Published 1st March 2012
The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is the oldest, longest and one of the most scenic heritage railways in the Lake District. Eliott Andersen provides a review of the journey. If you've been before, let us know what you think!
The golden rays of the rising spring sun shine through the branches of the trees, illuminating the ancient granite engine shed in a shade of ochre. Wisps of steam rise from the cylindrical stacks protruding from the roof, voices can be heard from within. With the dawn chorus heralding the start of a new Lakeland day, as the sun makes its way upwards into the firmament of infinite blue, life is emerging – the steam engine awakens.
The driver tends his pride and joy – his metal steed, veteran of many decades’ sterling service ferrying thousands of passengers up and down this little corner of the Lake District every day of the year. Liberally applying Brasso to the metalwork, he intently scrubs and polishes the iron horse, as he does lovingly every morning. Tending to the fire, he adds more wood to the embers before beginning to build up the pile of coal, shovelling it in through the small firebox opening, waiting until it begins to ignite.
The needle in the gauge starts to rotate very slowly in a clockwise direction as pressure begins to build in the boiler. Steadily, the safety valves atop the boiler begin to hiss as the boiling water reaches the desired temperature and working pressure. The driver checks the clock before wiping round the Brunswick green paintwork once more with his cloth, keeping the glossy surfaces of the boiler and tender immaculate for the start of a hard day’s work.
Already, the first of the day’s passengers have begun to arrive. A mix of holidaymakers, locals, young families, elderly couples, enthusiasts, curious tourists, toddlers holding daddy’s hand, the retired railwayman. The guard of the train has finished his duty of cleaning the carriages and waits patiently to couple up the locomotive to the head of the formation. Dressed in the navy blue railway livery and topped off with a grease-top cap, he dispenses information to the passengers and keeps a watchful eye over the proceedings.
The steam engine is brought out of her shed. The driver parks her up beside the coaling stage and proceeds to shovel a small mountain of the obsidian gem. The water being pumped into her tender overflows out of the tank lid and splashes off down the sides of the tender, cascading down the paintwork.
With much steam and roaring as the condensed water is forced from her cylinder drain cocks, the previously stationary locomotive is eased out of the yard, the water vapour billowing everywhere, obscuring the engine from view. The driver checks the way is clear and then sets off, bound for the station. Greeting the guard with a tip of his hat, from one “kettle” to another, he heads off to the mess room for a brew before the start of the journey.
The passengers are boarding the carriages, four to a compartment. The guard approaches – tickets please. All tickets and passes presented for inspection, he assists with loading luggage and prams and regularly checks his pocket watch, keeping a keen eye on the approaching departure time. Greeting his final passengers, he helps them aboard before watching the driver emerge from the mess room, cuppa in hand.
The driver clambers aboard the locomotive and looks back for the guard, who is blowing his shrill whistle, his hand raised above his head giving the “Right Away”. Checking the signal, which is pointing downwards and showing a green aspect, the driver pulls the whistle cord of the engine, which causes a jet of steam to pass through the valve, the resulting sound being a chime, a beautiful chord echoing around the station.
Gently prising open the regulator, steam rushes into the locomotive’s cylinders, the wheels begin to rotate and the engine slowly but surely moves off, the train departing the platform at a steady pace.
The wheels clatter across the joints between the rails, the flanges squeal and the carriage bogies creak as the formation beings to gather momentum and speed. Steam pours from the engine’s chimney, sulphurous smoke mixed with a grey damp mist. People wave as the train crosses the bridge over the main road, passengers eagerly watching from the windows of the carriages as the velocity increases, the signature clickety-clack of the train wheels becoming audible.
Passing the carriage shed and the outer home signal, the train leaves the station behind, heading for the hills. Descending past fields of sheep to the estuary of the river which runs alongside the railway, wading birds take flight – the oystercatcher that nests in the ballast in the middle of the track, leaving her speckled eggs behind as the train passes over them. The ducks and geese sailing gracefully along the calm, still waters of the river turn their heads to watch the train cross the marsh.
Thundering under the bridge, the driver looks back along the train, watching the carriages trundling along happily, swaying from side to side. The guard leans out and waves his arm in a circular fashion to the driver. No passengers to alight at the first station, so with a screech on the whistle like a banshee, the driver notches back his reverser and allows the engine to dig in at the climb into the wood, rushing past the empty platform at the deserted halt.
Rain overnight has collected in the leaves of the deciduous viridian trees and has slowly fallen to land on the railhead, providing a greasy coating to trip up an unsuspecting driver. Years of experience, trial and error, have taught the driver well. He knows just how far to push the engine without sending her wheels into an endless slide through loss of traction on the lethally slippery rails.
The bark of the locomotive resonating from the chimney sends mammals scurrying and woodland birds into flight as the engine and her driver expertly tackle the steep gradient. Passengers gaze out from the carriages, hoping to catch a sight of the rusty tail of the rare red squirrel or perhaps a shy deer keeping its distance. The regular beat of the locomotive thrashing its way up the hillside provides a background symphony, the driver adding percussion to it by shovelling more coal into the firebox, the metal shovel clanging against the firehole opening and the black rocks hitting the grate prior to immolation.
