As near as I can determine, Britain has about 200 functioning heritage steam railway lines. Through the help of thousands of volunteers relics of Britain’s steam rail past have been kept from the scrap heap. Over years, railway cars and engines have been collected and restored, tracks have been repaired, and station buildings have been refurbished. The Brits, it seems, are not content with having mere model railroads in their basements; they want the real thing. As a result, Britain today has an extensive collection of working steam railroads scattered across their island.
With so many steam-powered railroads around the United Kingdom, there’s usually one nearby. Indeed, during our stay near Froghall in the midst of the Staffordshire Moorlands at the edge of the Peak District, we found ourselves only a short walk from the terminus of the Churnet Valley Railway.
The Churnet Valley Railway runs about once a week during its season. Rides on the train are quite popular, particularly when a rare sunny day coincides with the with the railway’s limited schedule. An adult ticket costs 11 quid. Dogs and bikes aren’t allowed on the seats but can go along for £1.50 each.
On a particularly nice day in May our dog Gigi acquiesced to the railroad’s discriminatory seating arrangements and climbed aboard as we squeezed into the train. Joining us were scores of grandpas and sugar-addled grand kids out to make the most of the weather. Indeed, it was by all accounts the best day of the year so far. The crowds were out. No one was going to risk not taking full advantage of the day that might be summer.
Once the train started moving, Gigi wasn’t so sure about the strange sounds and whistles coming from the steam engine. Fortunately Gigi is brave; she is used to surviving some pretty terrifying stuff. A train, even a steam train, wasn’t nearly as scary as the teleférico in Porto Portugal. So she hung on, hunkered down between our legs, and ventured an occasional sniff of the wildlife outside the windows as the old engine puffed, chugged, and clattered along the rails. Courageous as she was, Gigi was glad that the ride was short.
The Churnet Valley Railway’s moving stock usually travels a pleasant 10.5-mile section of track through the forest along the river. A good portion of the railroad parallels the Caldon Branch of the Trent & Mersey Canal. Outside the train’s windows, narrowboats, often brightly decorated, chug slowly along waterway. Today it is a race of anachronistic modes of travel. But in the past, the advent of the steam railway directly reduced the transportation role of canal barges. Looking out the window of the train it is easy to understand why; steam railroads hauled goods faster than canal barges. But today speed isn’t everything. There are more than 30,000 narrowboats on the British waterways; some say there are more narrowboats in use today than there every have been. Active canals are far more common than functioning steam railways.
A ticket on the Churnet Valley Railway allows passengers to step off at intermediate stations and get back on when the train comes through on the next cycle. It is an opportunity to pause and have a cider or a beer at the pub invariably located near each station. Steam train assisted pub-crawls are easy. Not a bad way to spend the summer day in the Midlands.