“ The railway is an all-volunteer steam and diesel heritage railway in the English Cotswolds. „
The Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway (GWR) is the largest all-volunteer run heritage railway in the country, and runs through an area of beautiful countryside on the edge of the Cotswolds. The track used is part of the original Edwardian Cheltenham to Birmingham via Stratford upon Avon line, which closed to passenger trains in 1960, and then to goods trains in 1976. Following early work to keep this attractive stretch of line open, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway Society was established with the aim of preserving the line and with the hope of one day re-establishing the service between Stratford racecourse and Cheltenham racecourse, where trains traditionally ran to bring in visitors to the major race meetings of the year. By this time, part of the track and most of the original buildings had already gone, with only Toddington station building and signal box at the north end of the line still remaining. The railway society established their base at Toddington, and gradually set about restoring the line to its former glory; the first quarter mile of line to the south of the station was opened to the public in 1984, with a further 10 miles following a few years later, and the final stretch of line being added to include Cheltenham racecourse opening in 2003. The current route stretches 20 miles between Toddington and Cheltenham racecourse via Winchcombe and the Vale of Evesham, which a journey time of just over half an hour each way.
With my parents down visiting me - and my dad a bit of a steam train fan - we decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to visit the railway, enjoying the nostalgia and magnificent views over the local countryside that it offered. As we live in Cheltenham, we caught the train from the Cheltenham racecourse end of the track, although Toddington is considered to be the main access point for the service. This actually turned out to be good thing because of the waiting time between services (Toddington has a cafe, Cheltenham racecourse station doesn't). The station is located, as the name suggests, in the racecourse (Prestbury Park), which is well signposted around Cheltenham - if you then head for the far side of the car park and follow the yellow GWR signs, you find the station tucked away at the edge of the park, well beyond the main buildings. The original and unique prefabricated station building still exists at road level, where tickets are now sold, although a new track-level building has been added to the platform to provide toilet facilities for visitors. A gently sloping ramp has been built between the two levels to make the train service as accessible as possible to all visitors. There is a good sized gravel car park and basic facilities available (a small shop, ticket office and toilets being pretty much it) at this end and you could be forgiven for thinking that the line is very small and insignificant on this basis - the impressive sight of Toddington station soon dispels this idea, though. We were disappointed to find that our outward journey would be by a diesel train rather than the steam locomotive we had come to see; that was compounded when we found out there was no heating on the train, as it was such a cold day (my dad informs me this is because the heating in the carriages would be connected to the steam engine and so therefore not work on a diesel service). Despite being chilly, the carriages were comfortable and there was plenty of seating available.
As you leave Cheltenham racecourse, views of Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds at 330m, open up as you pass through the village of Bishop's Cleeve (which originally had a station of its own, but which was lost as part of the closures in 1960). Heading due east from the rocky outcrops of the hill, there is apparently no higher point until you reach the Ural mountains in Russia! The next former station along the line is Gotherington Halt, and as you approach it, we were told that it is possible to glimpse Tewkesbury Abbey in the distance on a clear day - but despite straining our eyes, we could not spot it on either journey. The former station offered a surprise, however. When it was closed as a working station, it was acquired by a railway enthusiast and converted into a rail themed house that I suppose must be the ultimate train spotter's abode. Past Gotherington Halt you pass Prescott Hill Climb, home of the Bugatti Owners' Club, and then pass through spectacular views over the Vale of Evesham before arriving in Winchcombe station. The pretty Cotswold town of Winchcombe is just a short walk from the station (which some of the services stop at), so if you used this train in the summer months it would be a pleasant way of visiting the town or nearby Sudeley Castle. From there it is just a short hop onto Toddington station, passing Hailes Abbey (an English Heritage property) and the village of Didbrook along the way.
Toddington station, as the home of the GWR, is by far the biggest station on the line, with facilities including a tea room, children's play area, railway themed gift shop and a museum coach. The sidings also had a number of steam trains parked in them, which were attracting quite a buzz from the considerable number of visitors milling around the station. Although we enjoyed a prompt departure and beautiful countryside, the cold and lack of steam did mar this aspect on the trip, and upon arrival we all headed to the tea room to thaw out. As did everybody else for that matter - it was packed and the service was unfortunately quite slow. That said, the food when we got it was good value for money (exact prices now escape me, but I had an enormous toasted teacake for around the £2 mark and it was very nice indeed). Catering had been available from the buffet car on the train, but we preferred to spend our time enjoying the trip and then eating while waiting for the return train instead. Unfortunately, the long wait in the cafe meant we didn't get to see as much as we would have liked of Toddington station (there aren't a huge number of trains running in the winter), so I cannot comment on the other facilities available there. We were lucky enough that the problem that had prevented the steam engine working on our outward trip had been fixed in time for our return journey, so we did get to experience travel by steam - and a warm carriage! The day we visited was quite cold and frosty, conditions which lend themselves perfectly to seeing big billows of steam emerging from the engine as we made our sedate progress back towards Cheltenham racecourse.
Despite the early teething troubles, we all enjoyed our visit to the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway and agreed that the volunteers had done a wonderful job in restoring, maintaining and running this service to keep alive a little bit of steam train history. It was also pleasing to see the volunteers doing so much to encourage children to take an interest; we saw a children's birthday party taking place in one of the carriages on our return trip, and volunteers at Toddington seemed happy to chat to families and answer their questions about the railway. I think the prices were fair for our experience, although I would have liked to have seen a discount offered to students as it was to senior citizens. If more trains had been available we would have liked to have stayed a bit longer at Toddington and explored the museum in particular, but I suppose that is the price you pay for visiting in winter when there are fewer services to chose from - if this would be important to you as a visitor, then it might be advisable to visit in the summer season instead.
Overall, recommended as a relaxing afternoon out in the Cotswolds.
- Other Information
Trains start running on weekends in March to New Year's Day, with some weekday services running from Easter to September. Santa Specials are run each December and there are also other events that take place during the year. Timetables are available at: http://www.gwsr.com/html/timetable_2009.html
Adult - £10
Senior citizen - £8.50
Child (5-15) - £6.00
Child under 5 - Free
Family (2 adults, 3 children) - £27.00
All tickets valid for round trip travel on day of purchase; first class travel available at an extra charge. A return journey between Toddington and Cheltenham takes approximately 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Details on how to access the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway by public transport can be found here: http://www.gwsr.com/html/public_transport.html
The railway also offers a train driving experience day for £250, and a steam firing and driving day course for £300, although they book up very quickly. For more details, visit: http://www.gwsr.com/html/driving_courses.html