The Bluebell Railway is a heritage line with steam trains running between four stations, and I know it well. My dad was a huge fan and would often take us there on family outings, so a lot of my childhood memories include the Bluebell.
Dad was a shareholder and started volunteering at the railway for a few days a week when he retired in his early 60s. He helped build and open the newest line to East Grinstead, and was a photographer for the website and magazine. When dad passed away in 2014, a group of Bluebell Railway volunteers turned up to the funeral wearing matching handkerchiefs. We asked for donations to the Bluebell instead of flowers, and later on we donated all of dad’s train photography and train memorabilia to the Bluebell Railway. He has a plaque in their memorial garden which states: “PAT PLANE. DEDICATED DONOR, VOLUNTEER & PHOTOGRAPHER.”
Mum still receives newsletters and marketing materials, so when she saw information about the 11 Mile Track Trek she immediately signed us up. The route started at East Grinstead train station and walked the full length of the Bluebell line to Sheffield Park, passing Horsted Keynes and Kingscote stations en route. The steam trains rarely stop for the day so this was a unique opportunity and sounded like fun.
Registration was free but we had to commit to raising £100 for the Bluebell Railway Tr(ack) Action Appeal Charity, and were promised the benefits of a free hot drink, medal and free shuttle bus back to East Grinstead at the end. I never ask for sponsorship (it makes me cringe and I hate asking for money!) and haven’t done it for years, but sucked it up this time and was really surprised at how generous and supportive people were. We reached target and were really excited to take part.
So on the morning on Saturday 18th November, mum and I parked at East Grinstead train station and signed into the Trek, showing proof of sponsorship and picking up our ‘Paddington’ walking numbers, which were cute luggage labels to tie to a zip. A static train carriage on the platform houses a cafe selling bacon sandwiches, hot beverages and confectionery, with tables and chairs as per an actual train carriage, so we made use before the trek started. The local Mayor turned up in her walking gear to lead the way after a humorous and useful safety briefing from the Bluebell directors.
I was wearing Adidas Climate running bottoms, black 1000 mile trainer socks, Brooks sports bra, Primark black running vest, Parkrun t-shirt and Shine Walk hoody with Brooks Ghost 7 trainers, which made for a perfectly comfortable outfit. My bumbag contained lip-balm, tissues, plasters, money, keys, chocolate energy bar, phone, mints and a torch for the tunnel, which was a lifesaver! I also have a new-found love and respect for bumbags which are SO much more comfortable (and lighter!) than backpacks!
A fair few hundred of us set off along the tracks at 9am in clear, dry and crisp weather which made for ideal walking conditions. We walked alongside the track for the majority of the time, on grass and rubble, but did occasionally have to use the track with marshals guiding us along the way. There was a friendly atmosphere and time seemed to whizz by. It was a lovely, picturesque walk through the countryside. It wasn’t long until we reached the first station of Kingscote, with toilet facilities and refreshments available to purchase. We carried on with the trek, past some lovely scenery, and reached our one and only tunnel. It was long and dark despite being lit with some special lamps, and had a drippy roof! Mum and I had great fun dodging the drips and puddles and navigating with my torch. It was a fantastic experience – how often do you get to walk through a steam train tunnel?! Before long we were at the second station of Horsted Keynes, where again there were toilet facilities and more refreshments available to purchase, including chips. Once again we were ‘good’ and didn’t stop for food – we carried on with the trek, although this is when things got tough. No-one had really stopped at Kingscote, but it seemed that most people were stopping and having a rest/eating at Horsted Keynes, and the weather was also starting to turn. It was suddenly freezing and starting to drizzle. The hoards of walkers had separated and for a while it was just mum and I on that last stretch to Sheffield Park. This was the longest stretch by far and really dragged on – the terrain was challenging and starting to get tiresome as it was all rubble, so our ankles were constantly turning over. The sleepers were also wet and slippery. One section of the track was straight and went on for some time, and we’d definitely had enough by the time Sheffield Park station came into view.
The finish line was lovely, with station masters and marshals all congratulating us and pointing us in the direction of bespoke medals and hand-written certificates. We collected our free hot drink and (finally!) purchased some hot food from the station cafe. We ended up sitting with the Mayor and had a nice chat! 30mins later we were on the free shuttle bus back to East Grinstead station.
Overall, I think the event was really sweet and I absolutely loved it. The route was fantastic with lovely scenery, and it was a unique experience that I’d love to repeat. Mum and I have already said that we’d like to do it next year, and I look forward to it. The marshals and volunteers were helpful and friendly, and the event was well-organised and seemed to run like clockwork. 🙂