Steam- and flower-power: an unlikely pairing perhaps, but at Bressingham it’s one that works magnificently. Combining working steam railways with 17 acres of delightful, colour-filled gardens – not to mention a magnificent, steam-powered Victorian carousel – this place owes its existence to the aptly named Alan Bloom, whose passion for plants was matched only by his love of all things steam-driven.
At Bressingham’s coal-fired heart are its five miles of railway, comprising three different narrow-gauge lines and a half-mile section of standard-gauge track. There are also 17 acres of managed garden containing more than 8,000 colourful species of bulbs, shrubs and trees at the last count, making this a mecca for serious gardeners and railway afficionados alike.
Hop aboard any number of steam locos and you can clank and clatter merrily around the site and out into the surrounding woods and meadows, cheery whistles marking your progress. The irresistibly dinky Alan Bloom, which operates on Bressingham’s narrow-gauge Garden Railway, was built on site in 1995; however, Cambridgeshire-born Alan’s first love was actually steam-powered traction engines.
His collection began in 1961 with the purchase of 10-ton Bertha, made in 1909 in nearby Thetford. Her sturdy charm was perhaps responsible for landing her a role in Dad’s Army – Bressingham’s Exhibition Hall houses a number of vintage vehicles and original props that featured in the locally filmed comedy. But the real star here is a looming 1909 Travelling
Post Office carriage (TPO).
It’s easy to succumb to the romance captured by WH Auden in his 1936 poem The Night Mail: the straining engine, “Snorting noisily as she passes / Silent miles of wind-bent grasses”. In truth, conditions onboard left a lot to be desired. TPOs were introduced in 1838 and their oil lamp lighting often caused respiratory problems among workers; meanwhile, thickly padded interiors testify to the turbulence that must have made this a bruising occupation.
Travelling in style
Life aboard the Royal Saloon on display at Bressingham was no doubt more sedate. Introduced in 1908 and in use until 1979, this 21m (70ft), 40-ton claret-painted carriage was built from Javan pine and features bevelled plate glass windows and gilt handles. Keeping her company is a Royal Household carriage, built in 1957 and often used by Prince Charles, and look out too for the mighty No.990 Henry Oakley. This Class C1 locomotive was built in Doncaster in 1898 and, with her Brunswick-green paintwork, appears quintessentially British. In fact, Class C1 locomotives drew influence from American engineering and were nicknamed the Klondykes after the 1896 Yukon gold rush.
The collection also includes a restored steam-powered gallopers. Built in 1900, the carousel and wooden horses are now lovingly maintained for future generations by volunteers.
But for all those who still yearn to play trains, a visit to Bressingham’s signal box is just the ticket. Built in 1841 and in use on a Suffolk branch line until 1932, its bristling bank of red, yellow and white levers no longer determine the fate of speeding trains, but their stirring labels – ‘Down Outer Home’, ‘Up Distant’ – have a poetry that Auden himself would surely have appreciated.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take Junction 9a off the M11, following the A11 to Thetford and turning on to the A1066 Bressingham is Brown Tourist Board signposted. Diss station is served by the main London-Norwich line.
FIND OUT MORE
Low Road, Bressingham, Diss, Norfolk IP22 2AA
Open every day 10.30am-4.30pm until 4 Nov; steam trains run Weds-Sun. Entry: adults £12.95, concessions £11.50, children £8.95 (on steam days).
The Fayre View
65 Denmark Street, Fair Green, Diss, Norfolk
Cosy restaurant with locally sourced fine dining options.
Bressingham Hall B&B
01379 687 243
This Georgian mansion sits in Bressingham’s Dell garden.
Redgrave and Lopham Fen National Nature Reserve
Low Common Road, South Lopham, Diss IP22 2HX
The largest fen in England is home to some rare species.