Heatherslaw Light Railway, arguably the focal point of Ford and Etal Estates’ tourism offer, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
It will also be the final year of service for the steam locomotive Lady Augusta which has faithfully chugged up and down the line from Heatherslaw to Etal since it all began in 1989.
“It’s a big year for us,” admitted managing director Paul Smith as he and his staff gear up for the start of the new visitor season on March 30.
“We’ll be officially marking our 25th anniversary on July 1 and there are a range of special Lady Augusta weekends being organised during the course of the year which I’m sure will appeal to many.”
The decision to let her go wasn’t easy - after all, the old Lady is still in pristine condition - but a number of commercial practicalities won the day.
“It comes to the end of its lease at the end of this year and we’ve decided not to renew it,” explained Paul.
“At the moment we’re running two steam engines, Lady Augusta and Bunty. They take three hours to steam up which isn’t very practical if you have a mechanical problem so we’re currently building a new diesel hydraulic which will take over Lady Augusta’s work later this season.
“She’s been a fine servant but she requires constant care,” said Paul. “We reckon she has done over 100,000 miles which is a lot for a little locomotive.
“She’s nowhere near as powerful as Bunty,” he added. “She was only designed to pull six coaches because that was the original specification but we now pull eight coaches so it’s hard work for her.
“In 2008 she even survived the River Till’s worst flood in living memory when she was submerged in three feet of water and then left covered in silt!”
The Heatherslaw Light Railway was the brainchild of Paul’s father, Neville. He was an engineer who had built locomotives in both 5 and 7 1/4 inch gauge, but harboured the ambition of building a passenger carrying railway in 15 inch narrow gauge.
It was obviously meant to be, as the late Lord Joicey was looking for a project to enhance tourism on Ford & Etal Estates.
Plans were submitted, a route was chosen, the station built and the track laid - and in the summer of 1989 Heatherslaw Light Railway was launched.
The original track was 1.25 miles long but was later lengthened to its present length of 2.25 miles and now follows the course of the River Till round the outside of the Letham Haugh, with a return journey time of approximately 50 minutes.
Along the way, passengers will see an array of wildlife including the occasional otter.
“My father was a huge train fan and he realised his life’s ambition when this opened,” said Paul, who took over the reigns after his father’s untimely death in 2008.
Just a few weeks later, the light railway suffered at the hands of the worst floods in living memory.
“The 2008 floods nearly wiped the business out,” admitted Paul.
“We had to close for about three weeks in the September of that year which is normally quite a busy time for us and there was a lot of damage, both to the track and the machinery, which cost a lot to put right.
“We know the river will flood from time to time but the 2008 flood levels were unprecedented.
“I honestly don’t think we could come back if something like that happened again. The work involved and the costs would be just too much.”
The heavy workload means Paul has had to reduce his commitment to the nearby Errol Hut Smithy wood workshop.
“This takes priority now,” he said.
Around 30,000 visitors enjoyed the leisurely riverside train ride last year.
“It was a really good summer and that brought lots of people here,” recalled Paul.
“We’re very much dependent on the weather here,” he added. “I remember that 2012 was an absolute disaster because it was so wet so we’ll just have to wait and see what we get.”
Over the years Paul has noticed an increase in the number of tourists staying in Northumberland.
“When we first started we used to get a lot of day trippers from Tyneside but nowadays we’re getting a lot more people staying longer-term at holiday parks and B&Bs in the area,” he said.
The arrival of a new steam locomotive, the striking bright blue Bunty in 2010 not only helped maintain the hourly steam-train service but boosted interest in the attraction.
“She is very popular - the children love her because she looks like Thomas the Tank Engine - but Lady Augusta is very well liked as well,” says Paul. “I think a lot of train enthusiasts seeking some nostalgia will be looking to ride on her this season.”
Work is coming along nicely on the bright yellow diesel too, although Paul is worried about the number of corn flies it will attract in the summer!
He won’t reveal its name just yet.
“You’ll have to wait until it’s officially unveiled,” he says.
Unfortunately, he does think the opening of the new Aln Valley rail service will have a detrimental impact on his business.
“It’s hard to think that tourists will visit two railways during their stay so I think it will affect us,” admitted Paul.
He is also quick to dismiss any notion that the off-season is a quiet time.
“Everyone thinks we put our feet up for the winter but that’s when the hard work starts,” said Paul.
“We have to strip down the steam engines for their annual inspections and then put them back together afterwards and there are always all sorts of repairs needed.
“The track work is almost constant. I’ve spent most of the winter replacing slabs and laying new bits of track.”
With that, Paul and his team head back into the rain to finish their work before the visitors arrive.
Prices: adult £6.50, senior citizen £6, child £4.50, child under 5 £2.50. Visit heatherslawlightrailway.co.uk for more details.