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The Telegraph

Light at the end of the tunnel: Michael Portillo on Britain’s greatest rail wonders

While hundreds of largely empty trains run on Britain’s transport systems during the pandemic, our gorgeous heritage lines are shut by government order. The day they reopen – maybe alongside pubs and restaurants – will be an occasion for national celebration. Those antique railways offer so much that is good. They represent our history. They were restored by determined people offering up chunks of their precious time on earth so we could experience unforgettable moments of nostalgia, beauty and joy. Dr Beeching may be reviled by rail enthusiasts for closing lines in the 1960s, but he opened up enormous opportunities for railway resurrectionists. The Bluebell Railway claims to have been the first preserved standard-gauge railway, running between Lewes and East Grinstead, along the route of the old London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. For those like me, who yearn to live in Agatha Christie’s world, it offers the Golden Arrow Pullman dining train. If you prefer Edith Nesbit, head to the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, where her 1906 novel The Railway Children was made into a film, starring Oakworth station. In it, Jenny Agutter and the other children memorably flag down a train with their petticoats, averting a catastrophic collision with a landslide. The narrow-gauge line running from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog in North Wales has a grittier history – built to carry slate, descending 700ft to the coast, and originally operating on gravity (using horses on the ascent). The Festiniog Railway Company avoided nationalisation, which helped it become the oldest surviving railway company in the world. Today, you can ride in a plush saloon car as the train twists its way around the sylvan slopes of Snowdonia National Park. On a smaller scale, I love a track only a mile and a half long, and 12 and a quarter inches wide. The steam railway at Exbury Gardens in Hampshire was built by rail devotee Lionel de Rothschild, and puffs between his display of rhododendrons and azaleas, magnificent in late spring.