I have booked a cottage for two weeks at the eastern terminus of the line, which is No 5 in a small terrace, built to house the miners who brought up iron ore to the Furness Railway on the coast. To get the ore the seven miles from Boot, a 3ft 0in-gauge railway was built in 1875. Passengers followed, but the iron ore dwindled, and granite quarries were started as an alternative.
The 3ft 0in-gauge line died in 1913 but was reopened the next year by the famous model engineer Bassett Lowke, who reduced the gauge to 15in. The granite quarries died in 1953, and it looked like the end of the 'Ratty', as it is known locally, until a band of enthusiasts, backed by Colin Gilbert and Sir Wavell Wakefield, bought it in 1960.
I arrive just as the last train of the day leaves for Dalegarth and report to the controller.
Monday - Wakened by a dawn chorus of bleating sheep. The hills are grey and shrouded in mist. I report to Ravenglass station at 8.30am, and with dustpan and brush assist in sweeping out the rubbish left by yesterday's passengers from the coaches. My mentor is Martin, who has been with the railway for more than 20 years and throws me in at the deep end so that in no time I am clipping tickets, connecting the locomotive to the front of the train, and blowing the whistle. Ny biggest disappointment is no green flag. We use standard BR drill: arm raised, fist clenched, and two fingers upright (kept close together, of course).
At intermediate stations I nip out to ensure all is well and issue tickets to joining passengers. This is the most worrying part as it involves one of those bus-type dispensers of paper tickets with a myriad of permutations and combinations of fares, single or return, child or adult, dog etc.
Tuesday - Three trains today, the 10.10, 12.10 and 15.10. Journey time is 40 minutes with a wait of 20 minutes at the top end while we turn the engine on the turntable, and passengers set off on a walk over the fells or have a quick cup of tea in the station cafe. My guide today is Norman, who lives in Whitehaven and fills me in with more useful tips to look out for, such as checking trains through passing loops, and then confirming to the driver. I manage to issue some tickets from the dreaded machine.
Wednesday - Only two trips today, on the 11.10 and 13.10 with Trevor, who has been with the railway more than 20 years and can carry out any job, from driving steam and diesel locomotives, supervising the laying of new track, to encouraging and training novices like me. My friend Peter van Zeller is driving our engine, 'River Esk', so I feel really at home. In the evening I go for a walk to the end of the original line across the river and through National Trust land. With the pattern of light and shade and the freshness of the greenery, the beauty is overwhelming.
Thursday - A day off. I drive over Hard Knott and Wrynose passes in drizzle to Kendal, to visit another railway enthusiast friend for lunch at a country pub. Back to Ravenglass for a drink with Peter in 'The Ratty Arms', a pub in a converted railway station on the BR line.
Friday - I am asked questions during my three trips today, to see if I am absorbing the 20-page rule book. The preface carries a comment from the Co Donegal Railways working timetable: 'It is well for each member of this organisation to bear in mind that goodwill based upon years of conscientious effort may be entirely destroyed by a moment's carelessness or indifference towards a customer.'
In the afternoon, my friend Bob Tebb arrives from Lightwater, near Ripon, with a historic locomotive which he has bought at my instigation for preservation. A group of us help to unload, and stand around in admiration. The controller tells me I can go 'solo' tomorrow.
Saturday - I wake at 5.30 and cannot sleep again with anticipation. To Ravenglass, for carriage sweeping and window washing, and then the great moment arrives. Off on the 11.10 with locomotive 'Northern Roof'. There's so much to do that we are at Dalegarth before I realise it. Turn the engine, clip the tickets and we're off back to Ravenglass. A quick turnround and off again on the 12.10. Quite a few passengers join at intermediate stations and I dispense tickets from the machine like an old hand.
After handing over at Ravenglass to Diana, a veteran at this business, the moment of truth comes when I go to the office to check in my cash and 'float'. Amazingly enough, I'm only 10p adrift on almost pounds 30 taken on intermediate tickets. I've made it - and I've still got another week to go.
Angela Lambert returns next week.Reuse content