A Christmas light show aboard a vintage steam train – now there’s a combo! We visited the Watercress Line’s Steam Illuminations to find out more.
Ever since we heard about Christmas Lights trains, we’ve been desperate to experience one for ourselves. So the invitation to step on board the stunning classic coaches of the Mid Hants Railway’s Watercress Line for festive extravaganza: Steam Illuminations was a dream come true!
Read on to find out what we thought and for our top tips for visiting the Steam Illuminations.
With huge thanks to Watercress Line team for this wonderful experience and the opportunity to speak with some of those involved behind the scenes too!
To our lovely readers -whilst the ticket were generously provided, the views and experiences shared on this page are entirely our own.
What To Expect?
Steam Illuminations is a Christmas show aboard a heritage steam train in Hampshire, UK. Festive family fun from the moment you arrive on the platform; it’s a great evening out for every generation.
The train is covered in thousands of metres of LED lights – inside and out – all hooked up to an impressive centralised computer system worthy of a Coldplay concert!
Upon arrival, each passenger is given a LED wristband which integrates with the music and commentary.
Onboard the immersive experience is narrated by The Voiceover Man, whose voice you’re bound to recognise from Britain’s Got Talent and X-Factor. The Jingle Bells sing off between the pink and yellow passengers on the return leg was my personal favourite!
The classic steam trains depart from cheerfully decorated platforms at either Alton or Alresford station for the 20 mile there-and-back trip along the Watercress Line.
At the midway station, passengers alight to admire the lights from the outside, refuel and watch as the steam locomotive changes ends of the train.
This is NOT a Santa Special train ride so the man in red will not appear. However there is more than enough festive spirit on offer to satisfy even the biggest of Christmas fans (we can officially confirm!)!
Looking for more activities to enjoy? Click here for other fun ideas.
Steam Illuminations Highlights
We knew that the train would look stunning from outside but weren’t ready for quite how impressive it would be up close.
Thousands of lights working in synchrony and choreographed to a fabulously festive soundtrack. Being able to see the lights side on, front on, from inside and above was brilliant and my camera was buzzing all evening!
The illuminations inside were pretty special too and quite a contrast their vintage surroundings!
The integration between the wristbands and the train lights was extremely clever and really added to the Christmas magic of the whole experience. It’s such a unique concept and the littlies on board were thrilled that we could take the bands home with us afterwards as well.
The experience on board was a cut above expectation. The music, commentary (complete with cracker corny jokes aplenty) and interactive entertainment from the Voiceover Man hit just the right tone. The mood was infectious – bums were wiggling and arms waving throughout the carriages! And our festive treat box was jam-packed with delicious goodies to munch and slurp, many of them from local businesses too.
The staff, most of them passionate volunteers, were incredible. So friendly, eager to help and join in, and so knowledgeable as well. The most eager of railway enthusiasts will be catered for just as well as the festive fans there to enjoy a Christmas evening out.
Christmas Light Trails
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Behind the scenes at Steam Illuminations
14,000 LED lights. That’s what it takes to create a Steam Illuminations train.
Spread across five coaches with more data communication than a Coldplay concert at Wembley, the Watercress Line’s pair of Christmas Lights steam trains take a whole week for the team to festive-fy!
Steam Illuminations is the brainchild of lighting designer Simon Horn and has been the Christmas Watercress Line experience for three years now. More usually found choreographing for international names on the stadium concert trail, Simon loved the idea of Christmas Lights trains but knew more could be done to make a fully immerse interactive experience.
And it wasn’t until concert schedules ground to a halt during the 2020 lockdown that Simon had time to carry out the three months of research and development needed to create the Steam Illuminations experience. His vision: a Christmas concert on a train. We think he’s done a pretty spectacular job.
Eager to build on the idea, 2022 sees the introduction of a new Party Mix Train too. Aimed at the grown-up market, this illuminated experience sees passengers taken through the decades as they travel. Think Wedding Reception DJ hits with the occasional festive tune thrown in for good measure. We were treated to half a journey of the soundtrack and it was a resounding success. A great alternative to the office Christmas party at the local pub.
What’s next? “What about a Christmas Rave Train?”, jokes Simon. Or at least I think he’s joking…
How Long Is The Watercress Line Christmas Experience?
The train ride was approximately 40 minutes in each direction, with a 20 minute stop at the far end station in the middle.
The overall experience is around 1 hour and 40 minutes but you’ll want to allow a little more for photos and watching the lights at either end of the experience.
Steam Illuminations With Kids
Steam Illuminations is the perfect multi-generational evening out! The illuminations on the trains will fascinate even the tiniest of passengers. The interactive narration and integrated wristbands mean there’s always something to do or listen to as well as chatting with your fellow passengers and oohing and aahing at the colours and displays.
