Frosty is the guard, David Bellamy is the engine driver – two little boys playing trains somewhere in the Lake District.
The rocketing cost of fuel and an increasing awareness of our carbon footprints are making caravan parks with direct access to public transport a popular choice. PETER FROST takes the subject further down the line.
There are hundreds of preserved railways in Britain and thousands of campsites and caravan parks but only a few campsites offer access to their own railway station. One of the most amazing news stories in the silly season this summer was the enormous growth in passenger numbers on community and preserved railways. On some lines business was up by 85 per cent.
No doubt petrol prices and an increasing awareness of carbon footprints combined with the whole staycation movement all contrived to make a day out by train an attractive proposition.
A bus stop at the gate of your caravan park has always been a great bonus – worth as much as a tourist board star, some would say. This month I’m looking at something rather better – campsites and caravan parks with their own train station and not just any railway. These are mainly preserved steam lines with snorting, smoking real vintage steam locomotives.
It really is nice to be able to get up in the morning, have breakfast in your caravan and then stroll over to the station to catch the 10.37 steam train either to the local town or city or out into the countryside for a bracing walk, a pub lunch or some other pleasant pursuit before catching the last train home and back to your caravan on its pitch.
Most of these preserved railway lines have a museum or train sheds and yards to look round and there is often a station tea bar where you and your chosen companion can act out the more poignant scenes from Brief Encounters.
If you think steam railways and their stations are just a slowly disappearing hangover from the past you couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed in August the BBC Business News led on the story of enormous growth in traffic on community and preserved railways.
Take a railway tour
We’ll start our railway tour in the Lakes on the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway. Rich Edwardian gentlemen all wanted a hobby. Some bought themselves a train set but not the little tabletop OO outfits that are still popular today.
These Edwardian beauties were half or quarter full size and you could ride in the carriages or drive the locomotives. Some of the tracks went for miles. One of the best of these is still in existence and runs for seven miles from the Lake DistrictNational Park’s only coastal village of Ravenglass in the Western Lake District out to the grandeur of the Eskdale valley.
The railway can be busy. 125,000 visitors travel each year soaking up the rich variety of flora and fauna plus that special beauty reserved for this part of the Lake District. For the railway buffs the line has the world’s oldest working 15″ gauge locomotive, an excellent museum and the quirkiest name.
The name Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway might be emblazoned on the side of the shiny locomotives and miniature rolling stock but the railway is universally known by locals and railway enthusiasts alike at La’al Ratty.
The Camping and Caravanning Club site is at Ravenglass right next door to the Station. For the site’s official opening a train was chartered and Club President David Bellamy tried his hand at the controls of the engine. As you can see from the picture yours truly acted as guard.
The North Norfolk Railway offers a 10.5 mile round trip by steam train through a delightful part of North Norfolk designated an area outstanding natural beauty.
You may think of Norfolk as a flat county but this line will soon convince you otherwise. The train swoops through huge undulating fields of golden grain often stained blood red by masses of Poppies, hence the popular name of the line.
Kelling Heath Park is the Poppy Line’s smallest station serving one of Norfolk’s biggest and most popular caravan parks. Owing to the steep gradient steam trains do not stop here on the journey to Holt but will stop if a clear signal is given to the driver on the return trip from Holt to Sheringham.
To get from the Caravan Club site at Ferry Meadows to the centre of Peterborough you probably wouldn’t expect to take a rural Polish steam train would you? Take my word for it there is no better way.
The NeneValley railway has level crossings, viaducts and even a box girder bridge to cross the mighty river Nene. There is even a lovely long tunnel that fills with smoke in a most satisfactory manner.
At the end of your journey the railway delivers you to a fine terminus on the edge of the handsome cathedral city of Peterborough. And all on a train that may well have started its life deep in the Forests of Poland, or the lakes of Sweden or somewhere even more exotic.
Take a trip from the site to the station at Peterborough and you will find the city centre is only a short walk away along the riverside path. Various locomotives and rolling stock are displayed in the yard at Peterborough, including some very futuristic experiments into a magnetically suspended monorail that was developed in the city.
The Welsh Highland Railway has been rebuilt by volunteers and now links Portmadog to Caernarfon. From either of those two stations you can get on the train behind the most powerful two foot gauge steam locomotives in the world as it hauls its long line of vintage carriages on a 15 mile journey through the fabulous scenery of the SnowdoniaNational Park.
The engines were built in Manchester more than a century ago. They were exported to Southern Africa where they worked hard pulling trains all over the African veldt. Now retired they have been restored to their former glory.
The train takes you through the fabulous AberglaslynPass. The Pass was recently voted Britain’s most scenic landscape by members of the National Trust. Forest Holidays have a pleasant and pretty site at Beddgelert with pitches among the trees in this beautiful valley. The site has its very own station on the Welsh Highland Railway.
We’ll finish our tour with a tiny site at MountTerrace in Pickering, North Yorkshire. The site shares its entrance with the Pickering Station car park of the North York Moors Railway. You can get up in the morning and catch the first train to Whitby.
A bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee on board will set you up for a day at the seaside. With luck your train might be pulled by Sir Nigel Gresley the pale blue streamlines LNER locomotive which still holds the post war speed record for steam locomotives – 112 mph in 1959 on a normal passenger run.
No station yet
A few years ago they opened the new flagship Caravan Club site at BurrsPark on the edge of Bury in Lancashire. It’s a wonderful site built on what was once a pair of old cotton mills. The East Lancashire Railway runs on a low embankment beside the site. A passing procession of historic steam trains keeps those on site entertained.
The club hopes the site will eventually have its own halt on the preserved railway. The Club has allocated the space and drawn up the plans. The railway enthusiasts have agreed. All that is needed is planning permission, and there is the rub. No one it seems is quite sure how you approve a new railway station. The last time it was done around Bury was in 1887!
Even better than a train.
The Bristol Ferry Boat Company offers a popular waterbus service to sixteen landing stages all across the city centre. The ferry company have established a jetty just to serve the Caravan Club site at Baltic Wharf and offer a discount on fares to those staying on site.
A ten minute waterbus service stops a few yards from the back gate of the site and most ferries either pick up or drop off a few campers. Caravanners are clearly a significant part of their overall traffic.
This article first appeared in Caravan Industry and Site Operator Magazine in 2011.