By Jo Finzi
There’s something about a steam train that lifts the heart and inspires the spirit. It’s a mixture of dirty smoke, sooty smells and grimy faces - but as soon as the steam rises, the whistle hoots and the power of the engine is unleashed, you’re in another world and another time.
And that’s the secret of the Christmas Santa specials. They transport you, not only along the miles of privately owned-track, but back 50 or more years in time, bringing back some of the magic and excitement of a “real” Christmas.
All over Britain, hundreds of volunteers have grouped together and now run more than two hundred steam centres. Many of the trains were found wrecked and have been lovingly, expensively and painstakingly restored to their original condition, from before the nationalisation of rail in 1948.
In many cases, the track has had to be acquired and maintained and impressive viaducts made safe for the weight of the massive trains and coaches. Stations and signal boxes display with pride the old world charm, made possible by the work of volunteers.
If being an engine driver appeals to you, or sounds like the perfect present, then courses are available at many of these railways. The Severn Valley Railway offers “footplate experience” courses from Dhs1,900 to Dhs5,700 for the more advanced.
Most people, however, are quite content to sit back and enjoy the scenery. And what scenery! These preserved lines travel through some of the loveliest in Britain. There’s the Bluebell Railway in Sussex - where the Reverend Awdry set that most beloved of trains, Thomas the Tank Engine - the Watercress Line in Hampshire, the Swanage Railway in Dorset, Keighley & Worth Valley in Yorkshire, Ffestinog and Welsh Highland Railways in Wales, and the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway in Scotland.
Many of them offer the opportunity to dine in style on board one of the luxury Pullmans. The Kent & East Susex Railway owns a Pullman car called “Barbara” built in 1926 and still with its original parquetry panelling. Several also run murder mystery events on the train - your very own Murder on the Orient Express.
And if you want to celebrate Christmas in style, what better way than on a steam train? Most offer Santa specials for children - so you can enjoy the magic of Christmas through children’s eyes as a wondrous dragon of steam transports you into a magical Christmas land.
Alternatively, simply relax with carols and mince pies or take a special Christmas lunch in the style of yesteryear. For a full list of train treats, go to: http://www.silversurfers.net/travel-railsteam.html