Now for a typically unhelpful dg post - a day out you can't recreate for the next six months (and can't visit at all for the next six weeks).
The Watercress Line is a steam railway in Hampshire, and runs for ten miles between Alton and New Alresford in Hampshire. As heritage railways go, that's on the long side. If your UK geography needs a nudge, it's located roughly halfway between Reading and Portsmouth. It's dead easy to reach from London because trains run regularly to Alton from Waterloo. If approaching from any other direction, probably best to drive.
The line originally closed in 1973 when British Rail gave up on running trains from Alton to Winchester. A bunch of volunteers raised the cash to buy up the Alton to Alresford section and opened it sequentially over the next ten years. Trains now run most weekends (except in the winter) and throughout school holidays (though not every weekday) and pretty much all of August, along with a fair smattering of Real Ale Trains, Steam Galas and Themed Events. I went for New Year's Day, because why wouldn't you? [12 photos]
Alton's the less glitzy end of the line because the station's shared with South West Trains, with a drab footbridge leading from the ordinary platforms to the special one. Its wooden buildings are painted green and custard yellow, with a slew of period posters and a fingerboard to display the destination of the next train. The lady in the shop will sell you a ticket, and the gentleman in the shed will pour you a filter coffee, none of your frothy rubbish. Once the steam train has pulled in the assembled multitudes throng towards the locomotive for big-lens photos, then switch to the other end as it shunts round. Arm raised, whistle blown, and you're off.
The first seriously ugly building seen through the carriage window is the town's former brewery, which is awaiting residential redevelopment. It started out making Harp and ended up making Heineken, so we're not talking a loss of craft ale proportions. On the edge of town is a common called The Butts, and a pub called the French Horn which is part of Alton's Jane Austen Trail, despite the stated fact that she never visited. The Victorian railway bridge here is being demolished and rebuilt over the next six months, because a single track arch with no pavement isn't conducive to suburban connectivity. Thus no trains will be running to Alton until July, which may explain the cluster of video cameras on Tuesday recording the doomed bridge's final steam crossings.
Chuffing beyond the outskirts of Alton, the wavers are out in force. They stand in fields and country lanes, in wellies and in family groups, and wave at the train vigorously because that's what you do. Some of us wave back. The climb ahead is unusually steep, with a gradient of 1 in 60 on an ascent nicknamed 'going over the Alps'. No train in southern England goes higher, but don't expect much of a view, just an overarching road bridge across a deep cutting at the signed summit. Immediately ahead is Medstead and Four Marks, one of the two intermediate stations and the less interesting of the two. And then it's on across the fields, past sporadic woods, breathing in the occasional cloud.
Ropley station's nice, and worth a stop, especially if you like 130-year-old topiary. It has a lot of stuff from elsewhere, including a signal box from Netley, a water column from Christ's Hospital and a cast iron footbridge from King's Cross. The Handyside Bridge used to span platforms 1 to 8, before the terminus's most recent renovation, and has appeared in films such as The 39 Steps and the first Harry Potter. It now completes a pedestrian circuit around Ropley station, dropping off visitors in the engine yard where they might find a volunteer painting the wheel arches of a Class 50 in Network SouthEast livery. Or hold tight and you might catch sight of a steaming funnel unhooked from the water pipe, then blasting underneath.
The last stretch of line is the only section where you might see some watercress, the local staple which gave the restored railway its name, but only as a chain of distant beds and not really at this time of year. You're more likely to see the A31, and some sheep and some decent rollingfields and a bit of a hillock. And finally it's into the terminus at Alresford, after a good half hour's chug, where the spectacle of everybody pouring out of the carriages to photograph thelocomotive begins again. Here we find the shop with the obligatory Thomas playsets and less familiar jars of Black Forest Gateau Preserve, plus a sitdown buffet serving beer and non-vegan sausage rolls. Its fire buckets are always photogenic, its tinsel is temporary.
While you're here you ought to look round New Alresford, a proper Hampshire market town whose broad T-shaped heart is lined by postcard-friendly Georgian buildings. It'd be even prettier if only it wasn't rammed with parked cars and reversing Landrovers. Given an hour between trains you can easily walk the Millennium Trail, and you should, by picking up a leaflet or following the illustrated boards. The best bit is the footpath along the River Alre, a watercress-friendly chalk stream which meanders past a thatched 13th century mill and an actual Eel House for trapping actual eels. I've also never seen a spy-history plaque on a gents toilet before, but that wasn't so scenic.
Your £16 ticket allows you to shuttle up and down the line to your heart's content, taking advantage of the timetable as you see fit. A lot of small children were greatly enjoying their New Year's day out, perhaps more than their parents who'd done all this too many times before. All the usual Men Who Like Railways were here too, with their cameras and notebooks and railway banter and not-necessarily-recently-washed anoraks. And also along for the ride were an elderly blind couple, tapping their sticks down the platforms and sitting back to enjoy all the sounds and smells of a classic steam journey. Come back in August for the full Watercress experience.