ALRESFORD: The Watercress Line

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By Tim Saunders
“I treat it as if I am five years old,” says Karen, who provides the humorous commentary at the Watercress Line, urging Thomas the tank engine to be patient, to stop whistling and let the passengers get on.

“It’s great fun and magical for the children.”

Karen has worked on the Day Out with Thomas events at this Hampshire station for the past 12 years and clearly loves what she does as much as all of us.

The railway’s Day out with Thomas typically runs for a couple of weeks in April and August each year. Henry (3) is an avid follower of Thomas the tank engine, created by Reverend W. Awdry, who was born in Ampfield, Hampshire in 1911.

We arrive at Ropley and park in a large field with a great many other visitors. It’s an extremely popular event.

There is an air of happiness. All worries forgotten, at least for today. What a joy. Passengers are transported back into the 1940s and the wonder of steam. The smell and the sound. But also friendliness, so often absent from life today. Fellow passengers wave at each other and when we cannot find seats where we can all sit together a very kind woman sitting on her own, offers: “Don’t worry I’ll move.” When would this happen on one of those characterless modern diesel trains?

Grandparents reminisce about how these used to be a regular feature of their travels to school and on the family holiday. Those of us too young to remember this can imagine though and the old films we have watched and the books we have read have helped give an idea of what life was like back then. The beloved Watercress Line, its army of staff and volunteers, all dressed in period attire bring the past to the present.

There are numerous old signs for such things as Fry’s Delicious Chocolates, R White’s Ginger Beer and Camp Coffee is the best. If only the beautiful and vibrant flowerbeds and hanging baskets that adorn the platforms could be found at mainline stations. The sheer hardwork and attention to detail of the staff ensures that any visit is a memorable occasion. At one railway station we spy vintage milk cans as if they are waiting to be loaded. Then of course there are the drivers and the firemen stoking the coal.

Lovingly restored trains and carriages provide regular trips to railway stations in Alresford, Medstead and Ropley. These are not that far away and so no journey is very long, which is ideal for the little ones. Harriett (8), Heidi (6) and Henry all settle down in their seats around the table in anticipation for the journey ahead. We all enjoy the chug chug clickety clack and the views across the wonderful Hampshire landscape. At the time of our journey the farmers have been busy harvesting and so the fields of gold are much closer cropped.

Life was different in the past; no mobile phones and it is a shame that some passengers cannot tear themselves away from these devices to savour this wonderful experience.

We decide to stay on the train at Alresford and eat our picnic and by the time we have finished we return to Ropley and onto to Medstead where we alight for the children complete their spot the engines sheets.

We are dawdlers and almost miss the return train to Ropley but for a kind guard who alerts us.

As the guard’s whistle is blown Henry looks out of the window and comments on the steam blowing past. He’s also looking with great interest at his spot the engine sheet and says that he has seen the majority but cannot find Emily.

A lot of hard work goes into creating this memorable day and it has not gone unnoticed.

Henry loves to know how things work and when we enter the education centre at Ropley he is greeted by a model of a crane which highers and lowers the bucket when the handle is turned. He is mesmerised with this. Up the stairs there are toy trains to play with and one happens to be a crane operated by a handle so Henry plays with this for ages, tool. “I’d like one of these,” he says. Meanwhile Harriett and Heidi colour in and complete a maze. There’s an interesting video about the history of the Watercress Line, too together with books and magazines about locomotives. “It’s nice to have this room,” says Caroline. “It gives the children chance to do a bit of playing and allows the parents a little break.”

The ride on miniature railway is ever popular and is another enjoyable aspect for us all. And Rusty & Dusty, joined by the Fat Controller, is an entertaining show for the children with a question and answer session for Sir Topham Hatt.

The children all have to have a rub on tattoo; Henry has one of Percy while the girls go for Thomas.

At half the price of attractions like Paultons Park, the Watercress Line represents excellent value for money.

And there’s always something exciting happening here. For that extra special treat it is possible to dine in one of the first class carriages.

At the end of our day Caroline says: “I don’t feel tired as I often do on a day out; it’s been lovely and relaxing.”

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