One of the great features of Britain’s preserved Bluebell Railway is its exceptional attention to detail. Everywhere you look there is something to make the past, alive. Old advertisements, piles of luggage, semaphore signals, cast iron warning signs, and buckets of coal.
You hear the clunk of a rod moving a signal blade from red to green, followed by the shrill guard’s whistle and the slam of a wooden door. Then a mild hiss as the automatic brake is released and the sharper hiss from the locomotive as it eases off the platform. Yet, the Bluebell experience isn’t all about its locomotive, or its trains. The Bluebell is a railway experience.
The time warp ends when you arrive back at East Grinsted, where you insert your ticket with its magnetic stripe into automatic barriers, then board a modern electric multiple unit with sealed windows, plastic décor and space-age loos that look like they belong on the set of Star Trek.
The Bluebell Railway is Britain’s first standard gauge preserved steam railway. It dates from the early 1960s, and for more than 50 years has offered excursions over a scenic portion of former Southern Railway, ex London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. Today the railway runs from East Grinsted to Sheffield Park (south-southwest of London), and includes a relatively long tunnel.
Bluebell, like many of Britian’s steam railways, is a fully functioning preserved line, complete with stations, signal boxes (towers), authentic period signal hardware (including semaphores), engine sheds and lots of staff (presumably mostly volunteers), all of which contributes to the appearance of an historic British railway. In other words, it’s like a time machine!
On Saturday April 20, 2013 David Hegarty and I traveled from London by train via East Croydon to East Grinsted. It was a beautiful clear bright day. Bluebell had just recently reopened its line for connections to British rail network at East Grinsted.
While not especially photogenic, I found the new East Grinsted transfer a big improvement for reaching the Bluebell. On previous visits, I’d hired a car and drove directly to Horsted Keynes—a mid-point station on the Bluebell. All things being equal, its nice to arrive by rail.
It was interesting to travel behind steam (British Railways 2-10-0 class 9F) over newly laid track. We spent a full day wandering up and down the line by train. At one point we went for a long hike following signposted footpaths to a known good spot (what friends like to call a KGS). I’d found the spot, north of Horstead Keynes, about 10 years ago.
Biggest challenge to making photos on the Bluebell is their operating practice of locomotives facing north, which can present some difficult lighting angles considering most of the line is on a north-south alignment.