“ Day out comprising steam train, ferry, river boat and bus. „
I'm a firm believer that a major part of a holiday is to experience as much of the area you are visiting as possible, so before our recent long weekend break in Brixham, Devon, I looked into attractions that we could visit. Considering two year old Freddy's recent obsession with trains (particularly Thomas), it took no time at all to decide that we would take a trip on the Dartmouth Steam Railway and then we decided to extend the trip to a full day excursion by including this steam train in the Round Robin. The Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company Round Robin, comprises of a circular route that is broken into four legs that takes 152 minutes, not including stopovers. The journey can commence at any of the four legs (Paignton, Kingswear, Dartmouth, Totnes), but being nearest to Paignton we started our journey there.
==Building Up Steam - Paignton Station==
The steam train begins it's journey at Paignton Train Station, or more specifically at a station next to Paignton mainline train station. Being next to the mainline station and a couple of minutes walk from Paignton Bus Station, it is very accessible via public transport. There is also parking in Paignton for cars, but not having travelled to the area by car, I cannot comment on how busy the car parks are or how much parking costs. The steam train experience begins before you even arrive at the platform, with the ticket office being decorated to look like something from the turn of the last century. Tickets for the Round Robin can be purchased online, but we bought ours from the ticket office, which accepted all major forms of card payment along with cash. What I really liked about the tickets, was that rather than being flimsy paper, or tiny, credit card sized, they were substantial and made of thick card, meaning they make excellent souvenirs in themselves.
As well as housing the ticket office, Paignton Station is home to a souvenir shop and tea room. The souvenir shop stocked all manner of items including train themed gifts, Thomas The Tank Engine themed merchandise and some very random items. Pocket money souvenirs such as pencils, notepads and keyrings were available, but I did think many items were vastly over-priced. There was an absolutely fabulous large scale model of Thomas on sale, but at over £100 it was far beyond my price bracket. We did buy a few little bits in the shop, including a little teddy bear on a keyring, fridge magnet, postcard and wrist band, which came in at a tad under £5. We didn't actually make use of the tea room, but the cakes on display did look rather yummy. There were also toilet facilities within this area including disabled and baby changing facilities that were all clean and well stocked with toilet paper.
==Choo, Choo - The Steam Train Leg==
The steam train leg of the Round Robin takes you from Paignton to Kingswear passing through Goodrington, Churston, and Greenway. For Freddy the excitement and experience began long before we actually boarded the train, as the engine was sitting at the platform for at least 15 minutes before it was coupled with the carriages. Although this engine was beautifully shiny black, Freddy immediately associated it with Thomas and the whole time we were waiting to board he couldn't keep his eyes off the engine and was constantly calling out "Choo, Choo". What I noticed was that the engine was in absolutely fantastic condition, someone really had taken pride in ensuring that every square inch was as clean and shiny as it could be. As the departure time approached, it was time for us to enter a carriage for our journey. There are two classes of coach available, standard and first class, with their being a £1.50 supplement per head on the first class. At the end of each coach there is space for storing buggies and the seating in the coaches is in the very old fashioned twin aisles format. Due to the fact that Freddy has learning difficulties and would cause complete havoc if taken out of his stroller, we asked if there was a disabled area, which there was. The guard was extremely helpful in setting out a ramp so that I could wheel Freddy into this coach, where there was plenty of space to place him next to a window and then there were two sets of seats for carers. I wouldn't say these seats were the most comfortable, because quite simply they weren't, but there again none of the standard class seats are that comfortable really. I do think that we got the best view though, as this area had large windows on both sides, meaning that we did not have our view in the least bit restricted. There are toilets on the train, but these are not disabled friendly and very small.
The journey from Paignton to Kingswear takes approximately 25 minutes and the train passes through some really beautiful scenery along the way. At the start of the journey we were very close to the coastline with views of the beach, what was really lovely was that all the people strolling along were waving at the train and of course Freddy thought they were waving at him. Once the coastline was out of sight, we passed through some very dramatic wooded areas before making our way along the Dart estuary and pulling in at Kingswear. One of our favourite parts of the journey was passing through a rather long tunnel before shooting back into the sunlight. I think Freddy was simply delighted by the whole experience of travelling on a real steam train and was thrilled by the smoke, whistles and of course "choo, choo".
