Steam trains are running at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway on the weekend of 16th and 17th June as part of the new DownTime festival of horse racing, music and culture being held across the Downpatrick area.

To enter into the spirit of fun, there’s a special offer for kids to get in free too. “We want kids to get in the saddle and gallop on down,” says DCDR Chairman Robert Gardiner, “so if they bring something ‘horsey’ with them – it doesn’t matter what, it can be clothing with pictures on it, some actual horse riding gear, a stuffed toy, or even a My Little Pony – they get free admission!”

The train is being hauled by the railway’s own stallion of the rails, a ‘Black Beauty’ of the steam variety. Orenstein & Koppel steam locomotive No. 1, is a German-built locomotive that hauled wagons filled with that staple favourite of horses, sugar beet, during her working life in factories across Ireland.

For a cultural connection, you can visit the historic 12th Century Cistercian monastery at Inch Abbey – perhaps taking a picnic out with you to enjoy some chilled time on the banks of the River Quoile.

Teas, coffees, cold drinks, biccies and buns at highly competitive rates will also be served all afternoon onboard the DCDR’s buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station; you can also drive to our Inch Abbey station and catch the train from there if you wish.

“A trip to the station museum and the Carriage Gallery visitor centre brings the golden age of the railway vividly to life,and celebrate the relationship between the railways and racing,” says Mr Gardiner.

He explains this relationship, “The Chief Executive of the Irish National Stud, John Osborne, noted in an episode of ‘Great British Railway Journeys Goes to Ireland’, that “the train would have been the artery of horse racing. A lot of the Irish racecourses not coincidentally evolved close to mainline railways. We take for granted today how easy it is to ship horses twice around the globe now, but back then the racehorses travelled by train as well.”

Whilst racing at Downpatrick predated the coming of the railways, the arrival of the railway in the town in 1858 meant a similar relationship soon developed. Originally horses would have been carried to Downpatrick station in special railway horseboxes, and horses and racegoers would then walk out along the Ballydugan Road to the racecourse.

The opening of the BCDR’s branch line to Ardglass in 1892 meant that a halt closer to the racecourse could be built. The BCDR printed special tickets for racedays, and special trains being laid on to connect with Dublin trains in Belfast. It was a massive logistical undertaking for the BCDR. This all ended, of course, when the line closed in 1950.

Mr Gardiner adds, “You can look at the impact that 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 and climb on board the cab of a locomotive or carriage for their photograph to be taken, or can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – ‘big kids’ might even 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 – this would be a great Father’s Day treat for the Sunday! A reasonable level of fitness is required for this experience, and you need to be aged 18 or older.

Trains run at the from 1pm to 4pm, with all-day access tickets costing: adults £7.00, £5.00 children and £6.00 senior citizens. Kids aged 3 or under travel free, as does any other child up to age 16 who can bring a horsey item with them! A family ticket costs £20, which covers 2 adults and up to three kids.

Mr Gardiner adds, “While you’re there, you can join the DCDR Society and get free travel all year, as well as get regular updates on what’s happening at Northern Ireland’s steam centre and have the opportunity to volunteer – who knows, you might end up driving the steam trains yourself in a few years’ time!”

You can purchase your tickets when you arrive, or beat the queues and buy them online at our online ticket office now.