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Bluebell Railway – Kids for a Quid for a Fun Day Out

sheffield park at bluebell railway

Bill Bryson, who is a much better travel writer than me, once humorously observed some of the similarities between pornography store patrons and railway enthusiasts.

Both hobbies seem to involve mostly badly dressed middle-aged men, silently appreciating what is in front of them whilst breathing heavily, much to the bemusement or outright disinterest of their long-suffering wives. Of course, that will never be me.

Now, I am neither middle-aged nor badly dressed (Mrs B’s opinion may differ) so when a spare Saturday afternoon appeared like an oasis of calm in our otherwise ridiculously packed family calendar, I immediately opted to fill it with a trip to our local railway enthusiast’s hangout, The Bluebell Railway.

Bluebell Railway

Sheffield park station at bluebell railway
Sheffield Park station

If you’ve never heard of the Bluebell Railway – and, let’s face it, if you’re young and hip like me, why would you? – it’s a heritage steam railway that trundles 11 miles gently southwards from the East Sussex town of East Grinstead, down to Sheffield Park through some glorious bits of English countryside.

Many of the lineside is resplendent with bluebell flowers in season, hence the name. Like all heritage railways in the UK, it was originally part of a much larger line that ran all the way to the town of Lewes, before (like so many railway connections that would be damned useful in the 21st century) it was unceremoniously torn up in the name of efficiency in 1958.

Sir Archibald Sinclair Locomative
Sir Archibald Sinclair Locomative

Credit where credit is due, the local residents did not take the loss of their railway well, and the very next year, the first attempts to preserve the line kicked off.

In a masterpiece of British fortitude, bit by bit, year by painful year, the railway was restored from the original starting point of Sheffield Park, culminating in reaching East Grinstead and finally restoring a connection to the National railway network in 2013.

The other end of the line doesn’t actually go anywhere else significant, dangling like a worm on the end of a fishing hook. However, it’s very near the excellent National Trust Sheffield Park Gardens, if you like that sort of jazz and want to add a garden to your Sussex day out.     

How to get there:

  • 🚗 Bluebell’s Sheffield Park is in between Haywards Heath & Uckfield. Head to the A272 and take the A275 at North Chailey. It is well signposted.
  • 🚆 From London, take the Southern Railway from London Victoria to East Grinstead. The Bluebell Railway station is adjacent to the National Rail Station.
  • 🚌 Local bus services, such as Metrobus routes 270 and 291, connect East Grinstead with nearby towns and villages.

Top Tips:

  • 🎟️ Purchase tickets online ahead of your visit to ensure availability and to take advantage of any online discounts.
  • 🚘 Early arrival ensures easier parking at stations like Sheffield Park and East Grinstead, where parking can fill up quickly on busy days.
  • 🛤️ Combine your visit to the Bluebell Railway with other local attractions. Nearby places include the Ashdown Forest, Sheffield Park and Garden, and the town of East Grinstead.
  • 📅 Visit the Bluebell Railway’s official website to check the latest timetables and special events. The schedule can vary, especially during special events or holidays.

Where to Stay:

Anyway, lest you think I am some sort of anorak-clad nerd, there were a couple of very good reasons why we visited the Bluebell Railway. Firstly, the sort of people who visit steam railways are – well, how can I put this delicately – of advancing years, and therefore to attract a new generation of steam enthusiasts, you can’t just have trains.

The Bluebell Railway, to their credit, has decided to entice younger children to visit, by means of having dinosaur-themed railway weekends, as well as Peter Rabbit, reptiles and even Unicorn-themed days.

a dinosaur animatronic at bluebell railway
A very impressive dinosaur!

The Boy, who is currently going through a bit of a dinosaur-themed renaissance, was very keen to see the lifelike dinosaurs and I for one was quite keen to poke around some of the technology of yesteryear, as I explained in my blog about Bosham, nostalgia is one hell of a drug.

All that combined with the fact that on select weekends, you can take your kids there for just one pound sealed the deal in my simple mind. A pound per child is a bargain – you can’t get anything for a pound these days!

Duly sold by the bargain prices (Kids for £1 on select weekends, Adults £25) I cunningly opted to buy tickets in advance and have them e-mailed to my phone, although you can pay a little more and opt to buy your tickets on the day.

Getting to the Bluebell Railway

Kingscote Station on the bluebell railway
Kingscote Station

Fortified with a decent breakfast, we set off through the peaceful Sussex countryside on a bright Saturday morning to our starting destination and the HQ of the Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park station. If you’re travelling by car, this is by far your best option as it has the biggest, and freest, car parking space.

Starting at the other end of the line (East Grinstead Station) is really only recommended if you’re arriving by train from the direction of London. You can park in the vicinity, but they’re all car parks you have to pay for, and you don’t really want to be worrying about your car park ticket expiring as your train chugs serenely along at 20 mph through the countryside.

The SatNav took us directly to the car park (TN22 3QL) directly outside the station and it was a short walk to the station building itself.

Sheffield Park Station

Sheffield park entrance on the bluebell railway
The entrance to Sheffield Park

So, apparently, one of the things about the Bluebell Railway is that each of the stations has been restored to represent a particular era of railway history.

The intermediate station at Kingscote has been restored to look like a 1950s-era station, the former Junction station at Horsted Keynes has been restored to give it a 1920s feel and Sheffield Park has been restored to look like a station in the 1880s, in a rich cream and brown colour scheme.

museum at bluebell railway

As the HQ of the railway, it has lots of things to see and do. There’s a comprehensive railway museum that tells the story of the line from 1882 through to the present day.

Like all good museums, this tells a rich story of the people who built and lived on the line, from rich businessmen and landowners to the clerks and porters who made the line work day in, day out.

