Walking: Treading a fine line: Andrew Bibby catches the 8.45 to follow the Settle to Carlisle railway line

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The Independent Culture
HALF AN HOUR out from Leeds, the passengers on the 8.45 to Carlisle were already in cheerful mood. Up in the front compartment, the attendant on the catering trolley was facing a run on the miniature vodkas as a large organised party on a day-trip celebrated the start of the weekend. Further back, the drinks were mainly coffee but the air of expectation equally palpable.

This was a misty Saturday in winter, and this was an almost full train on the Settle to Carlisle line. The highest and most improbable main line in England (the old Midland Railway had pushed a geography-defying route through the Pennines in its effort to reach Scotland), this is the railway which should be now have been nothing more than the bare trackbed. But British Rail's plans made some 10 years ago to close the line have led instead to a renaissance.

Stations have reopened. The Settle & Carlisle Railway Trust is restoring the railway buildings, whilst the Friends of the Settle - Carlisle Line acts as a users' group and watches carefully for signs of British Rail perfidy - this year, early morning trains are under threat, for example.

But the Friends also operate a series of guided walks between stations on the line, every Saturday throughout the year and also on Sundays in the summer. It is a wonderfully flexible arrangement: you buy your ticket, catch the train and alight to find out how many other walkers are doing the same as you. There were 21 of us on the small platform at Dent, 1,150 feet up in the western Yorkshire Dales, on the day I joined the Friends' walk.

Our leader, Peter, welcomed us and set off uphill at a brisk pace. We were making ultimately for Horton-in- Ribblesdale, two stations and about 13 miles back down the line, but we began initially by contouring round the side of Great Knoutberry Hill on an old green lane known as the Monkey Beck Grains Road.

This former drovers' track is part of the route chosen for the Countryside Commission's proposed, but controversial, Pennine Bridleway, a long-distance route from Northumberland to the Peak District. Our party, still pushing on at a cracking pace, turned south along the county boundary line between Cumbria and north Yorkshire before we met up with the Dales Way. This is the escape route for walkers from Leeds and Bradford, a 100-mile trail through the Dales and eastern Cumbria to Bowness-on- Windermere.

After the lunch break near the small settlement at Gearstones, Peter and the bulk of the group headed east to pick up the Pennine Way south to Horton. But he faced a mini-schism. The return train from Horton was due to leave at 6pm, but Patrick from Headingley had other ideas.

He was determined to make the train whic departed two hours earlier and led a breakaway group taking a shorter route back via Thorns and High Birkwith. I threw in my lot with the rebels simply because I had walked along the Pennine Way relatively recently and fancied a change. Our path followed yet another long-distance route, the Ribble Way, along the edge of the limestone escarpment high above the Ribble valley.

Outcrops of limestone, especially the distinctive platforms with their criss- cross patterns of grykes (crevices) and clints (blocks of rock in between), are a familiar part of the landscape in this part of the Yorkshire Dales, although the National Park authorities have warned of the damage being caused by an illicit trade in limestone blocks for domestic rock-gardens.

We arrived in Horton-in-Ribblesdale just as darkness fell and just in time to see the earlier train leave the station ahead of us. It was only a minor set-back.

The Pen-y-Ghent cafe in the centre of Horton is a well-known meeting place for tired walkers coming off the hills (the 26-mile Three Peaks walk starts and finishes here, for example), and the full pint mug of tea is almost obligatory. After the tea, there are pints of Theakston's waiting two minutes up the road, in the Crown Hotel. The 6pm train came almost too soon.

Details of forthcoming walks organised by the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line can be found in the leaflet published by Regional Railways, available from stations in the area. Alternatively telephone 0532 609279. The Friends of Dales Rail also organise weekly walks from stations on the line (programmes available locally).

(Photograph and map omitted)