Settle to Carlisle railway celebrates 150 years: A line carved out of stone

Ben Lerwill enjoys one of England's most scenic train journeys which takes in 20 viaducts and passes through 14 tunnels

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The Independent Travel

On the southbound platform at Garsdale station, a lonely calling-point high in the Yorkshire Dales, stands a statue of a border collie.

His ears are cocked, as if listening for something in the valley. This morning, as cold winds gust and the sun washes over the slopes, he has a soft crown of snow on his head. This is Ruswarp, who was found waiting by his dead master's side 11 weeks after the man collapsed in the hills. The dog's bronze cast has been rewarded with a yawning view over the uplands.

But Ruswarp had earned local celebrity status even earlier. His paw-print – as that of a regular, fare-paying passenger – formed part of a petition of 32,000 signatures presented to Parliament in the 1980s in protest against the imminent closure of the Settle to Carlisle railway line. Garsdale is one of 11 stations that, then as now, mark the route. The campaign's success gave the line fresh lease of life. This year marks 150 years since a Bill was approved for the Midland Railway to build a 72-mile track through the fells, and it is still in good health.

"You skipped a couple of stations off the list there," says the conductor on the 8.53am out of Carlisle. He's ribbing a much younger guard, whose PA announcement neglected to mention both Langwathby and Horton-in-Ribblesdale. "Don't worry, ladies and gentlemen," says the older man with mock gravitas. "There's no reduced service. He's new, you see."

Maybe he is as excited as me, I think. The line between Carlisle and Settle travels across 20 viaducts and passes through 14 tunnels, running deep into the Pennines. It routinely gets referred to as England's most scenic train journey. Before we are 10 minutes out of the city, the hills are rolling off to the horizon. When the trolley comes round, I'm offered home-made cake, branded Settle-Carlisle chocolate, even branded Settle-Carlisle bitter. You don't get that from Watford to Euston.

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The efforts that went into the line's construction, between 1869 and 1876, are staggering. Some 6,000 men dug mile-long holes through mountains and raised 100ft arches from the boggy moor. Accidents, coupled with smallpox outbreaks in work camps, meant that many lost their lives. Shortly before retiring in 1880, the Midland Railway's chairman, John Allport, said: "If I had one work in my life that gave me more anxiety than another, it was this Settle to Carlisle line." And he wasn't even one of the poor sods getting his hands dirty.

Today, there are still several daily passenger services and a steady flow of freight. It is also the highest mainline track in England, making it all the better for staring out of windows. As my train rolls south, the sun brings the empty curves of the landscape to life: three deer chasing their own shadows across an icy slope; a frothing River Eden cutting a wide course through farmland; a flock of starlings rushing through a dale.

As wonderful as the view, however, is the fact that the line was ever conceived at all. "It's a fascinating tale," a local author and broadcaster, Eric Robson, tells me. "It originated from dented pride. In the 1860s, the Midland Railway was becoming tremendously powerful and decided it wanted a piece of the cross-border trade to Scotland."

The problem for the Midland was that its track ran out at Ingleton, near Settle, and lines continuing north were run by rival rail companies. "That," added Eric, "was when things got complicated."

A simplified version of the story is as follows. Midland initially struck a deal to have its carriages transported up to Carlisle and Scotland by the London and North-Western Railway. In practice, this meant that Midland goods and passengers were treated with little or no urgency. So, it hatched a plan for its own northern route through the Pennines. Parliament approved the plan in 1865, only for the two competing companies to announce that they had, in fact, come to a workable arrangement. Tough, said Westminster, build the line anyway. To Midland's great credit, it cut no corners: the project ran 40 per cent over budget and took years longer than expected.

The line is an astonishing feat of engineering. I get off the train at Ribblehead station, home to the handsome, 24-arch viaduct that has become the symbol of the Settle-Carlisle. It is beautiful but isolated – the nearest village is six miles away. From the road, walking trails slope off into the hills. I wander for an hour or so in sunshine, enjoying the sight of the viaduct spanning the valley, then stop for a pint at the old Station Inn. Train times are chalked above the bar and a "Loo With A View" looks out on to the viaduct.

Since the threat of closure in the 1980s, the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line have provided much of the upkeep, tending platform gardens, arranging guided walks and campaigning for better services. The stations, built in the neat, pitched-roof Derby-Gothic style, all have frames freshly painted in maroon and cream. "We put in about 40,000 hours of voluntary work a year through 150 people," says the Friends' chairman, Richard Morris. "What makes the line so special? First and foremost, it is the scenery. I travel the line about twice a week, and every time it's different."

Back on the train, I continue south. The panoramas keep coming: whaleback hills and dark pine thickets, bleak summits and falcon-flown fields. The stations, with their shipshape signal boxes and delicate footbridges, are well removed from the rush of modern life (some platform buildings can be rented as holiday accommodation).

As I disembark at Settle, it starts to drizzle. I call in at the visitors' centre for a while, then it's time to get the train back to Carlisle.

At Garsdale, I look out at Ruswarp, the border collie, again. His fixed expression fits the spirit of the line, I decide, as the teatime train heads back through the hills, back through the pick-and-shovel tunnels, back across the old-world viaducts. Call it doggedness.

Getting there

Trains on the line are run by Northern Rail between Leeds and Carlisle. You can see the schedule here: bit.ly/SetCarl

Carlisle is served from London, Preston and Glasgow by Virgin Trains, while Virgin Trains East Coast, CrossCountry and other operators serve Leeds.

Staying there

The Halston (01228 210240, thehalston.com) is a new aparthotel in Carlisle, with 16 self-catering apartments plus a spa and restaurant. Rates start at £100 per night.

More information

The Settle-Carlisle Railway (01729 825888; settle-carlisle.co.uk).

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