Golden age of the iron horse

Days out: A visit to Didcot Railway Centre.

History repeats itself, but as Didcot Railway Centre shows, you often feel a bittersweet sense of regret as it does. As you pass across the shunting lines into the centre's faithful recreation of the old steam- driven Great Western Railway, the Intercity trains hurtling through the mainline station just behind remind you how much we've forfeited in the pursuit of speed and efficiency. It's impossible to imagine that the new Great Western company will ever be remembered with such affection as Isambard Kingdom Brunel's monumental feat of railway engineering.

The unashamed nostalgia at Didcot is infectious, even if our acquaintance with the age of steam is solely through The Railway Children and Brief Encounter. The delicate clouds of vapour and evocative scent of coal dust enfold you as you ride along the tracks in lavishly upholstered carriages of chocolate and cream. The waiting room is festooned with pictures of great, shiny locomotive heroes such as the Flying Scotsman and the star of The Titchfield Thunderbolt, while the museum is a shrine to railway romanticism, its GWR memorabilia including china, decanters and clothes brushes, even customised toilet paper.

But while adults wallow in remembrance of times past, kids can balance along the rails, climb into stationary engines, pull on chains and levers, and clamber across carriage tops like daredevils in a western, unhindered by the middle-aged men wandering around in greasy overalls. It's not difficult to see why steam trains have such an enduring fascination for children, but grown men? Could it be something to do with all those well-oiled pistons and suggestively named engine parts, those hydrostatic lubricators and blower valves, cylinder cocks and exhaust injectors?

Everything about the engines is beautiful, even their aristocratic names - Hinderton Hall, Coolham Manor, Drysllwyn Castle - but, like their namesakes, most have outlived their usefulness and are now preserved purely for posterity. It's impossible not to feel sad and, glancing at the old GWR map with its miles of track long overgrown, it's hard to stop yourself heartily wishing that Faraday and Beeching had never been born.

The visitors

Marie Postles, an art teacher, took her sons, Hector, nine, Louis, seven, and Oscar, four.

Hector: Best of all I liked the engine shed. I climbed on all the engines and on the tops of the carriages. They smelled of coal.

I enjoyed getting mucky and having black stuff all over my hands. I liked the little model trains in the museum, and there was a dummy of a station master behind a desk which looked quite real.

Going on the steam train was OK, but I prefer ordinary trains because they go faster and they've got comfier seats, although in the steam train you can open the windows using a leather belt. I think the old trains were more dangerous, though. In old films you see everyone pushing and shoving on the platform when the train was coming; there were so many more people crowded together.

Louis: I saw lots of steam trains. They were very old and had smoke coming out of them. I climbed on to about five engines. There were levers in the engines that you could touch.

We saw a crane going up and down lifting things and moving them on the tracks, and there was a coal shed where they tipped the coal into the trains, but I didn't see them do it. Mum had to take me into the toilet to wash my hands afterwards. They were really black.

Oscar: I saw a fire in the train and an egg in an eggcup in the museum. It was good going on the train. I liked the colour of the paint, it had the sky in it. My hands were black when I got on to one of the trains, but I'd still like to go on the steam trains again.

Marie: It was wonderful because there weren't loads of shops and people in a hurry, nothing commercial or over-complicated. With the smell of coal bunting it was really atmospheric, and the trains were beautiful, so slow. It's really sad how everything now seems so fast. I was thinking how everyone would have waited around in those days and had a chat. Now everyone is so busy, and somehow we've lost all that beauty.

It's refreshing to go somewhere where everything isn't sparkling clean and the children can get all mucky, but I wish I hadn't been wearing white trousers. It was lovely that they could jump on and off the engines and carriages with no restrictions. I loved the museum, all the old labels they put on the luggage, the wonderful old station clock, the little model railway station with the tiny people. There wasn't perhaps enough for a whole day, but it was absolutely perfect for a Sunday afternoon.

The deal

Getting there: Didcot Railway Centre (01235 817200) lies adjacent to Didcot Parkway, accessible via Great Western and Cross Country trains direct from London Paddington and stations across the south west. The centre is signposted from the M4 (Junction 13) and the A34. Parking is available.

Admission: Prices for adults vary from pounds 3-pounds 5 for adults, and pounds 2-pounds 3.30 for children, depending on whether trains are running. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.

Opening times: Open weekends and bank holidays all year, weekdays during high season. 10am-5pm, except from November to February, when it closes at 4pm.

Facilities: Picnic area and cafe with basic hot meals and snacks. The shop sells a wide range of railway souvenirs.

Access: There is a flight of stairs at the entrance, otherwise there is level access to most areas.

Pit stop

If your children are in need of tea and old-fashioned refreshment, steam over to the Swan Diplomat on the High Street at Streatley-on-Thames (01491 873737).

This charming hotel spreads itself along the south bank of the river Thames, so there are extensive views of the river, boats and ducks. Afternoon tea is served either in the lounge overlooking the river, or out on the terrace. Choose between the Berkshire summer tea at pounds 5.95 (the minimum charge) with scones, clotted cream, jam, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, and apple and carrot cake, and the diplomat tea (pounds 8), which adds fresh strawberries and cream.

From Egon Ronay's Guide `... And Children Come Too' (Bookman, pounds 9.99)

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