Railways were an invention of the early 19th century and went on to transform Britain. Originally intended to move coal and goods, passengers soon flocked to this new form of transport. The Victorians were fascinated by the railways which were seen as fast and exciting, with a certain amount of glamour and romance to them.
Railways changed the way people lived and worked. Cheaper than coach travel, seaside fishing villages suddenly became fashionable and day trips to the coast became common. Thomas Cook organised his first rail excursion in 1841, from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting. He went on to make his fortune taking people on trips by train.
Fast forward to the next century and the fascination for trains continued. It was the wartime Southern Railway clerk Ian Allan who first put together a booklet giving basic technical data about locomotives and listing them number by number; Locospotters’ Guide, giving rise to ‘train spotting’ as a national hobby. In the post war decade, the ABC of British Railways Locomotives was a must for any schoolboy trainspotter standing on a station platform crossing off the numbers of passing steam trains.
The final days of steam came about in the 1960s, an outmoded fashion that was never supposed to return. However, thanks to the passion and dedication of railway enthusiasts who rescued and restored many railway lines and steam engines, a vital part of our heritage has been preserved.
Today, the great affection for heritage railways continues; perhaps a sense of nostalgia for Britain’s great pioneering railway past or the romance of travelling by steam train. The UK has more heritage railways per square mile than anywhere else in the world. There are more than 100 heritage railways while 60 steam museum centres are home to 700 preserved locomotives that were once rejected by British Railways in the 1960s.
Idyllic railway stations have been restored to their period appearance while steam engines, with their colourful liveries and polished brass work, chug back and forth along scenic rural railway lines, giving us the chance to step back in time to a bygone era.
There has also been a long relationship between railways and film. Cinema’s railway obsession dates back to the dawn of the medium, when French pioneers the Lumière brothers filmed the arrival of a train at La Ciotat in 1895. Since then, heritage trains and stations have been the place of countless stories; of drama, mystery and adventure, with classics such as The Railway Children and Brief Encounter to name but a few.
There is a railway for everyone; from the Strathspey Railway in Scotland and the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales to the Bluebell Railway in southern England; each offers a wonderful way to admire the surrounding scenery.