There are over 150 heritage railways and museums in the UK. Here are some of the best ways to ensure that you make the most out of visiting steam railways with kids.
1. Double check the directions
Some heritage railways are notoriously tricky to find or are best walked to from a car park or similar a little way away. Although heritage railways’ websites are of varying quality, they should all have a sat nav reference or postcode for you to head for. Alternatively, look up ways to reach them via normal rail. And then double check: more than one heritage railway warns not to follow its ‘normal’ postcode as they use a PO Box and your day will be a visit to the Post Office.
2. Know what to expect
Is the attraction you are visiting a narrow gauge or standard gauge railway? What does it have in addition to the railway line? And are there any special events on that the kids might like (or not, as the case may be)? All this detail can be found out on the attraction’s website or by calling ahead. If you have already arrived, speak with the staff at the attraction as they are frequently the friendliest around and can help you enjoy the day to the full.
3. Don’t try to do too much
Especially with younger children, it is unlikely that you will be able to see everything the larger heritage railways have to offer, or visit every station. If you are visiting a railway for the first time, check the timetable and literature/website. Plan out how much time you want to spend on the train and how much you want to do at the stations, museums and other attractions that are there too. Ask the staff about which are the main stations and what there is to do at each. Tell them how much time you have and they might be able to advise you on how best to fill the time and what not to miss for your age child/children.
4. Be on time
Compared with normal trains in the UK, heritage railways keep to their timetables impeccably. It’s a source of pride for the often volunteer staff who run the operations. So while the staff at heritage railway are extremely friendly and will try to ensure everyone gets on, don’t expect too many favours if you rush through the ticket office with a tribe in tow trying to catch a train with a minute to spare. The kids won’t thank you either.
5. What and where will you eat?
Sounds simple but there are any number of options. There are often cafes and restaurants at the heritage railways and museums but this can be a great expense and some will be very busy at lunchtimes. Eating on the train is great provided the kids are clean eaters. Alternatively sit on a platform, play park, garden or somewhere else that overlooks the railway and watch a few trains roll by why you eat your, er, rolls. One further idea is to tie your trip up with a visit to a local pub or restaurant. At the Spa Valley Railway, for instance, you can sit at High Rocks station with a beer or coke from the pub, eat their food or your own sandwiches and watch the train pass by.
6. Avoid shops if you want to
All but the smallest railway attractions have a shop. Before you know it you’ve spent another £20 on a BigJigs wooden engine, Thomas DVD and fridge magnets. If you want to avoid the pressure that kids can put on you to buy stuff from shops, avoid the shops altogether.
7. Find quizzes or other worksheets
Visits to heritage railways and museums are a lot of fun. They can be even more fun if the attraction you are visiting has a quiz sheet or similar. If your children’s interest wanes, or you have kids of varying ages, ask the staff whether they have any worksheets or quizzes for the kids. If you want to be really prepared, download the Great Railway Treasure Hunt sheets as suggested here.
8. Let the kids guide you
It’s fascinating what children find fascinating. If you’re headed to a steam railway, it’s likely your child or children love trips on trains, steam engines and railways. However, even after visiting the same one several times there can be a lot more to explore. If you follow your child rather than a map, you will inevitably find unexpected parts and see things from their perspective.
9. Consider the weather
Heritage railways and transport museums can actually be great rainy day activities. However, if the day is cold and wet bear in mind that soggy clothes, steaming up windows and poor views might just mean a trip on a steam train may need to wait.
10. Pack sensibly (and the camera)
Unless your children are particularly young or you’re planning to go for an extra walk, consider leaving the pushchair in the car. Even many of the narrow gauge railways will take pushchairs on them but it can be more hassle than it is worth. Furthermore, there might not be that much room on narrow gauge trains in particular for bulky bags. Don’t forget the camera.
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