Did you know that steam trains were invented in the UK? All of a sudden it makes so much more sense as to why there are so many incredible heritage railways here. If there’s one thing we do well in this country it’s preserving our fascinating history for all to see. And what a history it is when it comes to trains.
Just think, both the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman have their home here, and they are famous around the world. But it’s not just the trains that are spectacular. The stations and railways themselves are just as part of this history and they boast huge numbers of visitors every year.
Let’s take a look at some of the best heritage railways to visit in the UK.
The Churnet Valley Railway, England
Given the time of year, the Churnet Valley Railway in Staffordshire had to come first. After all, it is here you can take the beloved Polar Express directly into Christmas! Okay, but aside from that, this beautiful railway has something for everyone, and is set within some of the county’s most spectacular scenery. With a number of steam trains, diesel locomotives, and rolling stock to see, you’re spoilt for choice.
The line is just over 10 miles long and runs from Froghall in the south, to Leekbrook Junction & Ipstones in the north. You can even take your dogs on the train, too.
And if that wasn’t enough, take a trip here and you’ll be welcomed to dine on a steam train for cream tea or pie and mash!
The Keithley & Worth Valley Railway, England
Set in Yorkshire to the backdrop of beautiful Bronte country, the Keithley and Worth Valley Railway is a delight for train lovers everywhere. Boasting an impressive selection of both steam and diesel locomotives, the line runs along five miles of beautiful countryside.
For those familiar with the first Railway Children film released in 1971, you notice that the railway plays a key role in the production, with Oakworth station being central to the children’s time in the village, and the railway is continually featured throughout the film.
And the best is yet to come… some incredible experiences are offered at this railway. First up is the opportunity to actually drive one of the steam engines for the day – can you imagine?! And then there’s the chance to privately hire a 1930s Pullman Carriage for a special event – don’t mind if we do.
The Jacobite (West Highland Railway), Scotland
Ever wanted to experience one of the greatest railway journeys in the world? This is where you can do exactly that.
The journey will take you past Britain’s tallest mountain – Ben Nevis – to the most westerly mainland station, past the deepest freshwater loch and shortest river, and ending at the deepest seawater loch in Europe. You’ll even cross the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, brought to immense fame in the film ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. So, just an average train trip, then…
Located in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, the history of this railway goes all the way back to the 1800s, so you can imagine how stunning it is to see and experience it in person.
Now combined, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway has over 38 miles of track, from Caernarfon all the way down to Porthmadog and back up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line snakes through some of the most incredible landscape in Wales, from snow topped peaks to the industrial vistas shaped by centuries of slate mining.
The history of this railway is embedded into every aspect of your day, and what better backdrop than the glorious Welsh mountains.
Dartmouth Steam Railway, England
How does taking a ride on a steam train that goes right along the beach sound?
Well, get yourself down to Dartmouth Steam Railway and enjoy a trip on one of the UKs most glorious coastal railways.
With a history going back to the 1830s, this award-winning railway and its incredible excursions will transport you right back to yesteryear. There you can truly appreciate the engineering and finery of the original steam trains of their day whilst simultaneously experiencing some of the greatest sights England has to offer.
For Agatha Christie fans, a stop at Greenway (perched high above the River Dart) is a must, and the views towards the sea and up-river to Stoke Gabriel are well worth it, too.
There’s even the opportunity for boat trips and paddle steamers when you get down to Dartmouth. For those with a little more time, you can hire a boat and take a trip up the River Dart if the tide is in your favour. If you have a lot of time, you could even extend your boat trip up Bow Creek and stop off for lunch at The Maltsters in Tuckenhay (you literally tie up next to the beer garden…)
Crich Tramway, England
This one switches it up a bit and focuses on trams – a much-loved part of the UK transport system. Trams have a very important place in the history of transport and were once ubiquitous in large British cities, so it’s no surprise that a tram railway makes it to this list.
