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Colne Valley Railway

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Colne Valley Railway is an award winning period country Railway and real family attraction. Take a ride on a restored steam train and meet Queen Victoria. Experience the delights of Victorian Life at this wonderful Experience.

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      07.11.2003 12:30
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      My daughter has recently been studying the Victorian Era as part of her education, a period of History that has always fascinated me, and on which I devour books, television programmes and any articles I can find. I was lucky enough to be asked to accompany a trip to the ?Victorian Special? with a group of nine and ten year olds this week, from my daughter?s school. The ?Victorian Special? is held at Colne Valley Railway, in Hedingham, Essex, which is seven miles North-West of Braintree, and is situated on the A1017 between Sible Hedingham and Great Yeldham. Bus services are not available to the attraction, which can only be reached by car. Tourist signposts clearly mark the route to be taken. Colne Valley Railway has long been a popular attraction in the East of the region, and offers various special events throughout the year. Train rides are available, in lovingly restored steam engines, along a pretty country railway. The site offers a large collection of vintage steam and diesel engines, including carriages and wagons, that can be explored at your leisure. The basic premise of the ?Victorian Special? attraction, is that all visitors will be transported back to the Victorian period, and will experience the food, the culture, and the day to day living of Victorian people. Victorian costume MUST be worn to visit the attraction, and we hired ours from a local Theatre company. Although the attraction is only open for three days per year, during September and October, it is now in its eighteenth year, and is proving to be more popular as each year passes. Ticket prices are £6.50 per person (adult or child) but if large parties, such as schools, are booking, there is an offer whereby one person in eleven goes free, for parties which amount to more than 33 persons. It is imperative to book in advance, and this can be done by telephoning 01787 461174 or visiting the website at http://www.colnevalleyrailway.co.uk/education_vi
      ctorian.php It should also be noted, that although the admission prices are very reasonable, it will be necessary to hire or make a costume for the event. A large car park is situated to the front of the attraction, and people are on hand to direct drivers to appropriate spaces. On entering the complex, we were greeted with the sight of small children skipping around in Victorian costume, boys dressed as chimney sweeps, girls dressed in long sleeved dresses, with pinafores and mop hats. Women bustle around in long dresses, with large petticoats beneath, rustling as they walk. Parasols and feathered hats abound, and many men can be picked out easily from the crowd, due to the presence of black top hats. The richer men will wear gold watches tucked into the pockets of their suits, while the poorer males, wear trousers that are worn, and even have holes in places. There are a number of attractions at the complex, for which you will be assigned a time to attend, throughout the course of the day, and this will be done when you enter the ticket office, which is situated in a small marquee at the entrance. As we were on a school trip, our wicker baskets or plain brown boxes or bags, containing our lunch, were put in a large marquee, for collection at our allotted lunch time. However, there is a buffet car available for adults wishing to partake in lunches. This is situated in a restored railway carriage, situated on the platform, and sells a selection of sandwiches, home made cakes, hot snacks, and a selection of beverages. Children?s lunch boxes can also be purchased. Our first event was a trip on a vintage Pullman steam train. Boys were reminded to remove their hats on boarding the train, and were also told to let the female members of their party board first. I do not envy the Victorian women. Trying to board a train, with a long dress, underneath which is stitched a full petticoat, is not an experience I would care to repeat, as it w
      as very difficult to retain any dignity. Once seated, the children were told to remain quiet, and not to speak to any adult, unless they were asked a question. It was difficult to find space for two small children beside me, as my skirt was so full, but we managed. The interior of the train is just as it would have been in the late 1800?s, and the children were all fascinated by the highly polished wooden tables, that they were not allowed to rest their hands or elbows upon, otherwise they would be deemed impolite. The train had just begun to leave the station, when a booming voice reverberated around the coach. A lieutenant of the army entered the carriage, dressed in a bright red uniform, complete with ceremonial sword. The children all appeared suitably worried, and I must admit he was quite a formidable character. The lieutenant wandered the length of the carriage, asking questions to some of the children, such as what were their ambitions once they grew up. The boys had already been instructed to say they would like to join the armed forces, but all appeared very nervous when replying, and several stumbled over their prepared responses. ?Queen Victoria? then made a grand entrance, into our carriage. Unfortunately, the lady chosen to play the role was short in stature, and had a small frame, which disappointed me somewhat. She also spoke in a very soft voice, which was slightly disconcerting, as I have always been lead to believe that the great Queen was short, very portly, and of a waspy personality. However, she travelled the length of the carriage, with her gray hair in a soft bun at the nape of her neck, and her black mourning skirt sweeping along the floor, talking to the children, and asking them questions about their lives, such as if they were still at school, or had they been sent out to work. The children?s faces were a joy to behold. They gazed at her in wonderment and I suspect for a moment, some really believed that they were talki
