisp fish and chips and Pickering is just north of the foodie town of Malton, famous for its Yorkshire puddings.

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Eskdale Railway is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
River Mite returns from the snowy mountains (Score Fielding)

11. Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, Cumbria

This narrow gauge railway climbs from the Cumbrian coast seven miles inland in the Lake District from Ravenglass to Dalegarth. The latter is in Eskdale, with England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, on the horizon, a challenge for climbers, and Hardknott Pass to the east, a challenge for motorists. La’al Ratty (“little railroad” in the local dialect) stops short of tackling one or the other, but despite his toy-train appearance, he’s not afraid of big efforts. The road was originally built to transport iron ore and declared open for public use in 1876. Today its pint-sized carriages are partially open to allow passengers to fully enjoy of the frame.

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Strathspey Railway is one of the best heritage railways in the UK
Strathspey Railway (Alamy)

12. Strathspey Railway, Highland

Scotland’s most important historic railway runs from the adventure capital of the Cairngorms, Aviemore, down the valley of the River Spey to Broomhill, a distance of ten miles. Following the original route from Perth to Inverness, it winds its way through birch trees and heather, with the mountains in the background. Boat of Garten, halfway, is famous for the RSPB osprey conservation project, but most passengers stay on board for the return trip. Those descending to Broomhill might well take the Speyside Way, a cycling and walking route partly on a disused track that takes a long walk through whiskey country.

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