“ Traditional steam railway in Downpatrick and County Down, Northern Ireland. „
'The Polar Express' is a magical children's book about a boy who is losing faith in Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas as takes a wonderful train journey to the North Pole. Because we always ride this train at Christmastime, to the museums own makeshift North Pole, it always reminds me so much of the book, and it helps my family to believe in the magic of Christmastime. We always read the Polar Express before going, and watch the dvd as well. My sons have wee jingle bells I gave them after our visit last year, so we can check to make sure we can always hear the bells ( those of you who have read the book will understand). Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway is the only standard gauge heritage railway in Northern Ireland. This small heritage society keeps a short section of track open to run it's vintage trains, which are primarily steam. They do also have a couple of 1960's diesel engines. This small Railway is classed a museum, but at present there are not many exhibits. The main attraction is of course the trains, and there is small room with a Hornby Train set, including Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy, and a few vintage Thomas the Tank Engine Toys. There is also the authentic train station and ticket office, and they are currently working on restoring a signal building as well. The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland does run a limited number of steam engine excursions, but these are held on ordinary track. They have the advantage of being a much longer trip, but are also far more expensive, and limited to special occasions. Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway offer steam train trips to Inch Abbey every weekend from mid June - mid September as well as a number of holiday specials. These include: St. Patrick's Day 'Shamrock Specials, The Easter Eggspress ( including a visit with the Easter Bunny and an egg for each child), May Day Specials, Halloween Ghost Trains, A Christmas train - The Lapland Express, and a Mince pie special for New Years Day. My review will be based on our experience of the Christmas train, which is a yearly tradition for our family. Upon arriving at the Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway, we entered a small old fashioned train station well suited to the age of steam. As we had arrived for the Christmas Train, which is a popular service, and arrived a short while before the ticket desk opened there was a queue, however this moved along rapidly as soon as the ticket desk opened. While my husband waited for the tickets, I took the children into the small gift shop inside the building. There are a few Thomas Toys available, and the prices are fair, but the selection is very limited. All employees here are strictly voluntary, so you will find them all great enthusiasts of steam trains. The fellow running the shop is very friendly and can answer any question you might have, about the trains at Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway, and about steam trains throughout the whole of Ireland. After my husband had purchased the tickets we found seats in the authentic period passenger cars for our journey to Santa's Workshop. The takes about 15 -20 minutes, but a good portion of this is when the train stops to turn around. Still, it is a pleasant trip, and of course the children love it. You can smell the coal burning as you step on board, and great gusts of steam drift past your windows clouding the green countryside. The Railway keeps a few trains, but our journey this year was on Orenstein and Koppel Industrial Tank Locomotives No. 3 . This train was built in Germany and traded to the newly formed Irish Republic for beef as at this time Ireland had little cash for infrastructure and had to resort to barter. The engine was originally used to haul sugar, hence the nick name as "the sugar train". It is a lovely small black engine. On a previous trip my son rode a green Great Southern & Western Railway Locomotives No. 90 engine which he thought looked like Percy. On arrival at Santa's workshop we queued up with other passengers through a series of old coaches which had been decorated to look like Santa's workshop, complete with wooden toys being built, and a singing Santa decoration which the children always enjoy. On colder days a portable heater may be set up here to help visitors thaw out a bit. At last the children meet Santa, who is absolutely brilliant. He has a real repore with children and had my youngest singing and dancing despite the fact that he wasn't to sure about Santa at first. The children receive a gift bag with a number of small gifts. My sons each got colouring books, one got a painting kit, the other got a light up squeeze ball and a plastic catch game, and I know there were a few other items I have forgotten. If you want a picture with Santa, you must use your own camera, but I like this as it means I can make as many copies as I like of the prints. After visiting Santa, most people head for the dining car, which serves only light snacks, tea, coffee and drinks. They do not have facilities for cooked meals, so it's basically crisps, sausage rolls, biscuits, muffins, and chocolates. My husband and I had coffee and tea respectively, and the children each had a tin of Pringles a big X-mas chocolate and a drink. Our total was roughly £4, but I donated the change, rounding it up to a fiver. When we boarded the train to return to the station we were pleased to find Santa taking the trip with us, walking up and down the aisles getting all of the children singing Christmas songs. We really enjoyed this, and it is a perfect way to get into the holiday spirit. When we made it back to the stations, we made use of the facilities - or loos which were clean, spacious and readily accessible for disabled - but not heated and very cold. My sons then went to the model railroad exhibit and both were allowed to drive the trains, while the volunteer here offered us advice for our own model train sets. The tickets for a family of four cost us £19, which I think is very fair. All proceeds go to the maintenance of the trains and the museum. The children could not find much in the gift shop they wanted this time, choosing only a railway pin each at .50 pence. So our total for the day out, with tickets, refreshments and souvenirs, plus my donation was £25. I really can not recommend a visit strongly enough for anyone with children in Northern Ireland. A visit to this railway is a Christmas tradition for us, and something we look forward to year after year. It is wonderful source of holiday memories and a great way to spend time as a family. I really do love our visits and plan to try the Halloween train next year as well. I must admit, I was so busy with the children and Santa and the whole Christmas thing, I have not noticed the ruins of Inch Abbey or the view of Downpatrick cathedral, the Church of the Holy Trinity - reputed to be the burial ground of St Patrick, but I feel these would also be of interest to many visitors. If you are especially wanting to know a bout a specific site, be sure to ask and the volunteer will be happy to provide you with any information needed. There is also meant to be a view of a viking burial mound. I would recommend anyone planning a visit to check beforehand for times and dates. You may also wish to check which engines are running on particular days. The Christmas train is always steam, but other dates may have diesel engines pulling the coaches. I would also advise that the trains and the station are unheated. It can get very cold for the Christmas train, and it would be wise to dress children warmly, preferably in layered clothing so you can adjust as needed. I have mobility issues and found this site very accessible, however a step up is required to board the train. I do not know what provisions are available for wheelchairs and would most strongly recommend calling beforehand if any member of your party requires a wheelchair. This is located in the town of Downpatrick and there are plenty of fast food outlets as well as the more traditional pub or chippy for a proper lunch if desired. Other attractions you might wish to consider when visiting Downpatrick include: The Saint Patrick Centre and Delamont County Park - complete with Ireland's longest miniature railway and Thomas the tank style trains. Strangford Lough and Castle Ward are also nearby offering a pleasant day out for nature lovers, or those who enjoy historic homes. It took us about 40 minutes to drive from Belfast to the railway, although the previous year our travel time was doubled as we ended up behind two very slow moving tractors for a large portion of the journey. Those wishing a more scenic route might consider traveling across Strangford Lough at Portaferry on the small car ferry and driving up the Ard's Pennisula for beautiful seaside views. This is accessible by public transport, I would suggest calling Ulsterbus for more details if required.