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Taking the Nostalgia Line

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh relives the glorious days of steam and enjoys every minute.

OUR steamy affair began at Watford Junction. It was not yet dawn, early for love but not for a ride with Steamy Affairs, a small company that organises trips aboard vintage trains across Britain. We were bound for Bristol via Birmingham and Bath.

As my friend Caroline and I boarded our carriage, we were struck by the starched white antimacassars protecting the velour upholstery, the crisp white damask cloth over the table and the white china. The carriage was carpeted, filled with polished wood and had windows that opened.

At each table was what can only be described as a trainspotter's checklist, showing distances to be covered and scheduled timings. Entering into the spirit, we decided to fill in the various columns, but Caroline's watch had stopped and mine had no second-hand - the timings were to be that precise. Was that Tring flashing by? If so, is it 05.50 and 30 seconds? Did Ledburn Junction go by at 05.57?

Lots of men and a handful of women joined the train at stops en route to Birmingham, where we were coupled to the steam engine that was to take us to Bristol.

I got talking to Michael Taylor, a railway historian and fan of such trips. The engine, he told, me was a 35005 Canadian Pacific, built in the Second World War by Oliver Bulleid (with a revolutionary "Spam can" casing, apparently). It hauled trains out of Waterloo until 1967, one of about 40 Merchant Navy Class expresses.

While I was becoming a rail buff, a full cooked breakfast was being served in our carriage. Scurrying back from the belching engine, we snaffled every scrap of the vast - and delicious - spread.

It was 07.51 (checked and ticked) as we steamed out of Birmingham, and a glorious sunny day. Barry Freeman (deputy president of the Guild of Railway Artists) regaled us over the Tannoy with snippets of train trivia. A smoky smell wafted through the open window, bringing back memories: all that was missing was the comforting clackety-clack of the rails.

At Leamington Junction there was a delay (08.21 to 08.36) as we waited for a train to pass, and here, as along most of our route, all vantage points were populated by men in anoraks anxious to see, and to take pictures of, the 35005. At Aynho Junction, I entered 09.06 and 30 seconds in the log, guessing the half-minute. At 11.26 (dutifully logged) we passed through Swindon. I was fast becoming a Rail Enthusiast.

After a fine lunch, I explored the train. The engine was hauling 13 carriages, with 410 passengers and only 13 empty seats.

Steamy Affairs was set up four years ago to bridge the gap between luxury train journeys such as the Orient Express and budget outings for trainspotters.

As in the old days, it offers three classes - though now they are known as Club, Saloon and Silver - including seat-only, light meals, or a full breakfast, lunch and dinner extravaganza. Hostesses look after passengers in all classes, giving the train a comfortable, old-fashioned feel.

Bath (12.15, bang on schedule) was followed by Bristol, where we had a chance to see the city and join a free trip in vintage coaches to visit Harvey's Wine Cellars, home of Bristol Cream sherry. At 16.25 - by now we were as regimented as soldiers - it was back into our plush seats and, despite the hour, a round of early evening drinks.

Outside the window, mad March hares boxed in the fields; the Uffington White Horse gleamed on a distant hill;
rooks wheeled in a clear sky; and deer glanced up as we rattled past. It was almost dark when we stopped (18.15)
to take on water for the second time - 6,500 gallons brought by tanker. There was a 50-minute pause during which supper was served.

Fresh linen napkins were provided, the plates were warmed and we ate in cheerful mood, relaxed by the companionship that had developed during the day. A third delicious meal was rounded off with syrup sponge - steamed, naturally - and a conversation in which it emerged that not a single man in the carriage knew of a female rail enthusiast.

By the time we reached Watford, Caroline and I had been on board for 14 hours, enough time to fly to Bangkok. The train had gone through eight tons of coal and 13,000 gallons of water to get us back where we started.

No steamy affair, of course - just the odd Celia-Johnson-Brief-Encounter whiff of nostalgic longing - but plenty of old-fashioned comfort, good company, lovely countryside and fine food. Better still, no mobile phones, no piped music, no smoking and nothing but unobtrusive charm from the hostesses. Would that all away days could be so perfect.

