Modern public transport, with its frequent delays, overcrowding and vandalism, is a gritty reality that many of us
face on a daily basis. We long for the elegant approach to travel from decades gone by – and I’m happy to say that the Bluebell Railway has it by the brass bucket-load.
Arriving by train to the railway’s home in Sussex underlines the difference even more. As soon as I entered the line’s beautifully preserved Kingscote station, after a short bus ride from East Grinstead, I relaxed. My first urge was to turn off any phones or electronic devices – this is a place for escaping the fripperies of modern life.
Everything here looks fresh and glossy, painted in this railway wonderland’s apple green and cream colour scheme, from the slatted benches in waiting rooms to the pillars and old-fashioned gas lamps on the platforms. There are other great vintage touches, including ladies’ bicycles and piles of battered leather suitcases. It’s a delightful mix of wartime imagery and the idealism of classic children’s TV.
As the shiny steam locomotive – this is more than just an engine – rolled into the station, I remembered my journey hadn’t even started yet. It’s fantastic to think that this may all have fallen in to disrepair since the 1960s, but for a group of enthusiasts who banded together to save the line.
The Bluebell Railway offers two services that run in both directions for most of the year. I boarded Service One – no flashing buttons or ‘mind the gap’ announcement, but a solid, deeply polished wooden door that I opened myself. With a handle. Inside, the small compartment looks like a film set. The seats are high and upholstered, and among luggage racks, brass knobs and beautifully typeset signs there is plenty of leg room.
With a whistle, the great beast lumbered into action once again, and the woodland and fields of the Sussex countryside started to roll by. Over the nine mile journey, we take in two other stations, Horsted Keynes and Sheffield Park, before rolling back again. For half an hour, the train moves along the tracks with a gentle sway and lovely rhythmic noisiness that’s comfortingly real – I fought to stop myself from nodding off.
Sheffield Park museum
I decided to stretch my legs at Sheffield Park, which offers refreshments in the form of pub, The Bessemer Arms, and a gift shop that would keep enthusiasts of all ages happy. It’s home to a museum of collected rail paraphernalia that tells the story of this line – including yellowing tickets, period posters and replica tracks. There’s also a fascinating engine shed, perfect for taking in the detail and scale of these sleeping giants. Some of the front wheels are about as tall as I am, and inside the driver’s box there are intricate dials, levers and handles – their greasy coatings shining in the darkness.
I boarded a different train for my return journey to Kingscote – this one is just as splendid, though slightly younger. Instead of individual compartments, there are a few larger carriages with a great communal atmosphere – two parties were enjoying birthdays in mine.
As the train rattled through a tunnel, we were plunged into genuine darkness for a few minutes – the lack of blinking overhead bulbs another welcome effect – but it was not a worrying experience. The reassuring noise and movement of the train simply made us wish all our rail journeys could still be this enchanting.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car, the best point to
join the Bluebell Railway is Sheffield Park station, which has ample parking. Follow signs along the A275. Alternatively, park
at or take the train to
East Grinstead station, where you can catch a short bus service to Kingscote station.
FIND OUT MORE
Sheffield Park Station, East Sussex, TN22 3QL
Throughout October the railway runs Autumn Tint journeys – a 1913 observation carriage offers excellent views of the changing reds, golds and browns of the season.
The Old Dunnings Mill
Dunnings Road, East Grinstead RH19 4AT
Traditional, locally sourced pub grub and plenty
Hotel & Spa
London Road, East Grinstead RH19 2BH
With two restaurants and spa facilities, you’re spoilt for choice at this relaxing hotel.
Royal Tunbridge Wells
Follow the A264 from
East Grinstead to this spa town, brimming with
more than 400 years of history. Guided walking tours take in architectural and cultural hotspots.