Travel North - 12: Heritage Train Travel, Around the Southern & Western Dales
Take in the views, let the scenery absorb you
The Midland Main Line to Carlisle - the line along the 'spine' of England
You can't beat it for scenery, walking, cycling or driving along the Settle & Carlisle Railway past Horton in Ribblesdale and Ribblehead with its long, high stone viaduct. This is Three Peaks country, Pen Y Gent, Ingleborough and Great Whernside overshadow the railway. Use Ribblehead's small station as a centre of operations if you plan to walk or cycle. There's usually a mobile snackbar at the car park by the Hawes-Ingleton road. Or stop off at the walkers' cafe at Horton with its wide choice of meals, snacks, hot and cold drinks and sweets (such as Kendal Mint Cake, useful as an energy boost for cyclists and walkers). 'Clock in' if you plan to walk, and tell the counter staff when you expect to get back.
A guide to the myths behind the history of the Midland Railway's Settle & Carlisle route with its history and lore, ghosts abound on the bleak mountains and moorlands. Suicides and tragic accidents, negligence and sheer miscalculation helped put the Midland Railway's 'finger' on the map to Carlisle. A director said, "Build the line here", and drew a line in one of the least hospitable stretches along the Pennines from south to north. The gangs of navvies who built the railway came from across Britain, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, many - with their kith and kin - also died from disease. The survivors went on elsewhere to build other lines or mines.
One of the more historic and scenic railways still extant in the British Isles, the line was threatened with closure by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Thanks to Michael Portillo, then Transport Minister - and public pressure - it was reprieved. Although not as expensive as initially estimated, a large cash injection was necessary on one of its greatest landmarks, the Ribblehead Viaduct, in order to ensure the line stayed open for the foreseeable future. The late Oswald Nock was one of Britain's most widely read authors on the railways, and guides you through the chequered history of the line built by the Midland Railway.
Treat yourself to a spectacle
Taking a trip to the Dales? Why drive if you can take a leisurely ride on a train?
On the south-western side of the Dales there are three railways to choose from. Two are preserved railways, one is still part of the British railway network.
Let's take the shortest first. You can take the longest one - the Settle & Carlisle or S&CR - to get to Skipton in what is now part of North Yorkshire, but is traditionally the West Riding. Skipton is close to Embsay at one end of the Embsay & Bolton Abbey Railway (E&BAR), itself run by volunteers of the Yorkshire Dales Railway Trust (YDRT).
Before going on through Skipton to Embsay, take a good look at the solid Skipton Castle. Once owned by the great Lady Anne Clifford - who through marriage at one time owned a string of fortified properties in the north, including Danby Castle near Whitby - Skipton was restored by her from its ruinous state.
At Embsay Station you can buy a return ticket to Bolton Abbey Station and ride on a short train through the undulating, lush green countryside of the lower Dales. Bolton Abbey Station is used as a working base by several smaller preservation groups, including one I am loosely connected with that is restoring a 1903 North Eastern Railway petrol-electric railcar and passenger trailer. The railcar was 'pensioned off' in the late 1930s, from when it was used as a static caravan near Pickering from where the group acquired it a few years ago for restoration. Nearby are the famed ruins of Bolton Abbey, an Augustinian priory laid waste under Henry VIII's orders during the dissolution. The great challenge here is the line of stepping stones across the upper River Wharfe that you need to cross to reach the abbey on land owned by the Duke of Devonshire.
Take the Settle & Carlisle Railway also to visit the next railway. Longer (probably about three times the distance) than the E&BAR, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway (K&WVR) takes you from Keighley (surprise, surprise) to Haworth through Bronte country. It is also Railway Children country, the film of E. Nesbit's book was made here in 1970 with Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett, Gary Warren and Bernard Cribbins,
Like the E&BAR and S&CR, the K&WVR was part of the Midland Railway network in the north of England. The British railway totems abound at all the railway's stations, with their characteristic large-windowed 'boxy' signal boxes. There is a variety of ex-LMS locomotive, crimson lake-liveried corridor and non-corridor passenger stock and goods wagons, a great day out for the kids (don't try to put one over on us, Mister, you're a big kid when it comes to steam railways)! At the other end of the line from Keighley is Haworth, home of the Bronte family. The parsonage with its squat church is on the old Main Street, not far from the station. The street is still as it would have been in the 19th Century, with its dark cobbles and the drainage channel down the centre. The Bronte family are buried in their private vault in the church, except Anne who was taken to Scarborough to recuperate from an illness contracted in Haworth and is buried in tSt Mary's churchyard near the castle (the drain down Main Street was polluted).
Now for the big one, the S&CR. Initiated by the Midland Railway to compete in the Races to the North in the mid-19th Century, the railway was hard-wrought from the land. Several viaducts were built to carry the line across steep dales and deep peat bogs that cost the lives of many 'Inland Navigators' as the railway builders' labourers were known, otherwise 'Navvies'. Whole carts with their loads of building stone and the horses were swallowed up until the railway's owners approached George Stephenson for advice (he had already built the railway from Whitby to Pickering and Liverpool to Manchester over similar terrain). In places the Midland Railway's S&CR connected with the North Eastern Railway, as at Garsdale and Kirkby Stephen, one of its main competitors for routes to Scotland. The Midland never actually reached Scotland, converging as it did with the London & North Western Railway from Euston via Crewe and the North Eastern Railway's Newcastle-Carlisle Railway.
For scenery there's little competition. The route originated in the West Riding city of Leeds, and ran via Keighley and Skipton to Settle. Previously the railway finished there, and there was no hardship to it. It was the directors who held the ambition to take it further, and drew a line on the map to 'link' Settle with Carlisle without ever setting foot in the Pennines! Since it is there, many put considerable energy into keeping the line in the 1960s, when it was threatened with closure by Dr Beeching's report, 'Re-Shaping Britain's Railways'. Steam Specials were contracted to run from Leeds to Carlisle to put pressure on British Railways to keep the line open. Local communities tried to impress on the powers-that-be that the railway was a lifeline in winter, where all roads are rendered impassible.
Seeing is believing. If you haven't at least set foot near the longest viaduct at Ribblehead, you don't know what you're missing! The route passes places like Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Kirkby Stephen, Garsdale, Dent and Appleby, passes the Three Peaks, Great Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen y Gent where annual cycle and running races are held for the hardy (some say foolhardy). The cycle race calls for several cycles to be used by each rider for the extremes in terrain. It is also prime walking territory, although care must be taken in wet weather. Those peat bogs are deep! You'd disappear into them if you left the footpaths and no-one would be the wiser.
Still, see the land, and let the train take the strain!
Next - 13: Railway Trips in the Eastern Dales, Moors - and a dream put on hold on the Durham Fell
Embsay & Bolton Abbey and Keighley & Worth Valley Railways
There are several railway routes across the Pennines and Dales in Yorkshire and the North in general where branches have been closed and lifted - each can be followed by the reasonably fit either on foot or by pedal power. and each route includes a selection of good public houses or inns and hotels to rest your aching limbs afterward
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster