With County Down catching the summer sun, the steam train is once again about to head out along the Downpatrick Marshes to Inch Abbey at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway.

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.

Every weekend until 11th September, visitors will be able to travel back in time to the golden age of rail travel, on vintage carriages through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track.

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 still out, why not hop on board and bring a picnic with you and catch one of the later trains back?”

Mr. Gardiner added, “Or if the rainclouds return, you’re always undercover inside a railway carriage – so hop about our buffet carriage to stop the sarnies getting soggy!”

Doors are open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays, with the first train leaving at 2 o’clock and the last train returning from Inch Abbey at 5 o’clock.

Teas and coffees, as well as lots of buns, at highly competitive rates, will be served all day on board 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 museum and our Carriage Gallery visitor centre brings the golden age of the railway vividly to life and looks at the impact that the railways had on peoples 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 they let the ‘big kids’ get a go too?

“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.”

Trains run 2pm to 5pm, with ticket costing: adults £6.00 return, £4.50 children and £5.50 senior citizens, and don’t forget that children aged three years old or below go free.  A family ticket costs £18, or if you join the DCDR Society you get free travel for the entire summer months, as well as get regular updates on what’s happening at Northern Ireland’s steam centre.

Mr Gardiner also expressed his thanks to everyone who has donated money towards the restoration of ‘Sugarpuff’ or Orenstein & Koppel steam locomotive No. 3 in their ‘Steamed Up’ appeal, and remember donations are still needed to get it back up and running – you can donate online too.

For further information on events – or if you are thinking about joining as a volunteer contact the Downpatrick Tourist Information Centre on 028 4461 2233, log on to our website, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.