Railfans Rejoice! One of the world's very best preserved steam railway lines is within easy reach of London, and you can have a fun day riding it. I first visited this line in the summer of 1975 with the idea of filming it for a proposed travel documentary series on cable TV. That fell through, but the idea reappeared in my Great Trips guides in the late 70s, and later in my Daytrips London guidebook in 1982. What follows is from my brand new 2011 Daytrips From London guidebook
A Daytrip from London
The glorious Age of Steam is alive and well on the Bluebell Railway! People who love old trains will rejoice in this delightful trip as they ride across unspoiled countryside in antique coaches hauled by locomotives that date as far back as 1872.
No mere amusement, the Bluebell was a working standard-gauge branch line from 1882 until 1958, when it closed for economic and political reasons. Preservation by a dedicated band of amateurs began the following year, and since 1960 the railway has become one of the most popular attractions in southeastern England. Being a non-profit organization, staffed largely by volunteers, has allowed it to devote much of its income to improvements. The Bluebell's growing collection of locomotives is equaled only by the National Railway Museum in York. Not only is the rolling stock collection growing, but so is the railway itself as it pushes north to East Grinstead where it will once again connect with Southern main line service to London. It now operates trains as far as Kingscote station, just a mile and a half from the ultimate goal, offering an 18-mile round trip. For a special treat, the Bluebell also features the Golden Arrow Pullman, a train of genuine Pullman cars dating from 1924, which must be booked in advance.
As an extra bonus, the National Trust's magnificent 18th-century Sheffield Park Garden is within easy walking distance of the Bluebell's southern terminus.
Trains operated by Southern depart London's Victoria Station frequently for the 55-minute ride to East Grinstead. From there, the Bluebell Railway operates bus service 473 to and from Kingscote Station, connecting with Bluebell trains. A joint ticket from London is available. On the few weekends when this is not running you can take public bus 270 from East Grinstead to Horsted Keynes instead, but this is slow and not recommended. NOTE: The extension of Bluebell tracks and rail service to East Grinstead should be completed sometime in 2010 or so, after which the bus will no longer be needed. It is best to check schedules online at SouthernRailway.com or by phone at (08451) 27-29-20.
By Car, take the A23 and A22 south from London, going past East Grinstead, then the A275 to Sheffield Park Station and do the train trip in reverse as there is no parking at Kingscote. The total distance is about 45 miles. Going by car is preferred as it gives you more scheduling options.
Open all year, the Bluebell Railway operates daily from May through October and during local school holidays; and on weekends throughout the year. Sheffield Park Station is open for viewing even when there are no trains running, daily 11 to 4, except Christmas Day. For current schedules check their website at Bluebell-Railway.co.uk or phone (08125) 720-800. For Golden Arrow Pullman information or reservations, T: (01825) 722-801 or check the website.
It's a good idea to check the website prior to your visit as schedules vary quite a bit, and different vintage locomotives and cars are used on different days. This way you can choose a date that features the equipment you're most interested in and, if you're coming by train, a date when the connecting bus from East Grinstead operates.
Fares vary according to distance and class of service, ranging from ₤₤ to ₤₤₤₤ for roundtrips. There is a bargain family rate, and a bargain combination fare that includes transport by rail and bus from London’s Victoria Station. Also offered is a combination ticket with Sheffield Park Gardens, below. BritRail passes are not accepted on the steam line.
The Bluebell Railway is partially handicap accessible, although it is best to inquire in advance about specific needs. Dogs are welcome everywhere except in food service areas, and have their own tickets. Smoking is not allowed anywhere. There is a dress code for Golden Arrow Pullman service.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Complete inexpensive meals and snacks are available in the Puffers Restaurant (£), and snacks and real ale at the Bessemer Arms Pub (₤), both at Sheffield Park Station. The wonderful Victorian Refreshment Room (£) on platform 2 at Horsted Keynes Station serves draft beer and other beverages along with snacks. With advance reservations, you can dine aboard the luxurious Golden Arrow Pullman (£££).
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Those coming by train will begin at Southern Railway's East Grinstead Station (1). A Bluebell Railway bus leaves from the front of the station, connecting with Bluebell steam trains. This takes you two miles to Kingscote Station (2), built in the Victorian style in 1882, abandoned in 1958, and lovingly restored in 1993. NOTE that by sometime in 2010 or so the Bluebell Railway will extend all the way to East Grinstead, directly connecting there with the Southern Railway from London.
Board the train and enjoy the nine-mile *ride to Sheffield Park, the southern end of the line. Along the way you will pass the site of the former West Hoathly station before plunging into the half-mile-long Sharpthorne Tunnel (3). Next stop is Horsted Keynes (4) (photo, above), a former junction station where two lines met, and the northern terminus of the Bluebell from 1960 until 1992. There is often activity here as cars are shunted about. The carriage shed is usually busy with restoration projects on the large stock of vintage coaches. Other old cars are parked on sidings near the station; some of these may be inspected.
The journey continues to *Sheffield Park Station (5) (photo, left), the headquarters of the railway. You may visit its locomotive sheds, which house a large collection of steam engines ranging in age from over 130 years old to some built as late as 1958. On the far platform is a museum of railway relics. Those coming by car will begin their trip here at Sheffield Park, doing it in reverse.
While here, you may be interested in taking a half-mile walk to the Sheffield Park Garden (6), a lovely place with rare trees and shrubs spaced among four lakes at different levels. It was laid out by the famous landscape architect Capability Brown during the 18th century and is especially noted for its rhododendrons and azaleas in May and June, as well as for its water lilies, daffodils, bluebells, gentians, and autumn colors. T: (01825) 790-0231, W: nationaltrust.org.uk. Open March-Dec., Tues.-Sun. 10:30-5:30 or dusk; Jan.-Feb. weekends only, 10:30-4 or dusk. Open Bank Holiday Mondays. Last admission an hour before closing. ££.
Text and maps copyright © 2011 Earl Steinbicker.