Steamy Affairs (01553 828107; www.steamy-affairs.co.uk) offers steam specials across the country, including the Bath & Bristol Explorer (departs Birmingham; pick-ups from Watford and beyond) and the Cumbrian Mountain Express (from Crewe via Shap, Settle and Carlisle; pick-ups start at Coventry). Prices start from £69 for Club (reserved seat only) to £159 for Silver Service (seat plus full breakfast, lunch and dinner). The next trip runs from Ashford, Kent, to Bath and Bristol (pick-ups en route) on March 31; the train will be pulled by the Flying Scotsman.

Steam trains in the UK

Bluebell Railway
This rescued line began services in 1960, making it Britain's first preserved standard gauge railway to carry passengers. It runs in an 18-mile loop through the Sussex countryside from Sheffield Park via Horstead Keynes. Summer events at Horstead Keynes include the Toy and Railway Collectors Fair (July 21-22) and the annual Steam and Country Fair (July 28-29), a gathering of over 500 vintage steam engines, tractors, cars and motorbikes. Futher information on the line and events (01825 723777; recorded timetable and public transport 01825 722370; www.bluebellrailway.co.uk). A family day pass costs £21.50 (two adults and up to three children), adult £8, child £4.

Keighley and Worth Valley
This five-mile west Yorkshire railway must be Britain's most familiar steam line, if only because it was used during the filming of The Railway Children. Summer events include "Thomas" (the Tank Engine) weekends (June 9- 10 and Sept 22-23) and Enthusiasts' Weekends (May 12-13, 20-21). Information (01535 645214; www.kwvr.co.uk). Unlimited use day pass: family £20, adult £8, child £4. Ordinary returns £16, £6, £3.

Kent and East Sussex Railway
Enjoy the 10-mile ride from Tenterden in Kent to Bodiam in Sussex and then eat in the village's excellent Castle Inn. The main event this summer is the Steam and Country Fair (July 21- 22). Information (01580 765155; www.kesr.org.uk). Family £20, adult £7.50, child £3.75.

Nene Valley
Runs for seven-and-a-half miles from Stibbington to Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, including a "haunted tunnel" and halts at Yarwell Junction, Ferry Meadows and Orton Mere, where you can take boat trips and pony rides. Information (01780 784444; www.nvr.org.uk). Family (two adults and up to three children) £20, adult £10 (one child travels free with each adult); child £4.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway
An 18-mile line from Pickering to Grosmont through the magnificent scenery of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. There is great walking from the halts en route, and in Grosmont you are at the centre of countryside that forms the setting for ITV's series, Heartbeat. The most popular events, as with many other steam lines, are "Thomas Weekends" (June 16-17 and Sept 8-9). Information (01751 472508; www.northyorkshiremoorsrailway.com). Family (two adults, two children) £25 (three children £27), adult £10, child £5.

Severn Valley Railway
A pretty 16-mile line from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth with opportunities for country walks (call for current access restrictions) between the half-dozen halts en route. The line's most popular events are "Thomas Weekends" (May 12-13, 19-20 and Sept 1-2, 8-9) when the locos carry the famous faces of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends. Special "1940s Weekends" with many themed events take place on June 30-July 1 and July 7-8. Information (01299 403816; www.svr.co.uk). Family £25 (two adults and up to four children), adult £9.60, child £4.80 (all allow unlimited number of journeys).

Talyllyn Railway
The world's first preserved narrow-gauge railway celebrates its 50th anniversary with special events throughout the year. The line runs between Tywyn Wharf and Nant Gwernol, taking in the lovely scenery south of Cadair Idris in mid-Wales. The railway is home to Edward Thomas, better known as Peter Sam (aka Stuart) in the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. Sadly, Peter is out of commission for engineering repairs this year, but his place has been taken by Duncan, who appears in "Duncan's Big Day Out" on Aug 27. Information (01654 710472; www.talyllyn.co.uk). Adult £9, child £2.

First published by the Telegraph

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