There are few experiences more likely to bring on a sense of nostalgia than a trip on a steam train, even for those of us who are too young to have ever really seen them in action. Fortunately, there are heritage railways dotted all across the UK, dedicated to recreating the authentic feeling of taking a train journey during the Age of Steam. Here are some you won't want to miss out on if you want to discover the best heritage railways in the UK.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Yorkshire
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a thriving heritage railway which carries more passengers than any other in the UK. Most of their services are pulled by steam trains, but heritage diesels operate on the railway as well.
The railway route runs from Pickering through Levisham, Newton Dale and Goathland to Grosmont, winding its way through the striking scenery of the North York Moors. Grosmont is the last station of the vintage railway proper, but some of its services continue along regular rail lines to the seaside town of Whitby.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs trains every day from April to October. Outside these months, trains run only on weekends and for special events.
Swanage Railway, Dorset
The Swanage Railway in Dorset runs from Norden to Swanage, stopping at Corfe Castle, Harman's Cross and (by request) Herston Halt along the way. The route offers some magnificent views of the Dorset countryside, and the recreated Corfe Castle station looks as though it's been plucked right out of the past.
What's really incredible about this railway is that the tracks were entirely rebuilt by volunteers after the original line was closed and torn up in the 1970s. In summer, a diesel service connects the Swanage Railway services to the main line at Wareham, and there are hopes that the rail link will be made permanent in future.
Trains run every day from April to October, and at weekends and bank holidays for the rest of the year, and there are 'Santa Special' services in December.
Bodmin and Wenford Railway, Cornwall
Cornwall's only full-sized steam railway, the Bodmin and Wenford Railway takes visitors on a journey through 13 miles of the Bodmin landscape. Services run from the railway's main station at Bodmin General and can be taken to Boscarne Junction or to Bodmin Parkway (which connects with main line services), with the option for taking a round trip of the full route as well.
Though steam engines pull most trains on this route, vintage diesels also make an appearance. The railway does operate services through most of the year, but daily services only run during the busier months - it's best to check to see if they'll be in operation when you visit.
Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway, Falkirk
Within reasonable travel distance of both Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway is a Scottish heritage railway that travels from Bo'ness to Manuel Junction, stopping at Kinneil Halt (by request) and Birkhill along the way.
The rail route makes its way along the shore of the Firth of Forth, then passes through the beautiful Scottish countryside and over the River Avon Viaduct. You'll see both steam and vintage diesel trains running this route.
If you're taking a trip on this train, you also won't want to miss the Museum of Scottish Railways near the station in Bo'ness, operated by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, the same charity that runs the heritage railway. The museum hosts a number of preserved railway locomotives and a variety of other rail-related exhibits.
The opening times of the railway and the museum can vary, but trains usually run on weekends and some midweek days during spring, summer and part of autumn, with the museum being open 7 days a week during that same period.
Peak Rail, Derbyshire
Peak Rail is a heritage railway in Derbyshire, with trains travelling from Matlock station through Darley Dale to Rowsley South. While it doesn't run the longest route, it's still an attractive journey with some great views of the Derbyshire countryside. Trains are usually pulled by a steam engine in one direction and a vintage diesel the other way, meaning this line effectively offers two vintage railway experiences in one.
Trains operate here throughout the year, but mostly just on weekends and for special events during the winter months, with availability at other times varying.
Peak Rail is affiliated with a number of other railway preservation and restoration societies who have their homes at Rowsley South station, including the Heritage Shunters Trust and the London, Midland and Scottish Carriage Association. If you're interested in their work, you just have to ask and their volunteers should be happy to show you around.
Vale of Rheidol Railway, Ceredigion
The Vale of Rheidol Railway is a narrow-gauge heritage railway with steam trains running from Aberystwyth to the village of Devil's Bridge. The main appeal of this railway is the journey through the beautiful Rheidol Valley, with the narrower width of the tracks allowing the trains to more easily wind their way around and over the contours of the rugged Welsh landscape.
The line has been operating since 1902, when it carried lead ore and timber across the valley as well as passengers, and was the last steam railway to serve as part of the national rail network. Trains run here throughout most of the year, although the services are generally limited to the weekends during the winter months.
Welsh Highland Railway, Gwynedd
The Welsh Highland Railway is another narrow-gauge heritage railway perfect for sightseeing in Wales. Trains set out from Caernarfon to travel through Snowdonia National Park, climbing to the foothills of Snowdon before descending to Beddgelert, steaming through the gorgeous Aberglaslyn Pass, and finally arriving in Porthmadog.
From here, you'll even have the option to board another heritage track, the Ffestiniog Railway, which also travels through the magnificent scenery of Snowdonia until it reaches the historic mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Both of these railways call at a large number of stations throughout Snowdonia and offer a wide range of fares for travel. Because of this, it's a good idea to check running times in advance and plan your journey well - some of the stops are rather remote.