Address: Station Road, Didcot, Oxfordshire, OX11 7NJ
Price Band: ££ (or free if you use Tesco Clubcard vouchers!)
We have visited Didcot Railway Centre on a couple of occasions, most recently just this morning (the photos in this review are from both of our visits). It is currently free to visit the Railway Centre on weekends in January so despite the cold weather we decided to make the most of a free day out. The Didcot Railway Centre hosts a collection of steam trains, coaches, wagons and a museum of railway relics as well as an interactive learning centre. On certain days throughout the year they have engines running for visitors to have a ride on. They also hold Thomas The Tank Engine days. Visit their website (link above) for their timetable of ‘running days’.
The museum is currently closed for restoration work over the Winter period but on our previous visit we enjoyed looking round it and also seeing the volunteers working on various restoration projects. They were very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions and show the children what they were doing.
Another part of the Railway Centre we particularly like is the air raid shelter. My stepdaughter Lilian loves history and particularly enjoys places that really bring history to life and give you a ‘real-life’ feel for what it would have been like back then. Lois (our 6 year old) had just been reading about the war in her school book the night before our visit so this was perfect timing. Hearing her tell her little brother what the gas masks in the display were used for was very cute and seeing them in the flesh helped reinforce what she had been reading the night before.
During this morning’s visit Lois and Cody took part in a ‘Young Engineers’ workshop where they learned about coal and how it is used to power the steam engines. They then spent the rest of the visit picking up stones around the site to see if they were coal or not! We also visited the interactive learning exhibit which is housed in two static train carriages and put our knowledge of steam and the Great Western Railway to the test. Apparently I am not very good!
The Railway Centre site is very open and great for little explorers who like to roam around freely, without parents having to worry about not letting them touch things, etc. The track where trains run on ‘running’ days is behind a fence but the rest of the tracks aren’t generally used so visitors are fine to wander around them. Having said that, occasionally steam engines are moved around on them so do keep an eye out. There are also some deep holes near the engine sheds which are used to carry out maintenance underneath the engines, so again you need to keep a close eye on children in those areas to avoid any accidents. Having said that, the fact that children can explore freely is fab and mine love to try and balance along the tracks and play with the replica signals.
I love the fact that you can get so up close and personal with the engines instead of them being set back behind ropes or fences. The children loved being able to stand next to the huge wheels to compare them against their own height and to touch the metal to see how cold it was. In case you hadn’t already realised, I am a big fan of hands on learning!
As well as being able to touch the engines there are also some that have stairways so you can climb up into the cabin. The kids were fascinated by all the levers and pressure gauges and loved to see where the firemen would have put the coal to get the steam going. Some of the engines are incredibly tall so the cabins were quite high up!
There are lots of benches dotted around the site for tired little legs to stop and have a rest, plus a lovely little tea room for a well earned coffee for the grown ups (especially on a cold morning like today!). In warmer weather visitors can make use of the picnic tables. Next to them is a new play area with 2 wooden trains and a ticket office, great for role play and ‘letting off steam’ (see what I did there?!).
The Railway Centre has toilets with baby changing and a little shop on site as well as the tea room, however there is no disabled access due to an unavoidable flight of stairs to access the entrance which is a real shame. It is, however, a lovely place to visit for all train enthusiasts, both young and old, with lots to see and do. You can easily spend a good few hours or even all day here, especially on a train ‘running’ day. Today we spent 2.5 hours there and that was with no trains running and the museum was closed. Take a picnic and make a day of it.
These little explorers loved it!
UPDATE JUNE 2018: The new Signalling Centre exhibition is now open for visitors!
Disclaimer: No-one from Didcot Railway Centre was involved in this review. All photos, words and opinions are that of my own.