For me, that’s the real magic of travel – how it connects us all, how it broadens our minds and how it makes us all socially, if not financially, richer.

old steam trains in a museum

For those of you with a more engineering interest, on the other side of the railway is the carriage shed and a display called SteamWorks! that brings the mechanical and engineering side of the railway to life.

steam trains in a shed

Smelling faintly of coal and oil, it has interactive displays that explain everything from how a steam engine works to the individual jobs needed to bring a beast of a steam locomotive into service. You can also amble around happily looking at some of the genuinely impressive locomotives that the Bluebell Railway have.  

a shop selling wine and beer
The shop sells lots of Sussex produce and the all-important train memorabilia

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a comprehensive shop where you can buy all manner of railway-related paraphernalia from model trains to tea towels and a full-service restaurant for all your food a drink needs.

We spent a happy time wandering idly around, then suddenly, to my son’s delight, a dinosaur appeared around the corner.

Now in the interests of full disclosure, I had been so completely enraptured by the atmosphere of the railway that I had temporarily forgotten that the sole reason we had visited was so The Boy could view dinosaurs.

a boy next to an animatronic dinosaur
Unfortunately, we got to Bluebell railway quite late in the day, so only managed to see the dinosaurs in the car park!

My mind couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on, because the last thing you expect to see at a railway station set in the 1880s is a dinosaur. However, judging from the excited squeals coming from The Boy his day was well and truly made, because the dinosaurs were excellent.

I was half expecting some sort of pathetic animatronic dinosaurs to be dotted around the place, but these were full-sized, hyper-realistic dinosaurs, presumably operated by a very hot and sweaty person inside the suit, guided around the railway by a “keeper” who kept them safely chained up.

With realistic snarls and terrifying-looking claws, the dinosaur days are definitely worth a visit for small, and indeed, larger boys.

a picnic area under trees
Picnic area at Sheffield Park

Some stations have play areas for children, providing a nice break and some fun for younger visitors. There are also plenty of countryside walks around the stations with picnic areas, so make sure you pack a picnic to enjoy on the train or at one of the stations. The restaurant can get extremely busy!

Train Rides on the Bluebell Railway

travelling on a steam train

Except on special occasions, there’s fairly standard timetable for the trains at the Bluebell Railway. A train will leave up to seven times a day, timetable dependent, calling at all stations to East Grinstead in a serene journey lasting about 50 minutes.

Once at East Grinstead, you can either disembark and have a potter around the town, or you can elect to wait 15 – 20 minutes while the engine at the front gets turned around and takes you back down the line to Sheffield Park.

inside a steam train

We boarded an afternoon service for the ride up to East Grinstead and as soon as you get on, you’re reminded of what we lost when it comes to rail travel in the UK. As a fairly regular commuter to London, I’m used to seats that more closely resemble ironing boards in terms of padding and comfort.

Yet, as soon as you get on board a Bluebell Railway train, you’re greeted with seats with actual padding, legroom, windows that actually open, staff that are actually cheerful and – joy of joys – a working buffet car that sells snacks and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

inside a first class carriage on a steam train
Inside the first class carriages. Very Harry Potter!

For a small supplement, you can even upgrade to a first-class cabin for the journey, but if you’re used to modern British trains, even sitting in an old-fashioned third-class train from the 1950s feels like first-class in comparison.

I introduced the children to the onboard buffet car, conscious that they’d never seen one before in the wild, when suddenly there was a cacophony of whistle blasts, doors slamming and train whistles. It was time to depart.

To my complete delight, leaving a heritage railway station in a steam train is exactly like it is in those old 1940s black and white films. The steady chug – chug – chug of the engine building into a steady tempo, until the train is hitting a fairly decent pace, punctuated only by the occasional glorious toot of a steam whistle as you trundle along.

heritage train station
Beautifully restored train stations

Embankments drop down to reveal glorious, endless countryside, punctuated by the occasional sheep or cow looking idly at the passing train.

As one of the people nearest the window, it was my solemn duty to tell everyone whenever horses were spotted – “Horse!”  and the children would rush joyfully to the window to wave at the aforementioned stallion.  

open fields
Beautiful Sussex countryside – Bill Bryson once described England as “the World’s Garden”

Building steam, we chugged into a huge tunnel, which I later found out was Sharpthorne Tunnel – the longest tunnel on any heritage railway in the UK – before bursting into glorious sunlight for the impressive journey into East Grinstead over the huge Imberhorne Viaduct.

downton station for a film
They were filming the new Downton film as we chugged by, one of the stations had been transformed into Downton Station

I won’t bore you with the details of the return journey, but if you’re interested in hearing what that’s like, please do feel free to read the paragraph above backwards.

What I will say however is that even if you’ve never been to the Bluebell Railway before, it will feel very familiar to you, thanks to the fact it’s been on TV no less than 574 times and counting, being used to film everything from Downton Abbey to music videos for the Pet Shop Boys.

Exit via Gift Shop

railway pedestrian bridge over a steam train

Of course, when you return to Sheffield Park with your hair full of soot and your brain full of nostalgia, you can’t simply escape out a side gate. Oh no, like every family destination, the exit is routed through the aforementioned gift shop.

This of course is a chance for kids to demand sweets, root through train-shaped toys and demand money with menaces from innocent parents. As it was a long day, I was happy to let the kids browse for a minute while Mrs B disappeared off to get some last pictures for this blog and I idly picked up a book about trains and zoned out for, what I thought was, about a minute.

a man stood in front of a steam train

Mrs B duly returned and nudged me. I jumped out of my daydream with a bit of a start and caught sight of myself in the reflection of the gift shop window.

To my horror, I saw a badly dressed middle-aged man, silently appreciating the book in front of them, whilst breathing heavily. Damn you Bryson.

A day trip to bluebell railway in east sussex pinterest pin

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