On a crisp bright winter’s morning in December, our house was buzzing with excitment.
This Sunday, there would be no lounging about in onsies , playing on ipads and moaning about homework. Today we were up, and dressed crowdding round the ld Landrover ...willing the engine to start first time- we were off to the Santa Express !
My husband, myself and our to boys aged 7 & 9, love the Christmas animated film The Polar Express. My youngest, Harry - is obsessed with Harry Potter books and films. When I told them we’d be travelling on a real life steam train, they were overjoyed.
I did have slight reservations, as my 9 year old has autism and my youngest hs developed a fear of ‘normal’ trains since a nightmare journey in the summer with delays and points failures.
I tried to explain that nothing coud really go wrong with a steam train, as long as there is enough coal to fuel the fire, boil the water and make the steam. Sometimes the simplest inventions are the best.
We live in Shepton Mallet, the Santa Express train is run by West Somerset Railways, departing from Bishops Lydeard station near Taunton, about an hours drive away.
It’s best to buy tickets online in advance from www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk
The train departs several times a day during the festive season, travels through the Quantock Hills to Williton (and then returns), whilst Santa visits children at their seat.
The website says that “each child will receive a small gift, suited to their age. Adults will be served a mince pie and a festive drink, whilst soaking up the excitable atmosphere. The journey takes approximately an hour and a half.No dogs are permitted on the Santa Express or Santa Special (except assistance dogs)”
We arrived in good time for the 2.15pm departure. Giving us time to take photos of the train and decoated station. We even spotted Santa by the ticket office, and he was happy to chat and stop for a photo.
The lady in the office checked the ages of our boys, and gave them a badge - so Santa and his elves ( local volunteers and air cadets) would give a suitable gift.
I would recommend arriving atleast 30 minutes before departure, especially if there are four or more people who wish to sit together.
Because of my son’s disability and fear of crowds/loud noises- a kindly teenage elf showed us to one of the individual first class carriage compartments. We almost wept as it felt like we had been transported to the actual Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter films. All the wood and furnishing were original, it even smelt ‘old’.
There are a few first and second class compartents like ours, but you would be dvised to reserve these in advance. There are also spaces for wheelchairs and disabled users, which can be reserved.
As we set off slowly and steadily through the winter somerset countryside. Some of Santas helpers brought us warm mince pies, a sherry, and sweets and a drink for the kids.
Soon, Professor Popcorn, the resident magician and entertainer appeared and shed the boys how to balance a spinning plate! He was funny and polite, the boys loved him.
Not long afterwards, the big man himself Santa Clause arrived with a huge sack of gifts and lots of jolly helpers who really seemed to be enjoying themselves. Our boys oved thir presents and had a long chat about whether theyd been naughty or nice, and what they’d like to find under the Christmas Tree this year.
We popped along to the restaurant car, to buy coffee and cakes and ‘hot hot chocolate’ !
Make sure you take plenty of cash- as they cant take cards onboard. You coud take your own picnic and drinks if you wish.
At Williton, the train chugged slowly to a stop. We were told there would be time to hop onto the platform and watch as the engine unhooked and changed ends so we could travell back along the tracks to Bishops Lydeard. My husband and boys stood on the bridge for an excellent view. My son with autism enjoyed this, but found the steam horn bit loud and covered his ears. Bring ear defenders if your child is the same.
The homeward journey was just as much fun, with more visits from Santa , his elves and the magician. Some carol singing and lots of photo opportunities.
We spoke about our magical exerience on the Santa Express all the way home in the car. And although the trip itself was only 1.5hrs, the build up and after glow made for a full day of wonderful memories, and was well worth the money.
All the staff, drivers, engine men, volunteers, and helpers were amazing an made the day very special. I am so glad we have the West Someset Railway , and I have the feeling we will be getting a Rover Ticket for some longer journeys soon.
For adults and older kids, book now for the final ‘Carol Train’ and dont forget the annual Winter Steam Festival -
“The Winter Steam Festival is a great way to get out and about in the week between Christmas and the New Year.
