A Journey on the Bluebell Railway - East Grinstead to Sheffield Park

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The Bluebell Railway is one of the more well-known standard gauge preserved lines in the UK. It was also one of the first to start a preservation movement to save the line over 50 years ago and it was the first standard gauge preserved railway. The preservation Society was formed at the time, by four students and mentor Bernard Holden who worked in the rail industry, including overseas service during the war. He went on to become the president of the society and led a full life working towards the long term goal of connecting the Bluebell to the national network at East Grinstead.

This was finally achieved early this year after long and successful fundraising including 5.5 million pounds to remove waste from Imberhorne cutting. Unfortunately for Bernard, he passed away at the age of 104 just before completion at the start of 2013. However, the highest point of the line is in the cutting and the summit has been named  'Holden Summit' in his honour.

To get to the Bluebell, you need to catch the train from London Victoria to East Grinstead and the journey takes in the region of an hour. There is now a new terminal station for the Bluebell there, it is a new build that lacks the character of the other restored stations on the line, but it is functional and fits into the small area between the local supermarket and the mainline station.

The reinstatement of the final extension from Kingscote to East Grinstead takes the length of the line to 11 miles. As soon as you leave the new terminus, you cross an impressive viaduct of some length and immediately start climbing at 1:60 through Imberhorne cutting. The latest extension into East Grinstead is a fairly short one of 2 miles or so, but it gives the Bluebell access to the lucrative London area charter market. 


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We quickly arrive at Kingscote, this represents a classic 1930's Southern Railway country station which was the northerly terminus for the railway but was subjected to severe restrictions after objections, including no parking on site, just a run-round for the bus connection to East Grinstead. All too soon, we leave this idyllic country station and carry on towards the next stop at Horsted Keynes. On the way, we pass a disused station, but the Bluebell isn't allowed to reinstate and use it after objections from local residents. This to me is a curious thing given the economic benefits that preserved railways bring, but given the affluent nature of the area, maybe not so.

We head straight into a tunnel of quite some length, which is one of the other major features on the line. If conditions are right, the compartment fills up with smoke before emerging once more into the wonderful West Sussex countryside. We arrive at Horsted Keynes in no time at all. This is the major station on the railway with 5 platforms and an extensive yard that includes the Carriage & Wagon Department. They regularly restore a mix of Southern Railway and Southern region BR coaches to the highest standard on preserved railways that I have seen. It once formed a junction with the line to Ardingly and Haywards Heath. The Bluebell owns all this trackbed and it forms another long term goal for the railway. This also is the station where trains pass on their respective journeys a lot of the time. Sometimes alongside the normal running of service trains and dining trains, etc. can be a footplate experience course, often using the unique Terrier class locomotives on the line. It would make a great station to model and it can be a good place to watch trains.

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We continue south towards Sheffield Park, through the rolling countryside. Along the way there is plenty of activity alongside the running of the trains such as p/way activities from spot ballasting to burning gangs. The other pleasing sight to see was a youth group called the 9F club, (20 or so young volunteers with several adults working on various areas on the railway). From what I could tell, the age of the group ranged from about 10 to 16. In fact there were several other young volunteers being mentored by guards and buffet attendants in their respective roles, it was really good and refreshing to see. All too often these days, visiting a standard gauge railway seems like being on the set of the film 'Cocoon' and if programmes and training like this is not put in place, then it will effect the preservation movement in a big way with lack of volunteers in the future.

Again, you get caught up in the scenery and arrive at Sheffield Park before you know it. Here has seen recent expansion with the creation of a carriage shed to house stock under cover. It is also the home of the locomotive shed where the bulk of steam locomotives are based. There is a great variety of engines to see from BR to S.E.C.R, all restored to an exceptional standard.

On my visit, it was timetable two, which consists two normal service trains, one of which is normally a heritage set made up of Metropolitan Railway non-corridor coaches and the like. This was pulled by a visiting Great Western locomotive. This heritage train is also furnished with an Inspectors' Saloon, which you can travel on for a modest extra payment of one pound. Also running alongside the normal service on Sundays is the successful Pullman Dining Train, advanced booking for this is strongly recommended.

In conclusion, I would recommend the Bluebell Railway for a visit if you are in that area. The railway is a credit to the preservation society. There is an excellent service with lots to see and do, this can be supplemented with a visit to the local National Trust gardens at Sheffield Park. It is also possible to purchase a combined ticket. It will cost you £16 for an all day 3rd class ticket for unlimited travel on the day; anyone with a HRA pass will get members rates which is roughly half that at £8.