One of my favourite post-Christmas traditions is to ride on the Watercress Line between Alresford and Alton just after the end of the Santa specials and before New Year.
My family used the Santa specials years ago when my son was younger and the present given was always a good one. The downside is these Santa trains are very popular and booking early is a must (not a downside from the Watercress Line’s viewpoint of course) but now my son is older, we can avoid all that! The post-Christmas trains are also busy but not to the same extent and booking is generally not necessary.
Image Credit: All images taken by myself
You also still get to see the trains with their Christmas decorations aboard and these look lovely.
There are plenty of decorations to see on the platforms too. And even the bike racks have a touch of tinsel about them, as do the station signs. (Though how the Christmas tree on the platform survives all the dogs visiting and doing what dogs do to trees is beyond me).
Our dog, Mabel, is not keen on train travel but is as good as gold once aboard and on the train curls up under the table. This year she had the advantage of being near the heater. She did enjoy that.
It does pay to wrap up well. Railway platforms make good wind tunnels and steam trains are lovely but you can’t realistically expect to find a modern heating system on them! I think this is one reason for the success of the cafe at Alresford station. You either want a hot drink to take on board with you, a hot meal or snack when you get off the train again, maybe both. The menu incidentally has standard sandwiches, a soup of the day, various hot drinks, sausage bap, egg bap etc.
One of the great joys of this run is getting to see wonderful Hampshire scenery as you travel, including many views you just wouldn’t see from the road. The trip takes you through Ropley, Medstead and Four Marks before reaching the end of the line at Alton. (Here of course you can rejoin the main network and head off to Waterloo etc).
Costs per ticket are £16 per adult which is not bad given that price entitles you to keep travelling on and off the line all day.
The main station at Alresford has a nice little cafe and you are welcome to take anything you bought here on board the train with you. The ticket inspector, having checked tickets, then comes through later with a rubbish bag so clearing away is sorted out. I mention this as I only wish it would happen on our mainline trains. I appreciate why it can’t, the guards are usually too busy (especially on the Waterloo line), but I can’t get over the fact some people out there seem incapable of taking their litter to a bin. There is always at least one on a train, usually by the exit doors. No excuses. Okay, rant over.
Some of the Watercress Line trains also have a buffet car though the loos on board are the type where they ask you not to flush while the train is at a station. I must admit I’ve never liked those. There are loos at Alresford Station.
Sir Terry Pratchett and the Watercress Line
We tend to enjoy the straight run up and down the line but you can hop off to visit the engine sheds at Ropley. Sir Terry Pratchett spent time with the Watercress Line researching material for his book Raising Steam, which is about when locomotives come to Discworld.
In the novel the railway as we know it is called “the permanent way” on Discworld. I noted last year, in tribute to Sir Terry, one of the sheds had the sign “Permanent Way Department” on it and was glad to see it still there this year.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you’re a fantasy fan, you’ll love it. If you’re a railway fan, you’ll get all of the jokes and references. And if, like me, you love fantasy fiction and railways, you’re on to a winner here! The book also makes some phenomenally good points about the horrors of fanaticism and the plot is fast moving. The audio edition (narrated by Tony Robinson) is also excellent (though abridged). And you don’t need to already know the Discworld characters to appreciate this one either.
Back to the Watercress Line, there is also some amazing topiary. The giant chair impresses me. How many hours were spent creating this (and since in maintaining it)? Also just who were they expecting to sit on it?! (I was unaware Dahl’s BFG used the trains though he seems to be the obvious client for this chair!).
At Alresford, there is the usual gift shop with a wide range of railway items ranging from Thomas the Tank Engine toys to serious magazines and books for the true railway “nut”. There is a reasonable amount of parking and there are enough brown tourist signs to get you to the station. I also appreciate that in the Ladies’ Waiting Room, there is a huge open fire (with a safety guard), which is very welcome. I couldn’t comment on the Gents! I hope the same facility is there too.
The Ladies’ Waiting Room also had a beautiful Nativity scene high up in the room.
Railway Signs and Posters
There are also wonderful old railway posters. I’m a little intrigued by the Rowntrees sign, picture below. Notice the royal warrants. Was this sign made in early 1952, news of the King’s death was released so they had to add on “to the Queen” at the bottom or was it a case they held the warrant for the late King and Queen Mother? Certainly if it was because of the King’s death they had to alter the sign, given it was not long after the war and there were still plenty of shortages, Rowntrees were not going to scrap a metal sign. Metal I suspect would still have been scarce. History can show up in all sorts of ways. Of course now Rowntrees are not the huge firm that they once were (which is a shame).
And as for the Nosegay sign… this always makes me laugh. It’s so politically incorrect on so many levels! I wonder just what market they were targeting. I can’t see (even now) there being many lady pipe smokers. Would any bloke be happy to use a tobacco called Nosegay? And from my female viewpoint, I’ve never smoked (and have no intention of starting) but I’d think twice having a tobacco called this. Nosegay? Really? I associate that with flowers…
I must admit I do like the old railway posters though. Many of them are splendid artworks.
At the end of the run in Alton the engine has to be uncoupled from the train, run up the track a short way, then come back down the line backwards to be coupled on at the front end of the train again to ensure it is facing the right way for the return trip. It was fascinating to watch how this was done. It is all done in minutes.
As for the strange shadow in some of my pictures, that is, of course, the shadow of the cloud of steam coming from the locomotive. Watching it as we travelled, it created some strange shapes. You just don’t get that on the Chandler’s Ford to Salisbury run!!
The main pain is the step up from the platform to the train is quite high. (For me, almost a giant leap is required! I see this as a challenge!). There is wheelchair and buggy access via a ramp and the guard’s van. Dogs are welcome (which is another reason we like this place). The Watercress Line issue tickets for you and your dog, though I wish they hadn’t renamed the old “rover” ticket with “dog” ticket. I’m a sucker for a nice pun like that.
The Watercress Line makes for a great day out. On my To Do List is the wish to revisit during the summer months, when (I assume, possibly unwisely) it won’t be so cold. But I am aware it is the Santa specials and the period just after these when people are often still off from work that are the bread and butter income generators for railways like this and so I would definitely urge you to support them, whenever you can get to go.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.