In the outer reaches of London, between the mainline and the Uxbridge branch, the METROPOLITAN has competition. A private railway runs in the Ruislip suburbs, transporting thousands of passengers a year, even though Oyster is not accepted. I picked a decent day for a trip and ventured off to the water's edge for a ride.
If you're visiting for the first time, Ruislip Lido may surprise. A 60 acre lake surrounded by woodland, it may at first look natural but is nothing of the sort. In fact it's a reservoir, first flooded in 1811, for the express purpose of feeding the Grand Union Canal. That runs not terribly close by, so a feeder channel was built to carry water all the way down to Hayes. If you stand in the southwest corner of the lake you can peer in through the grating at the outflow, and if you're feeling especially keen you can trace its path for seven miles through Hillingdon estates. Fear of flooding means that water levels in the lido are kept deliberately low, and the local sailing club disbanded in 1991 for lack of depth.
The biggest surprise is probably the beach. It must be the biggest sandy beach in London, which perhaps isn't difficult given our lack of coast. A sprawl of sand covers the southern end of the lake, and that in turn is covered by cheery families when the weather's right. Buckets and spades aren't common, this is more a place to relax while junior plays, safe in the knowledge that the tide will never come in no matter how long you rest. A new Woodland Centre and Catering Facility is under construction alongside, and is nearly complete. But don't consider wandering into the water, because that's still "no swimming, no paddling" until the council's happy with the water quality.
It's at this southern corner that you'll find Woody Bay station. This is where the Ruislip Lido Railway began in 1945, with a looping route into the trees, just one of the many attractions that drew postwar crowds to these shores. In the 1950s electric replaced steam, then in 1978 came a nasty accident which caused the railway to be closed. That caused the Ruislip Lido Railway Society to be created, and they're still going strong today with an increasing number of locomotives. If you fancy joining them to volunteer to guard, drive, fix or sell, they'd be very glad to have you.
The carriages are only little, but there are plenty of them, enough to deal with a summer rush. Some are open but most have a roof, while one truck is for buggies and strollers which goes down brilliantly with the target audience. Tickets cost £2 single or £2.50 return, which is considerably cheaper than the cablecar, and the journey's longer too. Trains run at weekends from Easter to November, or every day during half terms and school summer holidays. You need to time it right because there's a 40 minute gap between services, but rest assured you can just about walk round the lake to the other end of the line in the ten minutes before the train gets there.
I was a little nervous queueing for the train as the only adult without a child (or gaggle of children) in tow. Would I get suspicious looks? Thankfully I was able to sit at the back in a carriage all of my own, while the serious parents and grandparents grabbed the front seats. One lucky youngster was allowed to wave the flag to set us off, and then the guard hopped in behind me for the duration. Someone aboard started doing Thomas impersonations, with "choo choo"s to make their toddler's day complete. We curved round the lawn and engine sheds, past Lido-goers peering through the fence. And then into the woods.
Ruislip Woods are fabulous, and substantial in extent. Indeed they form the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London, with oak and hornbeam the dominant foliage. Maybe once you're off the train and you've "done" the Lido you could go and explore, you could be wandering around for hours. Enjoy the ride through the woodland as the train nudges towards the lake round a loop, then bends back to rejoin the main track. Don't expect to see much of the water on the way round, indeed this might better be called the Ruislip Woods Railway because I don't think I spotted the Lido once through the trees.
The second station is called Haste Hill, and at one point was the terminus of the line. It's more a halt than a station, to be fair, merely a strip of tarmac with a single blue sign alongside. You can only request to get off there, never on, and even then only when trains are travelling in an anti-clockwise direction. The train'll undoubtedly carry straight on without stopping, to cross the only level crossing on the entire route. That's important because the railway tracks form an otherwise impenetrable barrier between the lake and the surrounding woods, so you either cross here or face a lengthy detour.
The last run heads down the western side of the Lido, along the edge of Poor's Field, with further chances to wave at passers by. The line ends at Ruislip Lido station, which is scheduled (sometime) to be renamed Willow Lawn because the current name is geographically vague. Here you can watch the driver and guard spin the loco on a turntable before nipping to the other end of the train ready for the return journey. If you're not going with them, it's a short walk to the swans by the water's edge, and the car park, and the number H13 bus. Plus the pub (now a carvery), built on the site of a much nicer Art Deco cafe (incinerated by arsonists in the 1990s). Even after all these years Ruislip's Lido and miniature railway are still a proper day out.