All aboard the Real Ale Train

The Watercress Line reviewed by George Clode

You don’t have to be train fanatic to appreciate the magic of climbing aboard a shiny, whistling steam locomotive that’s about to whisk you through the Hampshire countryside. The affectionately-named ‘RAT’ Train (Real Ale Train) chugged into Alton Station at 7pm on the Watercress Line, ready to pick up excited groups of friends, families, anoraks and real ale-lovers. Unable to resist the temptation I climbed up into the engine room, where the driver talked me through the mechanics of steam travel while his assistant shovelled more coal on the large furnace and checked the whirring gizmos on the panels above. This is well worth doing. The uniformed station porters, equipped with old lanterns, are knowledgeable and helpful, and the drivers, who must have imparted the same information to wide-eyed tourists hundreds of times, are patient and passionate about their trade.

Settle in

Chilly as it was outside, I had to leave the blasting heat of the engine room to take my place within the classic old woodpanelled carriages that make up the rest of the RAT Train. This is a very popular route and gets booked up fairly far in advance. You can’t book specific seats, so if you’re arriving in a group, as I was, it’s best to get there early and grab a table. The train departs at 7.20pm, but boarding opens at 6.30pm. Once under way, the journey is smooth and the atmosphere is jovial. The restored bar carriage stocks real ales from two of the many local breweries. These range from stouts to pale ales, and cost a staggeringly reasonable £2 per pint.

Price is right

Cider, spirits, wines and soft drinks are also available on board, as well as a selection of burgers, chilli dishes and hot dogs with which to line the stomach – all equally easy on the wallet. The route takes you from Alton to Alresford, where it stops for 20 minutes for people to get out and stretch their legs. It then returns to Alton to do the whole trip again. As the sun goes down, the trip becomes less about the stunning scenery and old railway stations you pass, and more about enjoying good company and excellent beer. The whole journey lasts about two and a half hours, returning to Alton at around 10.15pm. I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had for a long time and would recommend it as highly to teetotallers as I would ale enthusiasts.

Further info

WHERE: The Real Ale Train leaves Alton Station in Hampshire on the Watercress Line
HOW MUCH: Train tickets are £15, drinks are £2, memento RAT pint glasses are £5
GROUPS: From 2017, groups can reserve compartments of up to eight people for a fee of £50