As you all know my son has a December birthday and is mad about steam trains. Since his second birthday we’ve always celebrated the date with a trip on a train, be it a Days out with Thomas or a Santa Special event. He’s always loved it and we’ve travelled far and wide each year experiencing the day on different heritage lines. But with Santa Specials you get one train ride and it doesn’t always cover the whole route of the railway. I had a conversation with my son a few months ago about maybe doing something a little different for his ninth birthday. Still involving his beloved steam trains but maybe not around his actual birthday weekend. He agreed so I was left with the challenge of finding his early birthday treat. I struck gold and knew we could spend a day making memories on the Bluebell Railway in East Sussex.
Do you ever have moments where everything just falls into place and is just meant to be? Well this trip has been one of those moments for us.
My son has been asking to visit the Bluebell Railway for a few years, but it’s quite a drive and the timing has never been quite right. When I started looking at different options for a new take on his birthday treat, I realised that actually this would work. We were going to be free on the weekend the Bluebell Railway was holding their Giants of Steam gala, and then I noticed the guest loco that would be visiting for the event. My son is obsessed with the A4 class of locomotives and has seen Mallard at the museum in York, and has been lucky enough to ride behind Sir Nigel Gresley, Bittern and Union of South Africa over the last few years. Union of South Africa is retiring from service in April 2019 but would be running in October on the Bluebell Railway.
Tickets booked, and we decided to keep the location of our trip a secret. My son thought we’d be going on his birthday trip over half term and was totally taken in when I told him we were going to see some gardens last Sunday. Two and half hours into the car journey (don’t you just love motorways) he’d seen a sign but still didn’t really believe that we weren’t going to the gardens instead. It wasn’t until we pulled into the car park that he truly believed we were going out for his birthday treat.
Little did he know at this point that I had a couple more surprises up my sleeve as we walked up to the station at Sheffield Park. We’d be making memories on the Bluebell Railway and he was in for a few treats.
We queued to get our tickets stamped and I wondered at what point he’d realise that Union of South Africa would be visiting the line that day. Now this boy knows everything there is to know about the A4’s and he’d spotted something on a notice board. Mummy, why’s it talking about 60009? That’s Union of South Africa (all steam locos are numbered). Mummy is it here??? Honestly, it was lovely to see the excitement written all over it.
So I explained that his beloved A4 would be running that day and we have seats booked on the lunchtime service. It would give us some time to look around the line and see the other trains running that day. We were all in need of refreshments after the drive down, and headed to the large Bessemer Arms restaurant for a really nice full English breakfast which included a hot drink for his Dad and I, whilst my son had a sausage bap and apple juice.
There’s a lot to see at the Sheffield Park station and a bit of train spotting was in order to start the day.
There’s a great fenced area at the end of the platform where you can get a good view of the trains without all the crowds and it’s totally safe too. Perfect for young train spotters to enjoy themselves.
The engine shed’s were open to explore and it’s always fascinating to get up close to engines that are in for renovation.
You can also see into the locomotive shed to see the engines that are resting.
I’d discovered something the day before our visit that I knew my son was going to love. Something else that would see him making memories on the Bluebell Railway. He has visited the Eastleigh Lakeside Railway a number of times over the years, it’s a miniature railway and it’s somewhere the two of them disappear off to every so often. But they’ve not been for ages and there is one of their locos that they’ve never seen running. Well I saw on Facebook that that particular loco was going to be on the Bluebell Railway for the weekend and it would be running. Throw in the fact that it’s a scale replica of the A4 Sir Nigel Gresley and the surprise was complete.
He was so excited, to see the loco, to ride behind it and to get me to go on with him the first time.
I opted to look on and watch from the sidelines later on in the day as he went on a ride again, camera in hand, videoing his journey. He’ll have his own Youtube channel when he’s older I’m sure.
There were a number of full size locos to enjoy during the day, and my son just loved watching them all.
There’s also a small museum on platform 2 at Sheffield Park that’s well worth a visit.
He was making memories on the Bluebell Railway but the highlight of the day for him was always going to be seeing Union of South Africa in steam again. Seeing his face, I knew we’d made the right decision to celebrate his birthday two months early. He was so excited and it’s a memory that will stay with me always. Can you spot the red coat again, one little boy with his camera poised again as the A4 came into the station.
The A4 class of loco are beautiful machines and it will be sad to see this one retiring, at the moment it’s the only one of the four that exist in the UK that’s still under steam.
The Bluebell Railway runs along an 11 mile line between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead in East Sussex, past some lovely countryside including some vineyards, which we weren’t expecting to see.
It’s a lovely journey that takes 40 minutes each way and one that’s enjoyable even on a dreary October day.
We’d spent the day making memories on the Bluebell Railway, and it had been the best of days, but there was one last treat in store for all of us. One that wasn’t planned but completed the day out perfectly. My OH had heard that the Union of South Africa driving team were letting people up onto the footplate between runs. Could we persuade my son to go up?
You might think this would be a done deal but my son is very averse to trying new things, even things we know he would love. He’d had the opportunity to stand on Bittern’s footplate a few years ago when we saw it running on the Watercress Line, but he refused point-blank. It’s always stayed in my mind that he’d live to regret that decision. So we were praying that he’d go for it this time around and realise what a precious moment it would be. He was unsure, but when he realised that we’d be allowed up with him, he was there like a shot.
Early birthday treats don’t get much better. He was on cloud nine and I hope he’ll always treasure what a special moment in his childhood this day was. It was his moment, and I’m so glad I was there to share it with him. Makes all the moments of parenthood that aren’t so perfect melt away. It’s these moments that really count.
We’d had a wonderful day on the Bluebell Line and he came home with a Guard badge to go with his flags and whistle he’s bought on previous trips. Apparently a hat is the next must have accessory to add to his collection! All I’m thinking now is how on earth am I going to top this for his tenth birthday next year!! Any suggestions gratefully received.
Also any details of heritage railway lines you think we might enjoy.