The invitation to take a trip on the Watercress Line’s Real Ale Train – the RAT of the headline – came out of the blue. I know there’s a bit of an overlap between real ale fans and lovers of railways, but every time I’ve come across a beer festival held in association with a heritage rail line, the beer part was literally station-ary. So the idea of the bar being aboard the RAT was intriguing!
|Welcome to Platform 3 in... when, exactly?
It was clearly SWT-only though and it took a few moments more to work out that we needed to find Platform 3. Sadly this is accessed not by the attractively ancient (and closed) footbridge nearby, but by a shiny modern one further down the platform. Still, coming down the steps the time-shift was complete, with staff in proper uniforms with waistcoats and peaked caps, doors marked “Station Master”, and posters from the 1950s and beyond. No train though, and no tickets* waiting for us – we’re early, thanks to SWT’s hourly-only service from London, so we’re recommended the Railway Arms just up the road, which happens to be the brewery tap of award-winning local brewer Triple fff. Nice pub!
Returning half an hour later, we were introduced to Sue 'the boss', which seemed to mean in reality that she did a bit of pretty much everything! We later saw her helping load the galley, working behind the bar, helping clean the train, etc... Sue explained the RAT schedule: “We make two round trips, though the hot food makes one and a half because it gets off at Alresford,” she laughed. Alresford is the other end of the Watercress Line, some 10 miles away.
10 minutes to departure and the queue for the bar already reached halfway down the next carriage. They're a mixed crew - beer buffs, young couples on a night out, what looked like a 50-something birthday party, and an awful lot of people who looked very familiar from the Railway Arms...
For many, it’s clearly more of a party on a train. For others it’s a mobile pub, and exploring up towards the loco I even found a folk music jam session underway. As the journey proceeded, and as special trays with holes for the plastic glasses to sit in streamed from the bar – you can also buy your own RAT-engraved glass tankard for a fiver – it did get a bit noisy. But it’s all very good-natured – cheerful voices and the occasional burst of singing.
Plus while the light lasted, there’s the beautiful Hampshire scenery, the lovely 'step back in time' stations decorated with flowers, topiary and then, finally, yes – parked steam engines, lots of steam engines! (Our train was hauled by a heritage diesel, but most RATs are steam.) There's also shunters, a crane-train, and lots more.
It being two round-trips, there’s three short loo (and for some, ciggy) breaks at the end-stops while they move the loco to the other end. I noticed some people left halfway through when we were back at Alton – heading back to the pub perhaps.
|Alternative engines are available
*Do you need a disclaimer? The railway kindly supplied our RAT tickets, but we covered our own transport from London, plus all our food, almost all our beer, and our own babysitter. Phew.