VisitEngland – as the national tourist board is called – take note. This year we have witnessed the finest collection of autumn galas on our heritage lines that I can remember, in all shapes and sizes.
Fifty years since the end of British Railways main line steam, the public appetite for railway heritage shows no sign of abating, and soaring attendance figures at these galas reflects that.
We Brits are spoiled for choice. The last weekend in September alone saw four magnificent events: the first double-heading of new-build replicas Lyn and Lew at Woody Bay, a stunning steam display at the West Somerset Railway, the Middleton Railway’s local heritage-inspired Last Coals to Leeds event and Tyseley Locomotive Works’ 50th anniversary of its first open day.
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I attended the latter and was certainly not disappointed, largely due to the sheer variety of exhibits on display, but how I would have loved to have visited at least one of the other events that weekend.
We have been inundated with countless magnificent pictures from autumn galas across the country. Although we have increased our size to 116 pages for this special edition, we would have needed upwards of 200 pages to even begin to accommodate the rest of the best.
Here I must thank each and every linesider who submitted pictures to us, and Gareth and I found it an awesome and daunting task to narrow them down to a final selection! The ones we had to leave out were not bad pictures by any stretch of the imagination, I can assure you.
What I am left asking is why the tourist powers-that-be do not do much, much more to promote our autumn gala season, not only here at home but also abroad?
Early autumn is an excellent time to explore the UK, avoiding the crowds of the main summer holiday season while relishing the glorious scenery as green leaves magically turn to yellow, brown, orange and purple.
We should take a leaf (pun intended) out of the book of our US counterpart heritage lines. Special ‘fall’ tours for people wishing to experience the stunning beauty of the change of seasons are big business nowadays on the other side of the Atlantic, and could so easily be even more so here.
Could we not similarly attract large numbers of overseas visitors if a package was properly prepared, perhaps in the shape of a runabout ticket covering several heritage venues?
Our autumn galas are a rich climax to the end of the main steam season, before Santa trains become the order of the day. Their presence adds more days to shopkeepers and hoteliers in those places lucky enough to have a heritage railway that has more often than not become an essential plank of their local tourist economy.
I remain convinced that attendances could be even bigger if a national promotion was staged by the likes of VisitEngland – leading to a win-win situation for everyone.
This year’s events have held out much promise for the future. The Severn Valley Railway’s autumn steam gala saw the return of Duchess of Sutherland and Britannia on passenger trains, while that above-mentioned L&B pair showed everyone just how big that currently modestly-sized attraction will be once its expansion programme gets under way.
Finally, I was delighted to witness the relaunch of Jubilee 4-6-0 No. 45596 Bahamas back into traffic. I have never seen that locomotive steam – its last ticket ran out 21 years ago, just when I made the momentous decision to move into railway journalism.
There’s no reason to doubt that Tyseley’s workshops has done a magnificent job on it and I’m sure it will soon become a much-loved and photographed main line star again.
Robin Jones, EditorEnjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.