Travel rail journeys: More than just England's prettiest railway

The Settle to Carlisle line passes through some of northern England's most beautiful scenery. But don't forget, says Mike Gerrard, it took the lives of more than 200 navvies

In the Burial Register of Chapel-le-Dale Church in the Yorkshire Dales is an entry for one William Dyke. Buried: August 2nd, 1874. Age: 40 years. Address: Bleamoor Tunnel.

Dyke's address was a tunnel because he was helping to build it at the time, one of over 200 men who died during the six years it took to build the Settle-Carlisle railway line. The Yorkshire Dales and the Cumbrian Fells may look scenic and splendid, but building viaducts across their valleys and digging tunnels under the moors, with only muscle and dynamite, was one of the great feats of Victorian engineering. The Settle-Carlisle is 72 miles of of history and blood, of hill and dale, rattling through the Eden Valley and past Wild Boar Fell, and to slap on it its usual label of "England's most scenic railway" is to sell it seriously short.

On many visits to the Yorkshire Dales I'd seen bits of the line, knew the landscape through which it passed, had stood under the 104-foot Ribblehead Viaduct, but had never travelled along it. One morning in Spring, with a few hours to spare in Carlisle, I decided to go to Settle and back. At 8.57, bang on time, the Sprinter train pulled out of Carlisle Station - 150 years old this year. It's the first time I've been on a train for the sake of the journey rather than the destination - with no offence to Settle.

It takes less than five minutes to leave behind the suburbs and industrial estates of Carlisle, to go under the M6 motorway, and to see rising up on the left the rolling North Pennine hills that Daniel Defoe described as walls of brass. Today the sky is grey, like a watercolour wash, and in the pastures below us sheep bobble away from the train, their blue- dyed rumps wobbling. The River Eden keeps us company for a while, disappearing then reappearing as it makes its own reverse journey flowing north to the Solway Firth and joining the sea.

At Armathwaite a bright yellow signal box makes it look like the sun has come out. We owe the dash of colour to the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle, who in 1992 restored its dilapidated woodwork to its original 1899 Midland Railway livery.

The line was started in 1869 and opened six years later. It was a bid by the Midland to get some of the booming trade in England-Scotland journeys, taking customers away from their London and North Western Railway rivals. They wanted a fast all-weather route, and this one would link Leeds with Carlisle and the Borders beyond. They wanted it built fast too, so up to 6,000 navvies, with or without their families, were drafted in to live in shanty towns with names like Batty Green, Jerusalem, Jericho and Belgravia.

At Armathwaite a woman gets off and a man gets on, hunching up in his seat with his crossword, oblivious to the beauty around: he lives in it. There are flurries of white water in the fast-flowing Eden as we pull out of the station, and conifers rise over the distant crags. A patch of blue appears in the sky, and another inside the train as the steward comes round with his trolley, a natty bow-tie rather at odds with his blue and green cagoule. I buy a cup of coffee which burns my tongue as we pass through the Eden Gorge, of red sandstone and pines, which looks like it might grow up into the Scottish Highlands if you wait round long enough.

At Lazonby a large Celtic cross stands on a mound behind the station, with a church tower just visible on the far side. Gravestones lean down the steep slopes. I consult my companion (Mile by Mile on the Settle-Carlisle by W R Mitchell) in vain for a bit on the cross, though I do learn that: "With its sandy soil, Lazonby gained the distinction of being able to grow bigger carrots than any other place along the Settle-Carlisle line." I'm tempted to get off and visit the church to learn more about the cross if not the carrots, but if I got off at every station on the way it would take me six months to get to Settle.

Lambs and rabbits scatter from the train, and the sun finally bursts through and paints some geese in a field pure white. In another field a pheasant looks wary, and in the air is an explosion of rooks and startled pigeons.

At Appleby a young back-packer gets on, with a rucksack the size of a piano. Even the man with the crossword looks up. The station's name is writ large in letters of white stone, and a sign explains that though diesel trains now run on this line, steam trains are occasionally available by charter. Enquire for details.

A buzzard flies over the train, and a dozen rooks flee squawking from under the bridge beneath us. The rugged dark northern hills are still there on the left, looking like some giant has taken bites out of them. A crazy zig-zag stream careers about the countryside, while dry-stone walls attempt to corral the land, marching straight as Roman roads across the fields and up the slopes.

