Travel feature: West Somerset Steam Express
Luxury trip on board a piece of history is ‘most relaxing day for a long time’
Hundreds of people gathered on platforms, bridges and in fields to catch a glimpse of the steam train as it chugged and whistled its way out of London and through the stunning countryside scenery.
It had meant absolutely nothing to me when the tickets for the West Somerset Steam Express arrived through the post a week earlier excitedly announcing that we would be hauled by a 34967 Tangmere locomotive.
But seeing so many enthusiasts lining the route, I began to appreciate it was quite a sight.
Introduced in 1945, the Battle of Britain class locomotive covered almost 700,000 miles before being withdrawn from service in 1963. It was then restored and returned to operation in 2003.
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Rail travel these days is all about getting to A to B – however, step back in time and travel on one of these nostalgic trips by The Railway Touring Company and the experience is not about the destination it takes you to, but the journey itself.
We were lucky enough to travel in premier class on our trip from London Paddington to Minehead, which meant large, luxurious comfy seats and lavish table service – recapturing the romantic image of the steam era. It felt like something out of an Agatha Christie film.
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As we set off on our journey, we were greeted with bucks fizz, tea and coffee on tap and a beautifully cooked full English breakfast, with a light lunch served a little later.
One of the first key sights was Newbury Racecourse before we started to cut deep into the countryside of Berkshire, Wiltshire and then Somerset on what was the first warm sunny day of the summer following the drenching of June and early July.
The scenery looked resplendent – doused in glowing sunshine with endless fields of cattle and sheep, rolling hills, sweeping valleys, distant forests and charming waterways. Days like this remind you how magnificent Britain really is.
Historic sights along the way included the tall red brick tower of Crofton Pumping Station, which supplies the Kennet and Avon Canal and houses the oldest working beam engine in the world, and the Westbury White Horse, a chalk figure carved into the Wiltshire hills measuring 166ft by 163 ft.
But the best views were to come once we transferred onto the West Somerset Railway line at Bishops Lydeard, where locomotives were also changed. Opened in 1862, the line travels all the way to Minehead, passing through the impressive Quantock Hills with Exmoor in the distance, past unspoilt villages, Dunster’s imposing castle and along the coast with views across the Bristol Channel. Quaint and lovingly preserved Victorian stations with little brick buildings, old signal boxes, shiny painted wooden signs, manicured lawns, pretty floral boxes and pristine picket fences line the route.
After leaving London at 8am, we were in Minehead at around 4.30pm and had an hour to explore this famous seaside town.
Set at the foot of the impressive North Hill, it was originally a small fishing village and still retains its pretty harbour despite becoming a bustling resort and home to Butlins.
Minehead Station itself is a highlight for any train buffs, with its rich history and turntable with viewing platform.
But for us, it was the sweeping sandy beach with views across the channel that was the main draw and provided a much welcome chance to soak up some rays during our short stop off.
Then it was back on board for the journey home. The five-course evening meal, served at our seats, was delicious.
A starter of chicken, wild mushroom and pancetta terrine with balsamic dressed salad, followed by a mouth-watering roast dinner consisting of sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding and a selection of vegetables.
It was a struggle to fit in the cheesecake dessert as well as the cheese course, but we managed.
Then it was time to sit back and relax over a glass of wine and watch the world whizz by on the journey back to London.
If anyone had told me in advance that I was going to spend some 14 hours on a train in one day, I wouldn’t have been filled with excitement. But it was in fact the most relaxing day I’ve had for a long time.
After all, when else do you get the chance to sit in a comfy chair and be waited on hand and foot while you take in some of the best views Britain has to offer?