      ng to Queen Victoria herself. ?Princess Alexandra? was the last person to appear, and was the best character by far. Not only did the lady playing the part resemble the princess facially, but her clothes were exquisite. An aquamarine dress, with matching shawl, and ostentatious jewellery, set off with a beautiful tiara, made her a vision of beauty. The children were completely captivated by her presence. All too soon, the train ride came to an end, and we then walked (children are reminded that there is no pushing, shouting or running at any time) to the marquee where a military talk was to take place. Sergeant Hook proceeded to tell the group that on January 12th, 1879, he was part of a troop of British Army soldiers who had set up camp at Isandhlwana in Natal. A map was displayed on the wall, together with a plan of the camp. A group of Zulu warriors stormed the camp, and killed over 800 officers and men. Sergeant Hook told of the horrific experience, and how he overcame all odds to survive, with a small number of other soldiers and patients housed in the hospital at the camp. No grisly detail was spared, including how Zulu?s speared their victims, and a list of the horrific injuries sustained, and the means by which some of the soldiers met their death. We were treated to a demonstration of a rifle used by the British Army at the siege, complete with instructions on how to use the bayonet. The children were fascinated with the talk, and not only was Sergeant Hook more than happy to answer questions, he told his story in an interesting and informative manner, which served to hold the interest of all in the room. The children were also shown a Victoria Cross, awarded for bravery, and also various weapons used during battles, among them a quite formidable looking Zulu spear. The children were told how the Zulu?s would not be able to throw their spears as they were top heavy, but would instead plunge them into the stomach of thei
      r victim, as this was the most fleshy area of the body, containing no bone. Not one of the children feigned disinterest in the talk, and many questions were asked to Sergeant Hook, when it reached it?s end. We then visited three traction engines on the site. One of the engines was working, and children were allowed to sit in all engines on show, as well as being allowed to clamber over their bodies, and ascend ladders. Of course, this part of the attraction is quite oily and greasy, which only added to the fun experienced. Children were encouraged to play with the levers at the signal box, whereby they could change the colours of the lights, and also the signals themselves. I would imagine that all signal box workers possessed strong arm muscles, as some poor children needed a friend to help them haul the levers backwards and forwards. This attraction proved to be very popular, as did the stocks, were children could insert their arms into the small holes, and attach themselves to the chain shackles on the side of the contraption. A small piece of railway track was set out within a fenced enclosure, having an axle with two wheels placed on the rails. To this was tied a thick piece of rope, which snaked through the fence, and children were encouraged to hold the thick piece of wood at the rope?s end end, and try to move the wheels up the track. As the axle was made of iron, this was not a particularly easy exercise, but the children thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and excited whoops and shouts could be heard at this part of the attraction. It is very difficult to expect children from the 21st Century to behave like Victorians, and to be seen and not heard at times when they want to compete against each other to see who is the stronger! Our next visit was to a Punch and Judy theatre show. This took place in a large marquee, which also formed the Old Fashioned Music Hall, which we visit later on in the review. The interior of the
      marquee was decked out with row upon row of chairs, and the puppet theatre was positioned to the left hand side of a large stage. The gentleman operating the puppets gave the children a brief talk on the history of Punch and Judy, and demonstrated the small contraption, which when placed into the mouth, allows the person to imitate the squeaky voice of Mr. Punch. The children were enthralled by the antics of Mr. Punch, particularly when he placed the baby into the sausage machine, and of course, the presence of the crocodile, who nearly succeeded in biting off the head of Mr. Punch. During this part of the day, the children were encouraged to let go and enjoy themselves, and they certainly did not disappoint. The noise was deafening, as shouts of ?Oh no he didn?t?, ?Oh yes he did? and ?He?s behind you? reverberated around the marquee. We made our way to the Market Stall Marquee, in which items of a Victorian nature were for sale. Of course, I had to sample some apple flapjacks, which were delicious, and only cost five pence. I can?t help thinking that all the food items here were ridiculously under-priced, but of course the children were in their element, as they had been allowed to take a small amount of spending money, and were able to buy lots of food produce for the amount of money they had with them. As well as food, including cakes, buns, biscuits and muffins, toys from the Victorian era were also on sale, and we purchased a cup and ball set for £2.50. A wooden ball is attached by a piece of thick sting to a small wooden cup shaped holder, and the idea is to flick the contraption, and catch the ball in the cup. Some 20 hours later, I have still not managed to catch the ball. We also bought a slate with a writing implement, which seemed to be the most popular purchase of the day. Various schools had stalls within the marquee, at which they were selling crafts from the Victorian era, such as small scented cushions, in order to raise funds for their esta