On arrival at Kingswear we were helped off the train onto the platform ready to catch the ferry to Dartmouth. There were toilets on the platform along with an ice-cream shop, but we didn't have time to browse as our ferry was due to leave within minutes of pulling in.
==Across The Estuary - The Ferry==
The ferry from Kingswear to Dartmouth is by far the shortest leg of the journey taking approximately 7 minutes, not including the time taken to board and disembark. While the steam train is disabled friendly and can accommodate wheelchairs, the ferry is less so. There are a couple of steps to be negotiated, so if one of your group uses a wheelchair they will need to be able to manage a few steps. We were lucky insofar as I was helped to lift the stroller on to the ferry, but you also need to be aware that gangways are quite narrow. When on the ferry you have the choice to sit out on the deck or in the cabin. As it was a little chilly we decided to sit inside near the rear of the ferry, where we had a decent view of Kingswear through plastic sheeting. Once everyone had boarded the ferry, there was a short safety talk, which lasted almost as long as the actual journey. Although this was a short journey, the views of both Kingswear and Dartmouth, were nothing less than spectacular.
==A Quick Break - The Dartmouth Stop-over==
How long you get to stop-over at Dartmouth depends very much on the tides. Due to the tides on the day that we visited, we only had a 45 minute stop-over, which was really not long enough to see very much, but we took a stroll along the harbour-front, bought a couple of Dartmouth specific souvenirs and had a quick drink in a café.
==A Bird Spotter's Delight - The River Cruise==
The river cruise is by far the longest segment of the journey, lasting an impressive 90 minutes and the river boat we travelled on was the Cardiff Castle. The sailing times of the river cruise do depend greatly on the tide, on the day we went the last sailing was at 12.30pm and this gave us approximately 45 minutes in Dartmouth. As with the ferry, disabled access is limited on the river cruise, they do accept manual wheelchairs, but you need to be able to walk the few steps to board the boat. Again as with the ferry, I was assisted in lifting the stroller aboard and it was somewhat of a tight squeeze to manoeuvre the stroller between areas. There are several areas where you can sit to enjoy the scenery and wildlife, including an indoor area. For the best views you are better off sitting outside though, with the very best views being from the top deck. You can also sit at the rear (stern) of the cruiser, but we decided that we would get the best possible view by sitting right at the very front (bow), as we couldn't manage to negotiate the stairs to the upper deck.
While the outside seating comprised of hard wooden benches with just enough space to wheel a stroller between the pairs of benches, the seating inside the cabin was far more luxurious. Within the cabin, down some very steep stairs, there is a bar offering alcoholic drinks, hot and cold beverages, crisps, biscuits, cakes and chocolate. You can also buy postcards and fridge magnets featuring the Cardiff Castle from the bar. I can't comment on the prices of the alcohol, as I didn't buy any but there was both bottled and draught beer on sale along with spirits. I did, however, buy a cup of tea, some cakes, chocolate, fridge magnet and postcard. While the prices were a little higher than ashore, they weren't extortionate and I have to say that the rich fruit cake was the nicest I've ever tasted. There are also toilets down another set of steep steps and these toilets were clean and well maintained, but are really not accessible by those with even quite minor mobility difficulties, I did struggle. What there is a complete lack of is baby changing facilities, even the steps down to the toilets are too steep to manage when holding a baby or young child.
As with the ferry crossing our river cruise began with a safety announcement, this time informing us that there were both life-belts and life boats available if the worst should happen. I must say that the condition of the Cardiff Castle was exceptional throughout (clean, smart, in good repair), so I wasn't too concerned that we were going to sink, but it was nice to know where this life-saving equipment was stored. Once the safety announcement was over, the commentator continued to give us a commentary and tell us what we could expect to see as we journeyed up the River Dart, interspersed with little anecdotes and some rather corny jokes. I have to admit that the humour had started to wear a little thin after about thirty minutes and the narrator did occasionally seem to forget that we couldn't see where he was looking. An example of this was when he told us there was a seal "by that pole over there", none of us at the front of the boat even knew where the pole was let alone the seal, so we missed out on that experience. But then there were times when he would use the clock system to tell us where to look, which worked out a lot better. I'm not going to tell you everything you may see on the cruise, but I will mention some of what for me were the highlights.
