The train service between Cheltenham Racecourse and Winchcombe (and Broadway) is not part of the official national railway network, but a resurrection by dedicated enthusiasts of part of the old line that once connected Cheltenham with the delicious-sounding Honeybourne – the Honeybourne line. The terminus in Cheltenham for this line, therefore, is not Cheltenham Spa station, in the town center, but on the town’s outskirts, at the famous racecourse at Prestbury, which sits magnificently beneath the Cotswold escarpment. The station is as you imagine an old station to be, with its pale pastel shades, the browns and caramels of the Great Western Railway, and its wooden skirts around the roof. In fact, everything about the station places it in another era – the posters, the advertisements for cigarettes, extinct newspapers, and long-forgotten tablets and potions, with their unlikely claims as elixirs and cure-alls. It has been done deliberately to create an air of nostalgia that appeals to those who remember or who yearn for the so-called great age of train travel, before cuts in the nineteen sixties deprived the country of a comprehensive rail network, a decision, given Britain’s congested roads, that has caused a lot of hand-wringing since. To that extent it is a tourist operation, a ‘heritage line’, but the fact is that it has a warmth and humanity about it that appeals naturally to all. It has the ambition to become a fully functioning railway one day and take its place as a useful service.
A couple of the locomotives are steamers. People gather around them, with the incredulous fascination of children. Black and gleaming and steaming, with silver wheels, one of them bears the crescent and moon insignia of Turkey. Built in Glasgow in 1941 to be one of the workhorses of the British freight network, the fall of France meant that it was surplus to requirements and instead somehow made its way to Turkey where it worked until the nineteen eighties before returning home and eventually ending up here.
The route from Cheltenham follows the line of the Cotswold escarpment by heading north onto the Evesham plain. Cleeve, with its rocky flanks, and the grassier Nottingham Hill drift by, and soon the countryside opens up to the west towards Wales as the line cuts among the lower slopes of the Cotswold outliers. Through Bishop’s Cleeve, and a short stop at Gotherington Halt, homemade flapjacks in the buffet car and the old cindery, sulphury smell from the engine as the train disappear into the tunnel at Greet and arrives at Winchcombe station, which is over a mile north of the town.