Santa Specials: 20 of the best

Want to take the children to see Santa this year? Forget the sleigh – there is now no better way than by train! Here, Robin Jones looks at 20 of the best festive season offerings on our heritage railway portfolio.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a year or more before Tom Rolt and his friends stepped in to save the Talyllyn Railway, a man named John Wilkins placed a tattered old stag’s head from a local hotel over a Lister diesel named Gwiril on the 15in-gauge Fairbourne Railway.

LMS ‘Black Five’ No. 44871 powers through a snow shower with an East Lancashire Railway Santa special. ELR
LMS ‘Black Five’ No. 44871 powers through a snow shower with an East Lancashire Railway Santa special. ELR

A bearskin rug was draped over the engine cover and a suitably decorated flat truck provided a seat for the man in red, none other than Father Christmas.

Ever year from 1949, John would erect a large illuminated Christmas tree at Fairbourne and run private ‘Father Christmas Trains’ for pupils from the village school in Beach Road.

The last such special ran in 1967 just before the school closed down. However, John had inadvertently stumbled on a phenomenon that would not only become a major source of revenue for the burgeoning heritage railway sector of the future, but a significant slice of the UK winter tourist economy: The Santa special.

The Bluebell Railway has claimed to be the first standard gauge line to run a Christmas time special. In 1961, the nascent line launched ‘Boxing Day Specials’ between Sheffield Park to its then northern terminus of Bluebell Halt, just south of Horsted Keynes. They comprised a tank engine and a brakevan which would ‘collect’ Santa Claus (who had been in the brakevan all the time) and bring him to the station.

Read more in the latest issue of HR

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