After last year’s wonderful trip to Didcot railway centre to ride on Thomas the Tank Engine to see Father Christmas, I really should have known better than to go elsewhere. But I like to try out lots of different places, so this year we booked to go on the steam train from Cheltenham Racecourse station to the North Pole to see Father Christmas instead.
I’d heard a few good things about the Gloucester Warwickshire Railway, so thought it would be the perfect trip out. I have to say it was a mixed bag.
I can’t fault the organisation. Tickets sent out efficiently, an email to say because it would be a race day, use entrance 6 for parking, and a nice prompt and useful response to my further parking questions.
We turned up early for our 1.10 train journey. It means we could eat our lunch before heading it, although N announced he needed the toilet so we packed all our stuff (well, my camera) and headed over to the station. It’s a really sweet little stop, and a lovely walk down with a vintage feel.
It turned out there was a place for refreshments on the platform but the train was already sitting there so we got straight on to find a seat and wait for the off.
Steam trains are so special for travelling on, and these had ‘retro’ patterned upholstery. Wonderful to see, and a great talking point on instagram!
There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing by the guards, then we were off. The journey lasts around 20 minutes, and we were told that on the return journey we could come back on either train, and there would be a sing song to join in with.
The anticipation of the long dark tunnel before reaching Lapland and the North Pole excited N and the other children on board. After waiting for the other train to go past, we reached the tunnel and found our way through the other side. We were one of the first to disembark, and made our way to the Elf Centre to have our tickets checked and then go on to see Father Christmas.
I wondered what N would be like given last year he didn’t really talk to Father Christmas. This year he was chatting away to the helpers, giving his name and age, and telling them he’d been on a steam train before.
Then it was our turn to go through the door and be taken to Father Christmas. He was certainly on the older side, and I’m not sure he got the best out of N who took a while to talk. Even though he’s told me beforehand what he wanted from Father Christmas (a small forage harvester), he wouldn’t tell Father Christmas that. Although he did say his name and how old he was, and said thank you after he was given his present bag. I was impressed that Father Christmas did get N to stand next to him for me to take some photos which was good. Usually I can’t get any without doing a half selfie standing next to N as well.
Then we were taken back out again and directed towards the mince pies and drinks. No egg nog or mulled wine, just tea, coffee and squash. N was happy to eat a mince pie, and luckily there were a few seats so we could sit inside to eat, and then sit to wait for the train back afterwards. It was a little like a WI refreshments stand, although it did the job. No fancy cakes or the like to buy though.
The best bit about the stop off was the real snow being pumped out as we arrived at Father Christmas’ grotto. But overall I was really disappointed with the experience.
We’d arrived just after 1.30, but the next return train wasn’t until 2.50 according to the board on the platform. Not so bad if you’re at the back of the queue for Father Christmas, but we were probably in and out by 1.40, had a mince pie by 1.45, and then had nothing to do. Apart from a man dressed up in a massive snowman outfit, there was no entertainment or activities. No music, no Christmas displays to look at. Nothing. And with the station (Winchcombe) being next to residential streets it wasn’t like we could go wandering off to explore round a town or village centre.
In the end, we decided to just get back on the train that was sitting at the platform. By that stage we had about 40 minutes to wait. N got stuck into his present from Father Christmas. Luckily it was an activity set with paper and pens, otherwise he’d have had nothing to do because I no longer take things out with us. I expect there to be things to do or see.
2.50 passed, and still no sign of the train going. There was no explanation from anyone working on the train as to why we were running later, and we didn’t leave until 3.20. I wasn’t happy given I’d planned the day to be back by a certain time and wanted to avoid most of the race traffic. Thankfully once we arrived it was a quick walk back to the car and heading off home was fairly quick out of Cheltenham.
N really enjoyed being on the steam train…any public transport or transport that’s a bit different is always a success. And he liked seeing Father Christmas. But for me, I know we wouldn’t be going back. Having experienced the magic of Hatton Adventure World/Farm, Millets Farm and Didcot Railway Centre’s versions of Christmas celebrations, there’s a lot more that could be done here. Not least make the trains run more frequently if they’re not going to put on activities and things to see or watch for the families visiting.
Where do you take your children to see Father Christmas?