A day…at the Bluebell Railway

By | Category: Travel destinations

Stepney – one of the oldest locomotives which dates back to the 1870’s

One of the oldest preserved railway in the world, the Bluebell Railway began its public life in 1960, three years before Dr Beeching’s axe fell on the railway network.

Located in largely in west Sussex, the line runs from East Grinstead where it adjoins the mainline service to London Victoria and Sheffield Park some eleven miles away. Coincidentally it was to the outskirts of East Grinstead that Dr Beeching retired and his house on the main Eastbourne road was widely known to locals. I don’t remember him as being a very popular figure in the town but then, I don’t remember him behind seen in the local shops either. But the Bluebell railway was known and the hope was that, one day, the line would be extended as far as the town, an event which occurred just five years ago. Today, a portion of the bypass of the town is called Beeching Way but locals called it the Beeching Cut.

at Horsted Keynes station

It was into this changing railway landscape that the Bluebell Railway grew up in. Whilst other railways closed, the Bluebell strove to survive saving engines, carriages, buildings, memorabilia and persuading others to loan what they had to the sheds at Sheffield park, its southernmost tip.

Toda the railway has more engines and rolling stock than any other location in the UK other than the National Railway Museum in York.

When I first went there in the late 1970’s, parking was often on the roadside and visitors consisted of fanatics, little boys grown up who still remembered their Hornby railway sets and  children who were taken by their parents to see how transport was in their day. There were few places in those days where you could see steam for the rapid growth in preserved railways had yet to really begin. Fuelled by the enduring popularity of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, heritage railways attracted the young and the old and the Bluebell, just like all those other heritage railways has Thomas days to entice the younger generation to visit which is what attracted my two to visit the Bluebell when they were young.

Up until the line reached East Grinstead about 60,000 visitors a year would visit the Bluebell. After the line was extended to the town and abutted the main line service the numbers shot up to 250,000 indicating once again just how valuable and important public transport can be in getting to attractions not just heritage railways.

stopping off at Horsted Keynes to vew the carriage shed

For those starting off at East Grinstead, largely a commuter town but one which will forever be linked to the pioneering work done by Sir Archibald McIndoe at the local hospital on helping to deal with burns and body reconstruction  during the second world war. Today a statue to the great man stands in the town. Apart from the alms houses, the town is better suited as a base for exploring the surrounding countryside such as the Ashdown Forest to the south of the town where the Winnie the Pooh stories are set, Churchill’s home at Chartwell, General Wolfe’s Quebec House at Westerham where he was born and Rudyard Kipling’s at Batemans.

Catching the train south leads you to Kingscote (no parking here for visitors) and Horsted Keynes where a brand new shed is being constructed for the rolling stock for this is where the carriage restoration takes place. Enter one of the existing sheds and you will see (if you visit at the moment) some century- old carriages in a stripped down state ready for restoration.

in the restoration shed

The village seems to have shrunk since my first visit with no garage (I pulled in once to find the comedian, Jimmy Edwards filling up his Mercedes estate with diesel there) anymore and I am sure I remember some shops. The church is the resting place of former prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who lived nearby.

Eagle-eyed readers may spot that Horsted Keynes is better known as Downton station in the television series, Downton Abbey, but then many parts of the Bluebell have been used in film and television series. At this station you will find a display of railway oriented art, a carriage used as an area for children to play and which used to be a specially made carriage used for transporting elephants!

changing ends for the return journey

For many years this station was the end of the line and train travellers who came here might also have visited nearby Wakehurst  which although owned by the National Trust is run and funded by Kew Gardens. In Spring the visitors to Wakehurst appear in their tens of thousands to see the blooms as the flower one after another through the year and many head over to the big car park at Horsted Keynes to add a train journey to round of the day.

Nearby is the village of Ardingly (pronounced Arding lie) where the South Of England Show takes place in early June and where many antique fairs take place. At some stage in the future the Bluebell might be extended to the village as a line from Haywards Heath once linked the village to Horsted Keynes and the railway owns the track-bed.

Sir Archibald Sinclair photgraphed a few years ago

Sheffield Park still remains the centre of the Bluebell Railway. Here you can see locomotives like Stepney and Fenchurch which date back almost150 years as well as newer ones such as Sir Archibald Sinclair named after one of Harold Macmillan’s wartime colleagues and which is now undergoing renovation. Here you will also find a loco which operated the Golden Arrow service in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Having a second cousin who was the engine driver gave me a special status when I was at school as an engine driver was a role that many a school child coveted at a time when the Golden Arrow was deemed glamorous.

The railway museum is here along with a shop, a signal box that you can go inside, a pub and a large parking area because, once you get here, you do tend to stay for a few hours walking around the sheds and seeing the changing styles of different locomotives.

a view from the line

To make the entire journey from Sheffield Park to East Grinstead and back you need to allow forty minutes each way plus twenty in East Grinstead. Get off at one of the intermediate stops to visit and a half day quickly goes before you even think of visiting any of the sheds or nearby sites.

With so much to see and so many nearby places to visit (I haven’t even mentioned the National Trust’s Sheffield Park  and Garden which are renowned for the autumn colour and have recovered from the effects of the 1987 hurricane) a day either flies by or you decide you need to spend much longer in this little patch of the old county of Sussex and save a little bit of sightseeing for the next day… or even the day after that!

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