There's no finer destination for train buffs or the young at heart than the British station where Thomas and Friends live.
Know any railway buffs who might be interested in a two-hour steam journey in the English countryside? If so, allow at least one day on your next visit to Great Britain for a tour from Alton to Alresford on the Mid-hants Railway.
Service to Alton from London began in 1852, and by 1865, was extended to Winchester via Alresford. This hilly route, an alternative to the flat main rails running to Southampton, was soon known as “Over the Alps” by steam enginemen because such large engines were needed to haul freight. In the 19th century, it was dubbed ‘The Watercress Line’ by farmers who used it to rush their tender crop to consumers in London. A dozen years after British Railways ceased service in 1973, a group of train enthusiasts and volunteers reestablished it as a sightseeing route.
Meet Thomas the Tank Engine
The Watercress Line then achieved international fame as the setting for “Shining Time Station” the popular PBS TV series based on the Reverend W. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine series of children’s books. Reverend Awdry, who passed away recently at age 85, completed dozens of ‘Thomas and Friends’ books from 1943 to 1984. When interviewed, he said he created the stories and wrote the charming, veddy British series about surly trains and their keepers to amuse his son at bedtime.
Now better known locally for its restored dining car which hosts parties, special brew runs and Mother’s Day outings, the Watercress Line also welcomes school groups and families year-round. Don’t forget to pick up their fun and informative “Children’s Guide to the Railway” brochure which rewards those who pay attention while onboard!
Themed ‘Friends of Thomas the Tank Engine’ weeks occur at Easter and mid-August. When Thomas, James, Diesel, Henry and D199 appear, it’s extremely crowded so book ahead! Summer brings many special excursions, September features Teddy Bear’s Day, and autumn often brings daytrips on the Green Train to Somerset, Dorset, Canterbury and Cambridge. Weekends in December find Santa aboard on several outings and the Christmas week in especially busy.
Become an Engineer & Stay Aboard
The Mid-hants Railway Preservation Society is proud of remaining open 364 days a year, and thanks to the many volunteers, even if the train isn’t running, there are always classic stations and old engines to see. Your teens and teens-at-heart over 16 can actually ride on an engine with a driver on a guided “Footplate Experience Sampler Ride.” The 1½ -hour thunderingly noisy and steamy journey requires a minimal level of physical fitness, clothing to cover arms and legs and durable shoes; the fee is $75 and advance reservations are required.
If you’re as charmed as we were, stay the night in Alresford, a classic Georgian town deep in the English countryside only a few minutes’ walk from the station. Local sights include the 12th century Old Alresford Pond and historic Broad Street, now lined with fishmongers, butchers, bakers, and designer clothing boutiques.
Totally charming local accommodations include a few B&Bs, the 23-room Swan Hotel (01962/73 23 02) in town, and the Hunters Restaurant and Inn (01962/73 24 68), with three rooms above a popular English tavern; double room rates from $55 and up B&B. Alresford Tourist Information is available by calling 01962/84 05 00.
Overnight in Winchester
Winchester, just 7 miles away, is a much larger city and a fascinating destination in its own right. Attractions include its famous Cathedral and the Cathedral Close dating from the 11th century. Within this landscaped historic core are Winchester College, the grave of author Jane Austen, locale of the poet John Keat’s ode ‘To Autumn’, several Medieval sites including the remains of Wolvesey Castle, and the original Bishop’s courthouse.
The city boasts several excellent military history and art museums (including the Gurkha Museum about the venerable Nepali troops who served the British Crown), galleries, thehistoric pedestrian-only High Street filled with shops and cafes, and many heritage trails. Break up the sightseeing with a visit to the enormous pool and water slide, fitness facilities, nursery and children’s play areas at the River Park Leisure Centre (01962/86 95 25), open daily.
Contact the Winchester Tourist Information Centre in Guildhall (01962/84 05 00; email [email protected] for more information about accommodations, local guided tours, and the nifty Park & Ride system, which enables visitors to hop on and off the local buses all day for a small fee.
You can correspond with the Thomas and Friends at The Mid-hants Watercress Line The Railway Station, Alresford Hampshire. SO24 9JG. England or make reservations via phone (44/1962/73 38 10) or fax (44/1962/73 54 48.) Also visit www.watercressline.co.uk.
To reach Shining Time Station from London, take the South West Trains (schedule information at 0345/48 49 50) direct from Waterloo Station via Woking to Alton. Cross the footbridge to platform 3 to join the Watercress Line. The Alton service also connects at Aldershot with trains from Guildford. You can also travel to the Winchester Station and take the bus to Alresford from City Road.
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