Journey into the past: Severn Valley Railway, Shropshire

Journey into the past: Severn Valley Railway, Shropshire

Nostalgia can be a dangerous. A lot of things we enjoy as children can disappoint us when we experience them again as adults. Sometimes, the past is best left where it is. Fortunately, this cannot be said of the Severn Valley Railway.

A heritage line running steam trains (with a few equally delightful heritage diesels) 16 miles from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, it's a great day out for children, adults and adults who behave like children. That would be us then.

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If you've seen the film Paddington 2 you will remember the youngest child, Jonathan, has supposedly moved on from his love of steam trains to more typical teenage pursuits. Of course, deep down he still loves trains and he can only save the day by revealing his true self. It's a sweet stand-in for teenage identity crises of all kinds, but one I especially related to. Just as Toy Story's Andy moves on from toys which represent the past (Woody from the Wild West) to those which represent the space age (Buzz Lightyear from... well, space), I moved on from steam trains to Star Wars. Not that Star Wars was remotely cool when I started to follow it circa 1993.

Whatever was going through my head back then, I turned my back on trains, never (seemingly) to return.

Of course, they never really leave you. The steam gets into your pores, your DNA. I've written recently about our honeymoon journey on the Sunset Limited across the United States. But what about closer to home?

Well, you don't get much closer than the Severn Valley Railway. As a child I lived within half an hour's car journey of Bridgnorth. Now it's Kidderminster which is easier to get to for us, with trains running direct from the centre of Birmingham.

 Just a few seconds' walk from the new Kidderminster station to the Severn Valley's Kidderminster station will take you back decades, to the golden age of steam.

Just a few seconds' walk from the new Kidderminster station to the Severn Valley's Kidderminster station will take you back decades, to the golden age of steam.

 Trying my hardest to contain my excitement. And that's before I've even seen a single locomotive.

Trying my hardest to contain my excitement. And that's before I've even seen a single locomotive.

 Antony is also excited. No really - I think I'm turning him.

Antony is also excited. No really - I think I'm turning him.

 All aboard! This locomotive design is called a 'pannier tank' because of its distinctive... Okay, I'll be quiet.

All aboard! This locomotive design is called a 'pannier tank' because of its distinctive... Okay, I'll be quiet.

The working line which became the heritage Severn Valley Railway ceased operation in the early 1960s. In its earlier guise, it never made a profit and it was scheduled for closure even before the so-called 'Beeching Cuts' shut down many branch lines. Although it's been operating as a tourist attraction since the early 1970s, one can hardly say the 70+ staff and small army of volunteers have rested on their laurels with significant track extensions through the 1980s and a number of substantial side attractions, some of which were not around when I visited as a child (more on those shortly).

But the main attraction is of course the railway itself. Starting at Kidderminster, you pass through another relatively sizeable town, Bewdley. Two delightful villages are next: Arley and Highley, both of whom seem to be locked in a battle to see who has the best gardens. They really are sights to behold. Before reaching Bridgnorth there is the hamlet of Hampton Loade. There are also two halts which you can stop off at (if you tell the guard) or rejoin the train at (if you hold your arm out horizontally for the driver to see you).

The majority of the route runs through bucolic, largely uninterrupted countryside which was especially verdant on the day we visited in May 2018. Some light drizzle really brought everything to colourful life and didn't dampen our enjoyment in the slightest.

 Put your phone away, buy a G&T from the buffet car and let the train steam you into the past. What could be more quintessentially British?

Put your phone away, buy a G&T from the buffet car and let the train steam you into the past. What could be more quintessentially British?

 It's not just the trains themselves which are licensed. The Severn Valley boasts traditional pubs in the station buildings of Kidderminster and Bridgnorth and there are numerous cafes with booze on the menu. In the Summer, they even run special services where you can embark on gin, wine or whisky tasting.

It's not just the trains themselves which are licensed. The Severn Valley boasts traditional pubs in the station buildings of Kidderminster and Bridgnorth and there are numerous cafes with booze on the menu. In the Summer, they even run special services where you can embark on gin, wine or whisky tasting.

 Soft drinks and cups of tea are also, of course, available. Pinkie pointing at no extra charge.

Soft drinks and cups of tea are also, of course, available. Pinkie pointing at no extra charge.

Rather than break our journey, we chose to stay on all the way to Bridgnorth. Once there, we were able to check out the site of the new station cafe. This will certainly give us another excuse to return when it opens later this year.

Although single and return tickets are available, our 'Freedom of the Line' ticket allowed us to disembark and rejoin the train whenever we wanted. It also granted us entry The Engine House at Highley. This is essentially a museum for the retired locomotives and a substitute for being able to walk around in the engine shed at Bridgnorth - something precluded by modern health and safety regulations. To be honest, even as a child I remember I thinking how potentially unsafe it was to wander around 'behind the scenes' as the engineers got the locomotives ready for active service. There were deep pits and the ground was caked with coal dust, oil and grease. Still, it was thrilling to get up close, without the platforms to rob the locomotives of scale. At ground level, these machines are truly gargantuan. Happily, even in The Engine House they are less like museum pieces and more like living beasts. Although polished to an impressive sheen, they still secrete decades of built up residue onto the concrete floor. The overall impression is that they're not dead, just hibernating.

For those who are as addicted to the smell of oil and grease as I am, you can dine on the mezzanine of The Engine House's restaurant, directly overlooking these beguiling steel behemoths. It would be stretching it to say the smell of steam trains is the perfect pairing to a meal (especially when the locally brewed ale performed that function admirably) but it certainly brought some unique ambience.

 We both had the delicious (and huge) steak and ale pie and could barely eat anything else for the rest of the day.

We both had the delicious (and huge) steak and ale pie and could barely eat anything else for the rest of the day.

 Stepping up to the footplate in The Engine House. This obsession with steam trains must be catching.

Stepping up to the footplate in The Engine House. This obsession with steam trains must be catching.

 For our return journey we boarded Bradley Manor, which featured in the 2005 film Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

For our return journey we boarded Bradley Manor, which featured in the 2005 film Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Sometimes we return to things we enjoyed in our childhoods and can only enjoy them as an exercise in nostalgia. These times are tinged with sadness: we know we cannot recreate the same feelings we had when we are small. I was more than a little relieved to find this wasn't the case with the Severn Valley Railway. We're already planning our return journey.

 

You can find out a lot more about the Severn Valley Railway, including a wide range of special events, at their official website: http://www.svr.co.uk/ 

 

What childhood attractions have you returned to? Did you enjoy them as much as you did when you were younger? Leave your comments below.