Peter Snow is mad about trains – miniature as well as full-sized.
“I’ve had a model railway ever since I was a boy,” he says. “They seem to me almost a substitute when you can’t go on a big train. You put your head down close to the rail and look at them chuffing towards you. Wonderful.”
In his Channel 4 series Peter’s Great Railway Restoration, a team of enthusiasts will attempt to restore four decaying railway carriages from different periods in history.
“These carriages were in an appalling state, mouldering away in people’s gardens,” he says. “One was Queen Victoria’s state coach, which was used as a kind of lean-to. I found it hard to believe that they would manage to restore them.”
In episode two, a wooden carriage from the very dawn of the railway age – 1864 – is restored
If all goes to plan, Snow hopes then to fulfil a lifelong dream and drive a steam locomotive. “I’m extremely excited. The idea is that I’ll pull these carriages from Llangollen to Corwen [in north Wales], which is one of the most beautiful lines in the world.”
Which begs the question, what other lines does he recommend we ride?
1. Rocking the Rockies
The Rocky Mountaineer is a terrific train that runs through the Canadian Rockies, from Banff to Vancouver. My wife [the journalist Ann MacMillan] is Canadian, so we took the family about ten years ago.
We were there in July when the lower slopes are green and you get this wonderful variety of colour. The carriages are very comfortable and the train has an observation carriage with a see-through roof, so you get incredible views of snow-capped peaks above your head. We had a marvellous steward called Henry who used to give us a little lecture about what we were passing and the train’s history, and then he’d serve us lunch.
The other wonderful thing is the spiral tunnels. You go into a mountain and instead of coming straight out the other side, you go round in two full circles and come out 500 feet lower down.
2. The Taj by train
When my children were in their teens, we took them to India and took the train from Delhi down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It’s only about 120 miles, but it was a lovely trip. You arrive at the station and it’s complete chaos – hundreds of people milling around on the platform – so you have to fight your way to your coach. We went first class and it’s pretty posh: white tablecloths, lovely breakfast and very nice guards who came along to check how we were getting on.
India is so heavily populated that while you rattle along you’re glued to the window looking at all these people in the fields and towns. It’s an extraordinary experience. One day I’d like to do the whole of India – from Mumbai right the way across.
3. Paris for lunch
The Eurostar is absolutely mind-boggling – the speed it goes, the comfort of it. It’s a triumph of modern technology. Usually I’m taking it to Paris because I’ve got a son there. When I was working for the BBC as a journalist, I would travel to Paris by aeroplane and it was half a day’s work getting there. Travelling by train is so much more pleasant and, unbelievably, it’s faster – two hours and 16 minutes. With [the high-speed] HS2, which I’m a great fan of, it’s going to be quicker to go to most places in England, and even Scotland, by train one day.
4. Dream line in Dorset
There are more steam trains now than there were after Beeching in the 60s. There’s a lovely one that goes from Swanage to Norden on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. It’s a beautiful line that was ripped up in the 70s and rebuilt by volunteers over 30 years. It runs past Corfe Castle, which was badly destroyed in the Civil War but is still marvellous. Swanage stands in a lovely valley between two ranges of hills and that’s where my parents used to live, so I’ve walked all over those hills. The countryside in Purbeck is gorgeous, absolutely unspoilt.
Great Rail Restorations with Peter Snow is on Wednesdays, Channel 4, 8pm
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