We arrive at a cluster of stone houses that announces itself as Kirkby Stephen. But where's the town? I've been there and know it's a busy market town, but there's nothing beyond those few houses in any direction. No one gets on and no one gets off. And no town. When the railway was built the Midland weren't interested in courting local custom so the lines don't always link up the communities along the route. The station at Dent is four miles from the village, giving rise to the story of the visitor who asked why they built the station so far away. "'Appen they wanted t'put it near t' tracks" is the helpful Yorkshire reply.

To get from Kirkby Stephen to Dent we chug down the length of Mallerstang, one of the most beautiful yet unsung valleys in England. I look for the Thrang, a guesthouse where I spent an idyllic few days several years ago. I spot it, and recognise, opposite, the track that marks part of the Lady Anne Clifford trail, which I walked up one June afternoon to Mallerstang Edge and watched peregrines sitting on a crag watching me.

We pass waterfalls on left and right, including the biggest in Mallerstang, Hell Gill Force, which splashes down half in Cumbria and half in Yorkshire. A sign for Aisgill marks the highest spot on the line, at 1,169 feet, and the sky is gloomy now and full of rain. It's downhill slowly through Garsdale and Dent and under the Blea Moor Tunnel. It takes two minutes to go through it, and I wonder how long it took to build, and how many men like William Dyke died in the building. Well, John Thompson for one, though the fact that he was drying dynamite over a brazier in the tunnel when it exploded doesn't say much for their safety precautions.

Drink was the cause of other deaths, like the navvy who staggered from the "Welcome Home" pub in the shanty town at Batty Green, and lay down to sleep it all off. Unfortunately he rested his head on one of the tramways that brought in supplies, and was decapitated by the first tram the next morning. In 1871 a smallpox epidemic raged through the shanty towns, and among the deaths were a miner's twin daughters. He carried their bodies to Chapel-le-Dale, where an unsympathetic curate told him that due to a mix-up no grave had been dug and no service could be held. The father dug the grave, tolled the bell, buried his daughters and filled the grave in himself.

Chapel-le-Dale stands near the Ribblehead Viaduct, its 24 graceful arches carrying the track for a quarter of a mile as it swings west for the last lap, travelling between the Yorkshire Dales' Three Peaks of Whernside, Ingleborough and the lion-like shape of Pen-y-ghent. At Horton signs tell me that it's 65 miles to Carlisle, 242 miles to London, and 60 yards to the tea room. Seven miles further on we pull into Settle at 10.32, as scheduled.

The train goes off towards Leeds, while I go off towards the Olde Naked Man Cafe, for a cup of tea and a Yorkshire Fat Rascal. "Sorry, luv," the lady in the pastry shop says, "but the cafe's closed on a Wednesday. Tuesday's market day, you see, when it's always busy and it slackens off on a Wednesday so we close for the day." Oh well. There's no shortage of tea shops in Settle, so the Pelican Tea Room it is, for that tea and a slice, or rather a wedge, of chocolate fudge cake. As I'm eating it a Triumph Herald goes past the window. I am in a time warp. Will James Herriot drive past in an open-top car? He doesn't so I move on to the Golden Lion and down an excellent pint of Thwaite's, before returning to the station and getting the next train to Carlisle. Exactly half-way home, at Kirkby Stephen, a rainbow emerges over Mallerstang and we pass by it and back to the present.

FACT FILE

Fares

Mike Gerrard paid pounds 12.70 for his Carlisle-Settle return, and almost as much for his cup of coffee. Services are operated by Regional Railways North East. Details of times and fares from the National Railway Enquiry Bureau on 0345 484950.

Connections

For bus links to and from many of the stations on the route, contact Cumbria County Council's Journey Planner enquiry line: 01228-606000.

Support

The Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line are dedicated to the preservation of this stretch of line, and in no small way responsible for the fact that services still operate. Details from their Membership Secretary, 16 Pickard Court, Leeds LS15 9AY. Walks

Tourist Information Centres have several leaflets about the line. Contact Settle TIC (01729-825192) or Carlisle TIC (01228-512444).

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