“ Enjoy a 2.25 mile stretch of beautiful scenery from Alston, Cumbria to Kirkhaugh, Northumberland on one of the steam or diesel hauled passenger trains. „
As a Family we have built up a few annual family traditions, yearly must do's. I suspect most families do. One of ours, and possibly the most favourite and eagerly looked forward to is a Christmas visit to the South Tynedale Railway at Alston, Cumbria.
~ About South Tynedale Railway ~
The South Tynedale Railway is a 2 and a quarter mile track from Alston in Cumbria to Kirklaugh in Northumberland through the beautiful South Tynedale valley. Alston railway station sits 875 feet above sea level, in some of the countries most beautiful scenery, and is the highest narrow gauge railway in Northern England.
The train which operates along this line is a steam and diesel hauled passenger train. The South Tynedale railway is operated, managed and maintained by volunteers.
The railway operates a passenger service between April and November, and a seasonal 'Santa Special' on weekends in December. It is the Santa railway rides which we as a family have enjoyed for the previous 4 years.
~ Visiting The South Tynedale Railway ~
As I just mentioned, we have visited the railway at Christmas for the last 4 years, but last year was the most enjoyable and magical as my daughter had just turned four and now understood Santa and Christmas.
We arrived by car, one crisp December Saturday, and immediately ran into a problem. The car park was full and we were forced to park on a hilly and bendy country road outside the train station. My Dad was a bit concerned about the car, and things set of to a bit of a tense start.
We arrived onto the adorable old fashioned Victorian train station just as a steam train was leaving. We were a bit put out with each other again, as it was bitterly cold on the station and a very frosty day, we were informed when buying our tickets from the ticket booth in the gift shop that the next train would be in 50 minutes and we really wished we had timed it better and looked up the time table on the Internet. We were well wrapped up and so bought our tickets and waited. I can't remember the exact price but a ticket to ride the train, and the extras (which I will get to later) cost around £12 for me and my daughter. I suspect that riding it out of the Christmas season and without the seasonal extras will cost less.
Finally our train arrived and we were perished! However this is a very old steam train, with wooden benches and no heating so don't look forward to warming up!. Each carriage has seating for around 20 passengers and it is quite tiny. There is no way you would be able to fit a pushchair on, although on the previous occasions when I had taken a pushchair there was a secure locked room to store it on the station. I would advise wheelchair users to contact the station prior to visiting. The carriage was all decked out with Christmas decorations and there was an overall jovial atmosphere, it's very exciting!.
The train set off with a toot toot after a traditional looking station guard blew a huge silver whistle. The train ride takes you along some of the most gorgeous and dramatic scenery, which with the frost was further enhanced in beauty and so very christmassy. It was definitely worth the wait and the cold. The North Penines can be seen from the train, and we also passed over a pretty viaduct which marks the boundary between Cumbria and Northumberland.
We arrived at Kirklaugh and were able to get off the train for 5 minutes before the return journey. There is nothing at this station other than the platform (although I believe in summer there is a refreshment stall for people who don't want to make the return journey straight away and investigate the area.) It's still well worth getting out though, as the views are stunning and it's charming to see the little steam engine detach from the carriages, turn around and come back to attach itself to the other end. My daughter loves seeing this, she thought it was James from Thomas the tank engine, as commercial passenger trains just aren't as interesting these days.
Now for the return journey and another chance to see the marvelous scenery. Having rode this Santa train before hand, I knew to make sure we were seated on the left coming back. Just before you arrive at back at the station, outside of a hanger at the edge of the station, someone is waiting to welcome you back. Yes, it's Santa, waving at the train! This is a lovely touch and my daughter was open mouthed. I have to say even at 31 years old I was excited and had a bit of a lump in my throat at just how great it was for her.
if you are riding during the summer months, then this will be the end of your journey. However the fun didn't end there on the Santa special, as we were shown into the hanger. inside it's a child's Christmas wonderland with millions of lights and decorations and Santa's Grotto. As we were last in, there was a huge que to see Santa, so we headed over to the refreshments area. The refreshments are included in the price of your Santa special train ticket and I had a much appreciated hot cup of coffee and mince pie, while my daughter had apple juice and a biscuit. We then joined the diminished que to see Santa, and this itself was quite impressive. The grotto was done out really nicely...far better than some high street stores efforts (yes, Debenhams!) and Santa was a lovely traditional looking bloke, who put my daughter at ease easily and really played the part. I was almost convinced myself!. My daughter received a wrapped up gift, after been asked her age, and once outside she tore into it to find a doll similar to a Barbie style. it wasn't the best quality doll, but nice enough. other times when we visited she always received an age appropriate gift, ranging from a shape sorter when a baby to an abc flip board game when she was 3.
After all that excitement we were ready to go home and warm up! Before we did we bought some raffle tickets, with proceeds going to a nearby hospice. I don't seem to have won though as despite leaving my number on the tickets nobody called.
~ Conclusion ~
As you can probably gather I adore visiting the Santa special at South Tynedale Railway. As I'm a big kid at heart I enjoy it as much as my daughter, although it's seeing her excitement and amazement that does it.
It's a unique way to see Santa, it's so quaint and traditional in feel, I can't help but fall in love with the day.
The volunteers do a fantastic and professional job running the railway and have to be greatly admired. At present they are fundraising to extend the track, which they will build themselves!
If I can offer any advice it would be to check out the times of the trains, as in December it is bitterly cold here being so high above sea level. I would also recommend you wrap up well too as the train doesn't offer much in comfort either! There are some lovely little tea shops and pubs in Alston, just 5 minutes walk away if you find you have miss timed things.
£12 for an adult and a child may seem expensive at first thought, however the train ride itself lasts 50 minutes, and with the Santa visit, gift and refreshments all included I think it was well worth it for a magical 2 hours. The only thing that could have made it better would have been snow, though I can't hold the STR responsible there!
Although I've never visited in summer I'd image the scenery and train ride would be equally as stunning and magical and well worth a visit if your in the area.
For us, well we will continue to visit the Santa Special at Christmas until my daughter no longer wants to go. Even then I'll probably borrow someone else's young child to take along. I definitely recommend it.
~ Other Information ~
South Tynedale Railway, Alston, Cumbria, CA9 3JB.
Telephone 01434 381696.
5 minutes walk from the centre of Alston, Cumbria.
More information including timetables, current prices, history of the railway and contact info can be found at www.strps.org.uk