Living in North Staffordshire, we are lucky enough to have several interesting tourist attractions within easy reach. Amongst them is the Churnet Valley Railway, a heritage railway line running full sized passenger steam trains (and some diesel locomotives) across a section of restored track. We've visited the railway and travelled on a steam train several times since the line reopened as a tourist attraction, with our most recent visit being over the recent Easter bank holiday weekend.
The main railway line covers a five and a half mile stretch, running between Froghall to Leekbrook, with three stations along the route at the villages of Froghall, Consall and Cheddleton which is where we caught the train from. We paid £11 for each adult tickets. Children (over five) are normally £5 each, although the Easter weekend featured a 'kids go free' offer. All tickets are return tickets, offering the option of alighting at each station and travelling along the line as many times during the day of purchase as liked, although that is limited slightly by the frequency of the trains and I can't imagine many people do the journey more than once on the same day. I would certainly recommend alighting at each of the stations, not least because there is a pub next to each of the stations.
I suspect many of the regular visitors are adult railway enthusiasts but the line does cater for families and young children with a number of special events held throughout the year. We have previously attended a Thomas the Tank Engine themed event and also taken the kids to see Santa over the Christmas season. I must admit I was slightly disappointed with our most recent experience of the Easter Family Fun Day, where the promise of free kids' events turned out to be a selection of colouring sheets and a few lacklustre sticking and cutting activities, with all of the kids crammed into the tiny waiting room area. I suspect the organisers might have been anticipating wet weather and a poorer turn out so had chosen to hold the activities indoors, but previous years have offered better entertainment for young children, with balloon modellers and entertainment out on the platforms.
The train journey itself is a pleasant enough experience and something of a novelty for our children who very rarely ride on modern trains, let alone steam trains. The steam train does travel fairly slowly but at a nice steady pace and can be quite noisy. My two year old was a little scared when the train first came puffing and whistling into view and was a little wary about boarding it at first. He soon warmed up to it although I must confess that my oldest son (at ten) was a little bored by the whole experience.
The outward journey (Cheddleton to Froghall) is much shorter and takes around twenty minutes, on a scenic stretch through wooded countryside and alongside the banks of the Cauldon Canal. The return journey takes twice as long as the train continues past Cheddleton station and stops at Leekbrook junction, to allow the engine to turn around. This is quite a dull part of the journey, especially for the children, as passengers cannot alight at Leekbrook and there is really nothing to look at whilst waiting for the train to restart. Passengers with toddlers might want to pack a few little treats or distractions for that section of the journey and also be mindful that the train passes through quite a long stretch of tunnel which might be scary for little ones.
There is a small tearoom at both the Cheddleton and Froghall stations, with a nice selection of cakes and treats. There is car parking available at both Cheddleton and Froghall (not Consall) although the car park at Cheddleton is more of a muddy field and does get pretty busy when there are special events. There is some 'overspill' parking and some visitors also end up parking at the Boat (pub) car park which is just over the bridge. There are also toilets available at each station although my husband took the kids to the toilets at Cheddleton and was not impressed by how dirty and grimy they were.
Out of the three stations, Consall is by far the prettiest and the one where it is well worth alighting and spending a bit of time as it is right against the canal. The Black Lion is right next to the station and has a well established reputation for good quality, inexpensive home cooked meals as well as a selection of real ales. The pub is pretty difficult to access by road and, as a child, we used to walk along the length of the canal from Froghall Wharf to get to the Black Lion so travelling by steam train is much more relaxing. Both the Railway (Froghall) and the Boat (Cheddleton) also offer meals but the reputation of both pubs has suffered in recent years with various changes of ownership and periods of closure.
The railway is run entirely by dedicated volunteers, involved in everything from selling the tickets to driving the trains themselves. The CVR have also tried to involve the wider community, offering a share scheme to fund the costs of restoring some of the sections of track and rebuilding some of the stations. There are also plans to expand the line even further, restoring a route that originally went as far as the Potteries.
There is room for improvement but I do still feel that the Churnet Valley Railway is an important part of our local and national heritage and offers an alternative family day out.