      blishments. All purchases were packed in brown paper bags for the customer to take home. This marquee was extremely busy at all times, but was a wonderful experience. Small children walking through throngs of people, carrying wicker baskets displaying their ware and shouting to the shoppers, encouraging all to buy their produce, made me feel I was back in Victorian England. It was now lunch time. We retrieved our boxes, brown paper bags, or wicker baskets and had the choice of sitting around trestle tables in the market stall marquee, or sitting outside in the sunshine. We decided to take our lunch outside, and spent three quarters of an hour eating. Children had all been encouraged to bring food that would have been eaten in the 1800?s: bread, sausage rolls, eggs, pork pies, cakes, biscuits and fruit were allowed, but no fizzy drinks, apart from lemonade. A suitable drinking receptacle was needed, and Amber and I transported our water and lemonade in a Grolsch bottle, which was ideal for the occasion. No flasks or plastic drinking bottles were allowed, although some children?s parents had cheated by covering plastic bottles in brown paper. Our next port of call was the Music Hall, situated in the same marquee in which the Punch and Judy show had taken place earlier in the day. A large gentleman with grey hair and a bushy beard introduced the festivities, later accompanied by a lady who would not sing a note, and screeched her way through a number of songs. Children had been learning the old time songs such as ?Daisy Daisy? and ?I do like to be beside the seaside? at school before the visit, and they all sang along admirably, fully entering into the spirit of the occasion. For those who visit, and are not part of a school trip, programmes detailing the songs are laid out on the chairs before each performance, so there is no excuse for not taking part. We then made our way over the railway bridge to the exhibitions taking place held in rest
      ored railway carriages. We clambered up into a coach containing row upon row of sorting holes, where mail used to be stored, before being delivered to its recipient. The children enjoyed sitting on the small, uncomfortable, wooden seats in front of the pigeon holes, and re-enacted the part of a person frantically putting the letters in the correct slots. There were a great deal of unrecognisable place names in the holes, but we were able to identify some that were familiar to all of us. The children were told how the mail was transported to homes, as well as being shown old stamps, including a penny black. The gentleman who showed us around the carriage, was eager to answer any questions, and it was possible to buy old stamps and Victorian coins form him, for a small sum. The Salvation Army exhibition was a popular attraction, particularly for the girls in the party, of which unfortunately I only had two. Two ladies dressed in Salvation Army uniforms, gave a brief talk on the history and the work of the Salvation Army, and then each participant was given a tambourine, and after a little instruction, were taken out onto the railway platform, where they were encouraged to play their instrument, after watching the two ladies. This caused great hilarity (although suitably smothered) amongst the boys, particularly if the girls made a mistake, and was greeted with smiles by the passers by. The next carriage we approached had a ?Co-operative Society? sign outside, and a short, portly man, with hug rosy cheeks stood outside, with his hands on his ample hips. One of my group started to enter the carriage, and was asked in a booming voice ?Did I say you could enter my shop? Are you a member?? The poor lad suitably chastised, apologised profusely. We were then invited in to the carriage, which was set out as though in a Victorian shop. Hessian sacks of flour were on the dusty wooden floor, and a very strict, foreboding lady, with tight pursed lips, demonstrat
      ed how the Victorian shopkeepers fashioned bags out of a sheet of paper, by which the customers would transport their flour, sugar and other similar goods home. The children were then encouraged to sign their names on the ?Co-operative Society Membership Form? with a Victorian quill pen, and they all clutched their certificates, before beating a hasty retreat from the carriage. As we negotiated the busy platform, and took in the smells of coal and fire from the steam trains, we approached a railway engine, which the children were allowed to clamber inside, and inspect the workings of the train. A very stern looking engine driver, showed them how the engine worked, and they all alighted covered in coal dust, much to their delight. As the last visit of the day was to the Victorian classroom, we hurriedly went to the toilets, to wash our hands, in case they were inspected by the teacher. For those children who had older brothers and sisters, the thought of visiting the classroom was nerve racking. Stories had been told by their siblings, of ferocious teachers, who had canes and sticks, and would not tolerate any impertinent behaviour from the children in their ?school?. Amber?s eyes were as wide as saucers, as the children formed an orderly line, girls one side, boys the other, to wait for their ?teacher?. A very stern looking lady, hair nipped tight in a bun, emerged from the classroom and escorted the children inside, where they were made to recite their four times table. Hands were duly inspected, to ensure that they were clean, and the children were instructed not to slouch at their desks. The end of the lesson was greeted with audible sighs of relief. Overall, I would thoroughly recommend the experience, and next year I shall definitely visit again, with my daughter. I would imagine that anyone with an interest in History, would enjoy the day, and for children there is no better learning experience, than taking part and re-enacting the r
      oles of people from a different era, so that they have a better understanding of the experiences during that time. Also, to spend a day with children that are quiet and polite, for the majority of the day, who respected their elders and displayed impeccable manners, was an absolute joy to experience. Our bus journey home was eventful, with the children talking excitedly about their day out. All seemed to have enjoyed the experience immensely, and many of the children were seen scribbling away frantically on the slates they had purchased during their visit, or playing with the Victorian toys. If you have enjoyed reading about the experience, and would like further details, these can be obtained by telephone or by the website. Unfortunately the next Victorian Special will now not be held until 2004, but I would thoroughly recommend it. Colne Valley Railway, Yeldham Road, Castle Hedingham, Essex. CO9 3DZ Tel: 01787 461174 www.colnevalleyrailway.co.uk

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