N’s a funny one with characters from books and tv shows. Some he seems to love (Peter Rabbit and arghh, Peppa Pig) while others he’s ambivalent to (Thomas the Tank Engine). With Thomas he seems to love the books more than the tv show (always good from a parent point of view), but when friends were talking about booking Polar Express and similar train rides for Christmas, I did a bit of an online search to see what was near us. And found that the Didcot Railway Centre has Thomas and friends, and at Christmas you can ride on Thomas to visit Father Christmas.
Beforehand, with our tickets we were sent a little book for N to read. It’s a lovely touch and something to get the children excited about in preparation for the trip.
We’d never been to the railway centre before, but it’s simple to find, and just through Didcot Parkway station. Looking online, we definitely did the right thing on parking. The trick is not to use the station, but to park behind the pub opposite for a bargain £2-3 all day with a much shorter walk as well.
We were met at the entrance by a man handing out Thomas stickers and were directed through the subway to the Railway Centre. We arrived not long after opening and there was a queue, but it moved quickly and one of the volunteers was working the queue and checking advance tickets, handing over maps and explaining where to go. So very efficient if you’d bought in advance. Then it’s a walk down the track.
Included in the price on the Christmas tickets was the ride on with Thomas, the trip including present to see father Christmas, free unlimited rides on Duck (although there was a sign saying Duck was ill, so there was another engine in its place) on the mainline track, and all the other activities that were going on. Just walking down the tracks and walkways to the main part of the centre was fun enough for N, and it was a case of spotting what engines there were. I think N was very pleased to see them with their faces on, although he was very sure to tell me that ‘Thomas doesn’t speak here, only on television’.
At the enquiries office, we had the chance to ask more questions, were advised on which bits got busy, and where was undercover in case of rain. N also got given more stickers and some Thomas tattoos, so he was happy in the few days afterwards (although the annoying tattoo is still on his arm days later because he won’t let me scrub it off – he does bath every day really!).
We decided to check out where we’d catch Thomas from so we got our bearings, then headed down to the carriage sheds to find the balloon modellers. Although it was early on, there was a bit of a queue because only 1 of the 3 had set up. Once the other 2 arrived we got ours pretty quickly. N loved his Thomas balloon (despite bursting the steam during our day there). Later in the day we saw lots of other exciting designs, but when we were there, they’d not made up many samples to choose from. I do think people should be set up ready rather than then hustling past families in a small confined space and huffing because there’s not enough room.
The day was a bit rainy on and off, so we tried to head to the Inspiration carriage which was the education and play area. This was obviously where school visits head. There were lots of scientific interactive boards to help teach about steam, locomotives and more which were a bit heavy for N to manage, but we had a go.
Amongst the history and photography, I noticed some information about Banbury and our local area which was interesting to read about.
There were also colouring stations set up – there was a competition you could enter your pictures to, but N was more interested in the Thomas railway track set up, While he played I went and got him his ‘I rode with Thomas’ certificate. It’s a lovely touch and one that he can put in his memory box.
And the wooden bridges that you could take apart and rebuild. He managed to rebuild a Maidenhead bridge with a little guidance and was very pleased with himself.
After scooting him past the outside railway track and promising we’d head back later, it was time to go on Thomas. We were a bit early for our timed slot, but I did hear one of the staff there telling someone it didn’t matter what time you turned up for your slot, they just fill up the train, so if you’re early or miss your slot, it shouldn’t make too much difference. We didn’t wait for long before Thomas pulled up to the platform.
It’s a very efficient service. They let off the last people, then the Fat Controller or other railway staff usher you onto Annie or Clarabel and you’re set to go to the station that Father Christmas is at. It’s not a long journey but just enough. :Once we arrived, we were again ushered onto the Christmas carriage, which is decorated with wonderful Christmassy window dressings, to wait in turn for Father Christmas.
We didn’t have to wait for long before it was our turn, but someone (kind of dressed as an elf) asked N’s name and age, and whether he was looking forward to seeing Santa. Of course I had to do the talking so I did wonder how N would be. When it was our turn, typically N didn’t want to answer Father Christmas’ questions and wouldn’t sit next to him. Until I prompted him to say what he’d told Daddy he wanted for Christmas.
‘A combine harvester’. That flummoxed Father Christmas for a second.
‘We might be able to manage that. Would you play with it in the garden?’
‘No, you can’t play with a combine in the garden. It goes in the farmyard’.
I had to explain that N didn’t want a toy combine because he already had one, he was really after a real one. Bit out of Santa’s budget I think! And of course N wouldn’t stay still enough for long to get a photo, so it’s a mystery as to whether he was really there or not!
Once we’d spoken to Father Christmas and N had been given his present (he was probably one of the only children who didn’t open theirs until getting home,
We headed up to the main line station to ride up and down on the engine there. To my surprise there was only us and another family on it. Perfect for when you want to ride for as long as you want up and down the line.
My plan had been to grab something for lunch in the cafe there, but it isn’t really set up for a cold rainy day. It was rammed inside, the picnic tables outside were full, and the queue to get food or drinks was ridiculous so we aborted that idea.
N wanted to go back and watch the railway track which had Toby, Thomas and Percy being driven round it. There was quite a crowd, but N loved watching the engines going through the tunnel and then chasing them back round the track.
After some minutes watching that, and then saying a quick hello and bye to Mary from Over40andamumtoone, (we’d realised we were both booked to go on the same day), it was time to head out and find some lunch at the pub opposite.
There’s a lot more to do than I’d realised at the Didcot Railway Centre, and it was a bargain price at around £12 each for the Christmas event. They run other Thomas days throughout the year, or there’s standard entrance to look round the centre. We didn’t do too much exploring in the sheds, although I’d have liked to have done, but it’s definitely worth the entrance fee.
I was impressed with the gift N got from Father Christmas too – an 8 in 1 box of Cars themed games. Perfect for an almost 4 year old, and of good quality compared to some other grotto presents you might get. N’s also been enjoying the stickers, so I’m sure in the future we’ll be going back to have another look round (I want to have a look in the air raid shelter (I was confused because I wasn’t sure if it was open; the museum archives is currently shut for renovation).
Have you ever done special Christmas train journeys with your children?
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