If you’ve ever taken a walk or a cycle along the Comber Greenway or Dundrum Coastal path, you might know it was a former railway line – but have you ever wondered where it went to? It was, in fact the main line from Belfast to Newcastle via Downpatrick.
And over the last thirty years a small group of volunteers in Downpatrick have painstakingly rebuilt two miles of the line as Northern Ireland’s only full-size working heritage railway, running from the town centre out through St. Patrick’s Country to the ruins of the 12th Century Cistercian Inch Abbey, and every Saturday and Sunday till 9th September visitors will be able to travel back in time to the golden age of trains.
Railway Chairman Robert Gardiner said that Inch Abbey is a popular destination with train passengers.
“People who have lived in Downpatrick all their lives have travelled on our trains and told us that they were sorry that they’d never been to the Abbey and didn’t realise how beautiful it and this area of the Quoile River was,” he says, “So if the sun’s out, hop on board and bring a picnic with you and catch one of the later trains back.”
Mr. Gardiner added, “Or if the rainclouds linger as they’ve done over most of May, you’re always undercover inside a railway carriage – and hop about our buffet carriage to stop the sarnies getting soggy!”
Hauling the trains will be the “Sugarpuff” engine, or Orenstein & Koppel built steam locomotive No. 1, which used to haul wagons of sugarbeet during her working life, as well as American built ‘Baby Boomer’ diesel locomotive No. 146 providing a fantastic rumble on selected June and July Sundays.
Passengers will also be able to taste the elegance of by-gone railway travel on fifty to one hundred year old carriages through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track.
Doors open to the public on both Saturdays and Sundays at 1 o’clock and doors closing at 4 o’clock.
Teas, coffees and cool drinks as well as lots of buns, at highly competitive rates, will be served all day onboard a buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station; if travelling in
to the town from Inch Abbey the return journey can be made on any of the services.
Mr. Gardiner says “A trip to the station is also much more than boarding the train, with our museum and Carriage Gallery visitor centre we bring the golden age of the railway vividly to life and you can find out what impact the railways had on people’s lives, through artefacts from the smallest such as a ticket in the upstairs exhibition, or the largest such as lovingly restored railway carriages in the Carriage Gallery and the stark contrast of the wrecks these vehicles once were when rescued.
For the younger train fans, children can enjoy their own “Kids’ Station” in the Gallery, and dress up as a train driver or guard, or can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – or will the big kids want a go too?”
Also opening to the public for the first time this year is the lovingly restored Bundoran Junction signal cabin, now taking pride of place at Downpatrick Station rechristened ‘Downpatrick East’, where you can imagine yourself as the signalman controlling the trains and learning about the vital role signalling had on our railways.
The new signal cabin is easy to get to, at the end of the main platform in Downpatrick – and is the only genuine vintage signal cabin that is also wheelchair accessible.
For those a little more adventurous, and perhaps live out a childhood dream, you can buy a “Footplate Pass” for just £20 and get to travel up in the locomotive cab with the driver.
Adults £6.00 return, £4.50 for children and £5.50 for senior citizens. Children aged three years old or below go free. A family ticket costs £18 for 2 adults + 2 kids. Tickets provide all-day access to travel on trains and visit all of the attractions at the railway – stay as long as you like.
Or you can take out membership and join the DCDR Society and get free travel for the entire summer months, as well as get regular updates on what’s happening at Northern Ireland’s only full size heritage railway.