The nearly two-hour drive to Didcot Railway Centre came to a standstill when the sat nav took us to a housing estate… We could see smoke rising in the distance and Monkey excitedly told us that Thomas The Tank Engine was obviously gearing to go. However, we were all flummoxed by how exactly we were meant to get there – seeing as bricks and mortar blocked our way…
After a few u-turns and frantic searching on my iPhone, we spotted lots of other families with young children walking across a footbridge and parked up in Didcot Parkway’s Foxhall’s car park to follow suit. Luckily, we didn’t take the pram, as it was quite a walk with a fair few steps.
Once we finally arrived outside Didcot Railway Centre, a helpful gentleman wearing a huge Thomas badge, explained that we had to walk through the main station to get to the Railway Centre, and I’m glad he did, otherwise I think we would have taken another wrong turn.
The Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire is home to a vast collection of Great Western Railway steam engines, coaches, wagons, buildings and small relics; and a recreation of Brunel’s broad gauge railway. For train enthusiasts everywhere it is a must because not only can you get climb onboard some of these magnificent engines, but you can learn more via their Railways exhibition and workshops.
We had more important matters to attend to first. Monkey was desperate to see Santa Claus and explain to him we wouldn’t be at home this year… So making our way down the track, past the small cafe, we found the platform where Thomas The Tank Engine was waiting – to take all the families to Santa’s Grotto. This was exciting in itself for the children to see a childhood favourite come to life billowing with steam. The Fat Controller (who must have gone on a serious diet as he wasn’t so rotund) ushered us all onto the carriages and with a loud ‘toot toot’ we were off!
And then as quickly as we boarded, we were disembarking the train… I was slightly shocked at how short the actual train journey was. Some might argue that there’s no point in prolonging the wait for young kids who are so keen to see Santa. But I felt a ride on Thomas The Tank Engine should perhaps amount to more than five minutes. My husband pointed out that we would at least have the ride back… Plus there was another steam train taking passengers up and down a different track with no limitations on how many rides people could have.
Stepping off onto the festive platform adorned with lights and decorations, as well as a carriage full of toy reindeers, definitely added a touch more Christmas sparkle to the occasion.
The staff, too, at Didcot Railway Centre were all extremely friendly and welcoming to the children and we were led to a train carriage and told to wait. Before we knew it, Santa was available to see us.
Monkey went straight over and his eyes lit up when he was a handed a gift. Santa himself was a jolly gentleman who had a great sense of humour, especially when he told Monkey to leave him out a cold lager in South Africa as he would be thirsty and hot!
Back on Thomas, we had one of Santa’s helpers accompany us on the return trip and he certainly injected some Christmas cheer when we sang Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer at the top of our voices.
The fun didn’t stop there for him. After walking over to the Engine Sheds, we were able to climb onboard two engines and look at the gadgets and levers, as well as pretend to drive them. Had the weather been more forgiving, I think we would have stayed a little longer exploring the Centre.
But with hungry kids in tow, and a long journey home to contemplate we decided to make a move – but not before Monkey begged to open his special present, which was pretty impressive – a dinky toy car in a tin box, which he adored.
For kids, this experience was a huge amount of fun – getting to ride Thomas The Tank Engine and meeting Santa Claus all in the space of 10 minutes must have been mind-blowing. Did I think it was worth the four and half hour round trip – not really. But then it’s not about me, and watching the delight on the kids’ faces made it worth it.
It may not have been as magical as some of the other Winter Wonderlands we’ve visited over the years, but perhaps that’s because I am looking at it from an adult’s perspective. Monkey and his cousin had a brilliant time, and that’s all that counts!
Things To Know about Didcot Railway Centre
• Christmas tickets cost £15 per adult; Children over one £16 and this includes a gift.
• Didcot Railway Centre regularly hosts Thomas themed events throughout the year.
• Buggies are not accommodated on the trains or the restaurant but there is a buggy park at the centre. Be aware there are 18 steps at the entrance of the Railway Centre.
• The nearest car park is Didcot Foxhall but be warned it’s quite a long walk and involves crossing the main railway line via a footbridge. On the weekends, however, there two car park opposite the station which is closer and near The Prince of Wales Pub.