With a few snacks thrown in for good measure, the train journeys will pass very happily and there’s an opportunity to stretch legs (and use the facilities) at the stop in the middle too.
And whilst Father Christmas is not on board this particular train, there is still plenty of North Pole wonder to keep the magic alive!
Food and Drink at Steam Illuminations
There are a number of food and beverage options available to choose between.
Firstly the experience is short enough that there’s no need to indulge unless you wish. That being said most people will be enjoying something as they travel.
You are welcome to bring your own refreshments on board to enjoy.
However if you’d like someone to do the work for you, there are festive treat boxes available to order at booking. We were given one to sample and were extremely impressed with the quality and quantity of goodies inside. Intentionally focussed on local products where possible, the 4-person treat box contained more than enough food for several journeys! And whilst there is only one box type available for purchase, the contents include some items suitable for dairy and gluten intolerances.
Additionally, the West Country Buffet is open at Alresford station for takeaway hot and cold drinks and food, including a children’s menu and the kiosk at Alton is available for takeaway light refreshments too.
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Is Steam Illuminations Worth Visiting?
In a word, yes! It really has a little of everything. A little bit light trail, a little bit panto, plenty of Christmas cheer, singalong music, and lots of North Pole magic!
We had wondered whether being onboard could live up to the spectacle of watching these stunning trains pass through the countryside. But Watercress Line had clearly put a lot of thought into their Christmas experience. Years in the vision and months in creation, the experience is truly unique.
The journey on board was just the right length, passing very merrily with not a single ‘are we nearly there yet?’ but without feeling short-changed either. And the half-way stop to enjoy a different perspective, stretch legs and use the facilities was welcome too.
The staff were exceptionally welcoming, making us feel part of the Watercress Line family and proud to be supporting this wonderful part of our British heritage.
It really was so much fun and everyone was filled to the brim with festive spirit despite the rather soggy British weather that unfortunately joined us for the evening. In fact … it turns out that, whilst I should have remembered an umbrella(!), the puddles on the platform made for amazing light reflections and great photos with the train looking even more magical in the mist!
My 5-year old table companion for the evening declared it her ‘best night ever’ so it wasn’t just me who had a jolly good time!!
Top Tips for Visiting
Here are our five top tips for visiting the Watercress Line Christmas lights train:
- Allow plenty of time. Parking spaces near the stations are limited so ensure you have a back-up in mind (there are other car parks within easy walking distance at both stations). Additionally at Alton the train departs from Platform 3 so allow time to cross over and make your way to the Watercress Line entrance.
- Bring Warm Clothing. Although you’ll be on the train a lot, part of the experience is enjoying the train from outside at the stations at both ends. So make sure you’ve got lots of weather proof clothing with you – layers work best as it is warmer on board. And an umbrella comes in handy when you’re trying to photograph in the rain (take it from someone who forgot theirs!!).
- Capture The Moment. Don’t forget to bring a fully charged camera or phone to capture the moment. And remember that batteries drain faster in cold weather so bring a spare or booster pack with you in case. At Alresford, head up onto the bridge for a great bird’s eye view of the train and to watch the engine changing ends. And where possible try and catch those photos looking out early in the journey before the windows steam up from the excitement inside!
- Come with a Group. Whilst the seating anywhere will give you a wonderful experience, packages for two will likely be sharing a table with another pair. Great if you’re a social pair that love meeting new people. But encourage others to join you and book in fours to ensure you have a table for yourselves. Or in a 6 and book a compartment – then everyone can dance along to their heart’s content in your own private disco!
- Double Up If You Can! These trains really are fabulous viewed travelling along as well as on board. So to really maximise your evening of magical entertainment, we’d suggest choosing a train that departs just around sunset (to watch the magic of the train unfold as the sky darkens). Then once the experience has finished, position yourself at a viewpoint along the route* to enjoy the sight of a later departure chugging past. Check times for sunset here.
*We highly recommend the Harry Potter bridge at Ropley Station. Admire the majestic train with its plumes of coloured steam atop the famous Kings Cross footbridge from the movies.
How can I book Steam Illuminations Tickets?
Steam Illuminations is running on selected dates from 18 November 2022 to 7 January 2023.
Prices vary depending on date but start at £55 for two people or £180 for a private compartment for up to 6 people. Under 2s travel free on laps.
For latest availability and to book, visit the Watercress Line Christmas website.
Spread The Word!
Like what you’ve seen? Be sure to share with your friends.
Let’s sprinkle Christmas cheer far and wide!
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