Set in Derbyshire, this tramway has so much to offer, and showcases the incredible history of trams in the UK. A visit here will give you the option to ride some of the trams of years past and experience how people in bygone eras were travelling. You’ll also find exhibitions focussing on the transition from horse-drawn, steam, and then electric-powered trams.
All of this set in a period village scene within a stunning location will make this a day out you will remember!
The North York Moors Railway, England
As one of the country’s most famous railways, the NYMR has been preserved and kept open with incredible love.
A visit to the North York Moors Railway will have you reeling in awe – not only of the railway itself and the incredible events that are run here, but also of the volunteers who are so dedicated to keeping the history of this railway alive.
Some notable experiences you can take part in at this railway are the opportunity to ride on a steam footplate, as well as an awe-inspiring photography workshop. What better way to preserve memory of your trip than with professional photographs of it all – taken by you!
Strathspey Railway, Scotland
Located in the Highlands of Scotland, this charming railway runs between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey.
Originally called the Highland Railway Line, an entire 10 miles of track have been restored for you to see the wonders of taking a steam train through the Scottish Highlands. There are many options for a good day out here. Whether it be enjoying the festive experiences they put on over the Christmas holidays or dining aboard some of the spectacular trains they have – afternoon tea, anyone?
And, this railway allows dogs on board so you can bring the entire family!
The Bluebell Railway, England
Named as such due to the glorious fields of bluebells, the Bluebell Railway finds its home in Sussex and is not to be missed. In fact, this railway was one of the first to be preserved as a heritage railway in the country! That means the collection of vintage trains and carriages is second-to-none. Many of which came directly from British Railways (remember those days before privatisation…)
Learn all about the industrial era of the steam trains while walking through time – each of the four stations are set in period, including Victorian times, the 30s, and the 50s. There’s also the opportunity to dine onboard for Silver Service experiences, and even Rail Ale days. Oh, and are you looking for a venue to get married at? Look no further…
Downpatrick and County Down Railway, Northern Ireland
This one is not to be missed. Why? It’s actually the only full-sized mainline heritage railway across the whole island of Ireland!
An interesting aspect to this railway compared to the others listed is how the standard gauge is different. You see, the English Standard Gauge is four feet, eight and a half inches, however the Irish Standard Gauge is five foot, three inches. The only place to experience that? Right here at Downpatrick and Country Down Railway.
The railway offers everything from trips to Inch Abbey, museums, carriage galleries, footplate rides and buffets galore. You’ll learn all about the history of this railway, along with how railways were run in Ireland back in the day. A true wonder for anyone who enjoys heritage railways.
Be Blown Away By the UK’s Heritage Railways!
As you can see, we are truly spoilt for choice when it comes to heritage railways in the UK. Each country within the United Kingdom has their own incredible railway history and each with their own story. Learning about trains and trams from years-gone-by is all part and parcel of learning about the history of our country – after all, steam trains were a game changer in the transport world. Finally, people could travel to places that had never been accessible before. And without steam trains, we wouldn’t have the trains of today.
What better way to honour the incredible engineering and mechanics that bought us nationwide transport than by going right to the centre of where it all happened.
These railways literally offer an opportunity to travel back in time and see how life was when these locomotives were in their heyday.
You’ll be amazed at how they’ve been preserved and how much they have truly changed our lives.
About the author
Having worked across the heritage and tourism sector for over 10 years, Monty Beaumont is an expert when it comes to discovering new places to visit and great days out for the whole family.
He has previously worked for the National Trust as a General Manager in Cornwall, coordinated the complex operations of running a castle in Devon and the mastered the intricacies of providing exceptional hospitality and service at some of the finest historic houses in the UK.
As part of his vision and drive for Monty’s Guide, Monty travels across the country to find new places to visit and explore, and sharing his finding on montysguide.com, which is used by 1,000s of people each week to find their next great day out.
His experience and knowledge of the historic and cultural sector gives him a unique insight into the elements that make tourism and learning so important in our quest to understanding more about our heritage.