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Blooming marvellous

Rail: Exbury Gardens

Steam driven locomotives are enjoying something of a renaissance on a wealth of new leisure lines.

Alan Sparks travelled to the New Forest to take a ride on one.

Famed for its rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas, Exbury Gardens has charmed visitors to the south coast since its creation by Lionel de Rothschild in the 1920s. Exbury is still in the family and Lionel's descendant Leopold has united an interest in gardening with a passion for steam trains by building a narrow gauge steam railway at the New Forest attraction.

The Rhododendron Line is now open, taking hoards of visitors around a picturesque area of the 80ha of planting, much of it newly developed. A steel bridge, tunnel, timber viaduct, engine shed and period style station are provided along the line's 2km length which takes visitors on a 25-minute gentle roll past a new pond, 60 trees and 46,000 plants.

Hocking Rail manufactured and installed the specially designed 310mm wide track, with Ernest Ireland of Mowlem acting as managing contractor for the £750,000 contract.

Project manager was SmithsGore, with railway buildings, platform and tunnel portals designed by Law & DunbarNasmith, and the bridge, viaduct and tunnel by Elliot & Co.

'We expect to come back next year once the track has settled, though we may not need to make any adjustments as it can't be a perfect fit - it just wouldn't feel authentic if it didn't rattle, ' explains, Ernest Ireland client liaison manager, Ray Reed.

As with most sites along the south coast, the weather hit hard through last winter's construction. 'Most of the excavation needed to be done by hand as it was far too wet for our machinery, ' says Reed.

'The area where the line is built was previously wooded and the ground is basically peat, making it very soft. It holds water like a sponge.' Despite the heavy time losses, the project was delivered on time and to budget by bringing in more labour to catch up.

A compacted hardcore subbase supports the timber sleepers below the entire track as it wends through the gardens. Part of the line snakes through an old gravel pit, which had been backfilled and hence required extensive excavation and groundworking.

The other section of track was close to existing gardens, which needed to be preserved - demanding extremely delicate and considerate construction.

Although the spring will see the true wealth of flora and fauna at its most resplendent, the ride on a bitterly cold day in November was still a delight.

After leaving Exbury Central Station, the route enters the new Summer Lane Garden. A steel bridge, tunnel and causeway are required to negotiate the figure of eight track and pond. In spring the sculptured grassy banks will be surrounded by a profusion of blooms and foliage, a fern dell and apple orchard. As the train leaves the Summer Lane Garden and delves through a wooded area, there are glimpses of a rock garden and glades.

Cutting through more woodland, the route reveals a curving timber viaduct, with views over the lily ponds. A pair of black swans can be seen in a second lake near a wild flower garden before the famous Domesday Yew is rounded. At Exbury North there is a stop for visitors to hop off the train and explore on foot areas of the American garden.

If you are planning a trip, put it in your diary for next year. The gardens close on Sunday and open again next February.

Full steam ahead

Weighing 4.5 tonnes the train can produce 20 horsepower and haul up to 64 people in its three carriages. One 0-6-2T steam locomotive in the Rothschild blue and gold livery is running at Exbury, while another is being manufactured by Exmoor Steam Railway in time for spring's peak visitor season. A diesel powered engine is set to follow.

Exmoor Steam Railway is a family business which grew after its founder Trevor Stirland wanted a steam locomotive for his miniature railway tourist attraction in North Devon. As he could find nobody to build it he resolved to take on the challenge himself. Since then private owners with large gardens and publicly owned attractions have wanted Stirland to build engines for them, with dozens of enquiries each year. Over the past 12 years Stirland has built 25 engines, varying from 0.5t to 6t with gauges as narrow as 184mm. 'Each one is hand built and hand crafted with tender loving care - no two are ever the same, ' he enthuses.

Exmoor Steam Railway can be reached on (01598) 710 711.

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