Travel in a steam heated railway carriage built in the 1950’s or early 1960’s and enjoy 20 miles of Somerset countryside in winter passing by the windows at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. If you need a hot drink – or something stronger - hot and cold snacks or even sweets! The trains have a licensed buffet and there are cafes at Bishops Lydeard and Minehead stations. If the weather is kind, why not take a coastal walk or a hike in the Quantock Hills to “blow away the cobwebs”?
Walking ideas can be found in our “Book of Walks from WSR Stations” which can be bought from our online shop along with other gift ideas. The Railway Museums at Bishops Lydeard and Washford stations will be open and the Diesel and Electric Preservation Group will welcome guests to their Depot and Heritage Centre at Williton. At Bishops Lydeard the Taunton Model Railway Group will welcome visitors to their club room. Normal fares and discounts apply and discounted rover tickets can be purchased now.”
We will definately be back soon !
Christmas can be an expensive time of year , but it doesn't have to cost as much as you think. I was proud of myself for ignoring all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday hype, but I do feel like we are being bombarded with special offers and promotions everywhere we turn. The real bargains are to be found in our local charity shops, jumble sales , bric-a -brac stalls at festive fayres, Facebook selling sites and reduced sections of the supermarkets. I attended our very posh annual Royal British Legion Mess dinner on Saturday. It was held at the Charlton House Hotel, and attended by 88 branch members, friends and family, local dignitaries and even the national chairman himself.
The occasion called for a very special frock, and I was lucky enough to pick up a gorgeous fancy ball-gown in St. Margaret Hospice charity shop for under £10. This week I am getting rid of clutter and making some crimbo cash, by selling pre-loved kids toys, clothes, shoes and handbags on eBay. Some unopened gift sets I will donate to the schools for their tombolas, helping them raise much needed funds. We are also doing a 'reverse' advent calendar. The idea is to add an item of non-perishable food to a box everyday of advent, and finally give the filled box it to a local food bank or homeless shelter for distribution to those in need. Martin Lewis from www.moneysavingexpert.com made a short film earlier in the year about the commercialisation of Christmas, and how we often end up exchanging 'tit for tat' gifts- which leaves everyone unhappy and out of pocket. Apart from close family, we shouldn't really have to feel obliged to buy gifts. Home-made crafts, cookies and cards often feel much more special. Or even agreeing 'not to exchange' gifts , can relieve both parties of a huge amount of stress and pressure. You could offer 'vouchers' to baby or dog sit. Swap used but good condition toys or books to each other's children. Whatever you do, don't get into debt, and don't give in to pressure. Do it your way. Keep it simple ! There are lots of fun, family friendly and free events coming up. The alternative Christmas Markets from 14th - 16th December, in Shepton Mallet with live music provided by Pocket Money Studios. Late night Christmas shopping , mulled cider and mince pies in Town Street, every Friday till 8pm ( then why not pop in to the new Ski Bar). Pop along to the carol services & nativity plays at local churches and local schools this month. Also The Chapel Dance Studio presents 'The Nutcracker' on Friday 7th December at 7.30pm .The Christmas Classic told in Ballet, Tap, Jazz and Song, at Whitstone School Hall, Shepton Mallet. It's free entrance, there will be a raffle, refreshments and a collection in aid of The League of Friends of Shepton Mallet Community Hospital.
I'm a 43 year old, mum of two little boys- currently living in Shepton Mallet in Somerset. I'm the Founder and Creative Director of Radio Shepton, a Stand up and comedian and spoken word performer, and write a regular column for The Wells and Shepton Mallet Journal. Which is the basis for my blog usually. I lived in Swedish Lapland for 7 years until 2014 where my boys were born. My partner and I ran a husky dog sledding business. Before that I was a poet, radio presenter, media lecturer, writer, TV producer, actress and burlesque performer ! I never want my life to be boring :)