As you look ahead from your dining-car seat, your train takes a sweeping left curve south through Banbury.
The platform ahead is crowded with commuters who shrink back as the now-unfamiliar steam loco shrieks a warning whistle and roars through the station at 82mph, followed by 700 tons of speeding metal. The stunned bystanders are left shrouded in a cloud of steam and that nostalgic whiff of coal smoke. They had a glimpse of a sooty-faced driver in blue overalls peering intently ahead, the intense glow of the firebox, glinting silverware on white tablecloths, and uniformed attendants; so different from the commuter train to Reading they’d expected.
You take another bite of Yorkshire pudding from your roast dinner, a sip of excellent merlot, and happily keep a look-out down this heavenly valley for Oxford. This isn’t a rose-tinted fantasy of how Britain’s railways once were. There are excursion trains and preserved lines you can ride today. Here are a few favourites…
Majestic: The Jacobite train crossing over the spectacular curved Glenfinnan viaduct in Scotland, which features in the Harry Potter movies
The Jacobite train, Britain’s most successful main-line steam service, runs every summer on the national network from Fort William to Mallaig. This crosses the spectacular curved Glenfinnan viaduct, seen in a Harry Potter film with the Hogwarts Express and a flying Ford Anglia.
The latter may not be there on your trip, but you will enjoy proper steam whistles, the roar of safety valves, the chuff–chuff–chuff sound as wheels slip on wet days, and the clickety-clack of traditional unpowered coaches.
It’s not too long for a family outing, affordable and reliable. The engines do a proper job over a decent distance, complete with sweaty fireman and driver. Yes, it’s nostalgia for more innocent times when dirty smut meant something in your eye.
Mind you, it had its comic moments when a loudspeaker announced ‘this is a non-smoking train’. At that very moment the engine was laying a huge grey and black duvet in the sky about 500 yards long.
All aboard: Tickets from £49 (westcoastrailways.co.uk).
The Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, pictured, was made famous by the film The Railway Children
Keighley is the junction for a remarkable steam branch, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, which takes you up into Bronte country. This picturesque line was made famous by the film The Railway Children, but you won’t have to rip up your red petticoats and run down the line like Jenny Agutter to stop the trains — they have fixed the cuttings now.
All aboard: Day-long ‘rover’ tickets £18 (kwvr.co.uk).
FULL STEAM AHEAD!
What’s thrilling about Railway Touring Company excursions is that (unlike most preserved lines) they travel at full tilt behind steam engines such as new-build Tornado, which recently clocked 100mph, and the rebuilt Flying Scotsman — the first loco ever officially timed at that speed — all with fine dining options.
These trips aren’t cheap. Can you imagine the cost of rebuilding the locos and trains to main-line standards? But they are well worth it. Plus, they are not all London-centric, with a great ‘Cheshireman’ day trip from Bristol up the Welsh Marches and on to Chester on November 13, for example.
All aboard: ‘Cheshireman’ trip from £259 with breakfast and a four-course dinner (railwaytouring.net).
The Dartmouth Steam Railway, pictured, never reaches Dartmouth, but ends at Kingswear across the river
The glorious Dartmouth Steam Railway offers charm and beauty. The sight, sound and smell of copper-chimneyed GWR Castles is splendid, while Halls or Granges pull chocolate-and-cream carriages up the steep bank behind Goodrington beach to reach the summit at Churston.
If it’s redolent of Hercule Poirot, that’s because the author Agatha Christie lived along here at lovely Greenway (National Trust).
The train then descends to the gorgeous Dart Estuary. In fact, the railway never reaches Dartmouth, but ends at Kingswear across the river — a ferry will take you across to the town.
All aboard: Tickets from £19.60 (dartmouthrailriver.co.uk).
THE WATERCRESS LINE
Passengers travelling on the Watercress Line, pictured, are served local watercress on the dining trains
Alton connects directly to the Mid-Hants Railway, better known as the Watercress Line because the area’s chalk streams grew it in such quantities that watercress specials used to rush to city markets.
Even today, you can have local watercress served on the dining trains on this ten-mile route through rolling countryside.
All aboard: Day tickets from £16 (watercressline.co.uk).
INTO BLYTON LAND
The Swanage Railway offers views of Corfe Castle, pictured – ‘an impossibly picturesque ruin’
On the so-called Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, the lovely Swanage Railway offers top-notch Enid Blyton-style scenery, from the seaside town to Corfe Castle, the impossibly picturesque ruin perched on a hill above the village and station.
It has — hooray! — at long last been reconnected to the main line at Wareham.
All aboard: Return tickets from £16 (swanagerailway.co.uk).
Creature comforts: Enjoy afternoon tea on the Strathspey line, which is keeping steam alive in the Highlands
The Strathspey Railway — you change at Aviemore for a ten-mile ride to Boat of Garten and Broomhill — is doing a great job of keeping steam alive in the Highlands. There’s dining some evenings — and you’ll be seen off by a piper.
All aboard: Return tickets from £16.75 (strathspeyrailway.co.uk).
According to Benedict, the Ffestiniog Railway, pictured, has ‘buckets of Victorian/Edwardian charm’
A sign leading the way to the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales
It is astonishing how many preserved railways the Welsh think they need — they have well over a dozen. But for a land whose legends involve fire-breathing dragons, what could be more apt than little steam engines charging about the hills?
They won’t be luxurious except in scenery, with buckets of Victorian/Edwardian charm, but try narrow-gauge lines such as the Ffestiniog Railway. Change at Blaenau Ffestiniog (from the north) or Minffordd (from the south). Or try the Welsh Highland Railway, change at Porthmadog or start at Carnarvon. It’s a cracker.
All aboard: Returns from £35 (festrail.co.uk).
A YORKSHIRE CORKER
Benedict says the scenery is ‘superb’ from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (above), where Tom Cruise’s seventh Mission: Impossible movie was filmed
It’s not surprising TV’s Heartbeat police series and recently Tom Cruise’s seventh Mission: Impossible movie were filmed on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway from Pickering.
The scenery is superb — and a Pullman dining train can be booked. Change at Grosmont. It even goes down into Whitby, from where Captain Cook set sail.
All aboard: Day-long tickets from £38 (nymr.co.uk).