The very first highlight for me was the wonderful view of Dartmouth and the harbour as we began our journey, I've always appreciated views such as this and took a panoramic photo so that I will always have a memory of that breathtaking vista. For those that appreciate architecture and buildings then there are some really beautiful buildings and villages along the way including the Britannia Naval College, a tiny village (with only ten residents) and Agatha Christie's house. If nature and wildlife is more your thing, then I would definitely recommend that you bring along a pair of binoculars as there is a plethora of birds and animals along the way (I really regret not having any). For obvious reason what animals and birds you will see does depend on the time of year and the weather but we saw lots of different birds including egrets, herons, Canada geese, a black swan, oyster catchers and even a kingfisher., We didn't see that many animals though but the highlight was definitely when we did actually get to see a seal (too far away to photograph sadly). We also saw a rather bedraggled fox beside the water.
As the cruise drew to a close, we started to feel a little chilly and made our way inside for the last quarter of an hour or so and although we could still see the views, somehow they simply were not as dramatic when viewed through windows, but at least we had a chance to warm up a little. Approaching Totnes, the view was nowhere nearly as attractive as we had had leaving Dartmouth, but there were a multitude of boats of all sizes to impress the little man. As we pulled in Totnes, the friendly (and not so funny) commentator closed off thanking us for travelling and gave us information about when the bus back to Paignton left before asking if we would like to make a small donation as we disembarked. As with getting onto the boat, we were helped off and I must admit I did give a small donation as I had enjoyed the cruise so much.
==An Hour To Kill - The Stop Off In Totnes==
As we arrived in Totnes the bus towards Paignton was pulling out and as this bus is hourly we had a little time to kill before continuing on our way. We could have walked up into Totnes to sample the town's delights (including a castle), but instead we decided to stay put as we were getting a little tired by now. By the harbour there is a café with a small gift shop attached and it was here we spent the time while waiting for the bus. The café had a fairly extensive menu with main meals, deserts and snacks along with a special (that was beef stew). I had a pot of tea, fruit shoot and two Bakewell tarts and I have to say that the prices were quite high. As for the gift shop, I was disappointed that there were very few Totnes specific souvenirs, although prices were reasonable.
There were no toilets within the café, but public toilets were close by and they were clean enough. There was plenty of seating beside the river and it seems to be a very popular walk for those with dogs (I didn't see any mess though). We did actually enjoy spending some time sitting, watching the ducks, but I think next time we will venture into Totnes as there really isn't much to do here.
==The Final Leg - The Bus Journey==
The bus stop for the journey home is clearly marked and the bus back to Paignton runs hourly (on the hour). From the website I gather that there is a chance that this bus will be of the open topped variety, but the one we got was enclosed. The important thing to note is that this bus is of an old fashioned type and therefore is in no way disabled or buggy friendly. I therefore needed to remove Freddy from his stroller for this part of the journey, which did mean that he ran riot a little until his interest was caught by the passing cars. There's no way that I could describe this part of the journey as thrilling, for us it was more an end to a means insofar as it took us back to Paignton, maybe it would have been more thrilling if we had travelled on an open-topped bus. The journey did not take that long though and the time passed quickly enough, even though the views were not that exciting and it didn't take long until we passed into Paignton Bus Station were the bus terminated.
==An Arm And A Leg? - Pricing==
While not exactly cheap, the fares for the Round Robin are still reasonable, especially considering the different modes of transport you get to experience. Although fares do change on a yearly basis, as of October 2012, an adult ticket costs £21.99, a child £12.99, concession (60+) £19.99 and a family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) £59.99, while children under three travel free.
==A Great Day Out - Final Words==
We had a fantastic day out on the day we experienced the Round Robin, it really was more than worth the money. We (and especially Freddy) loved the steam train, in fact Freddy still goes on about the "Choo, Choo" and the river cruise was both relaxing and fascinating. If you are holidaying in the area then I can't recommend this experience enough, it's a wonderful way to explore the area and something we will definitely be repeating next year. So I'm giving the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Cruise Round Robin five stars out of five, because it simply made our holiday.