Chuntering her way through the trees, eventually the greenery gives way to a vista, with the mountainside visible to the south, the sun peeping over the top, crowning the summit. The engine slows for the passing loop as the railway levels, steaming onwards where the tracks become parallel and another train waits patiently, dozens of passengers sitting aboard the open coaches, enjoying the fresh air and the good views.
The driver contacts the controller via his radio in the cab, requesting permission to continue the journey. The message comes back through the speaker – authority to proceed is granted, the line is safe for the train to traverse, and so the driver acknowledges this to the controller over the radio, before cracking open the regulator and letting the engine gather speed again as the grade begins to steepen once more.
The train gradually makes its way up the valley, the track nestled at the foot of the fell. Buzzards soar overhead, looking for prey, with the grandest view of all, watching the trail of steam left behind by the hard-working locomotive as she assaults the climb to the summit. Rounding a sharp bend, she is nearly there, the river rolling away, 60 feet below. The top of the hill is marked by larch trees, the fallen needles from the previous winter forming an orange carpet around the sleepers on the track, reminiscent of the red earth tinted by the haematite in the rocks.
At last, the driver eases back on the throttle and checks the gauge glasses. Turning on the injectors to replenish the boiler’s water supply from the tender, the clack valves gurgle away to themselves as the train coasts down the bank from the summit. Through the forestry plantations, Scafell looms ahead on the skyline, second highest peak in the Lakes at over 3000 feet, so far from these mere rolling foothills.
Passing farm crossings where tractors wait, cows graze in the pasture alongside the line. Saddleback pigs provoke interest from the passengers, the porkers scarpering when the engine clanks by, her signature knocking from the mechanical lubricator a military ostinato ominously shattering the peace of the countryside, the Industrial Revolution making itself known in this remote and isolated part of the country.
The sleepy hamlet of Eskdale Green lies ahead. A quick blast on the whistle and the train rattles into the passing loop of Irton Road station, Harter Fell on the skyline ahead, overshadowing the old stone bridge spanning the platforms. Walkers stop and watch the train continue its journey, their children pointing at the rotating crank-webs of the wheels, running like a sewing machine, the eccentric rods like a soldier marching onwards to battle.
Here, the valley opens out and the line crosses the watershed from the drainage basin of the River Mite to the valley of the River Esk. Negotiating tight curves, the engine roars away as she is opened up ready to scramble upwards once again, the gradient exaggerated by the embankment, white steam being shovelled over her shoulder in mimicry to the actions of the driver, hard at work feeding the hungry fire with anthracite.
The holiday cottages and campsites flash by, sheepdogs barking at the train as she passes the farmsteads. The hardy herdwicks munching on the grass at the lineside hardly bat an eyelid as the ensemble steams on past, making good time. The crags rise up over the line, the woodland giving way to moorland highlighted by the saffron gorse and the jewel in the crown – the deep fuchsia of the rhododendrons in full bloom in the late spring. But it is the green of the fields and fellsides that really gives the valley its true identity – from the malachite and the apple of the trees to the emerald of the ferns and the chartreuse, in contrast to the cerulean of the sky and the ultramarine bluebells bunched together in the grassy verges.
One final push for the last mile to the terminus, running alongside the valley road – a single-track with high dry stone walls, the drab grey weaving its unnatural path through the lush vegetation of the valley floor. The driver checks the train’s headlong speed and surveys the line ahead. Going for glory, he opens the regulator until it will move no further, and the ferro-equine responds immediately, the timpani of the steam escaping from the chimney bringing the concerto to its finale as the last bank is tackled with ease, the tree branches overhead shaken by the force of the steam being fired into the atmosphere as the locomotive charges onwards.
Then suddenly, the task is done. The driver shuts off steam as the gradient falls away. The ground levels out for the last quarter-mile round the curve into the station, where visitors wait, cameras clutched in hands. The axles creak as they move in order to negotiate the corner, the driver’s hand on the brake valve, which hisses out air as he brings the train’s speed under control in a gentle manner.
The valley is alive with the bustle of people on the station platform, slurping on ice creams as they watch the train draw in and come to a halt. At last, the beast is silent, only the slight hiss of the steam from the safety valves as a gentle reminder of the life stirring within. She is uncoupled from her coaches and moves onto the turntable ready for the journey back. Already, passengers are boarding and the guard is busy with his tickets. The driver tends to his machine, reflecting – the iron horse has returned to her state of slumber, biding her time and building up steam until she is called upon again for the journey home.
The line was closed in 1909 when the Official Receiver was asked to intervene by the Courts after a manager lost much of the mineral traffic following failure of the Whitehaven mines. At the same time, an application was made to the Board of Trade to reconstruct the line originally built in 1877, and was to be renamed the Eskdale Railway. This was successful.
In 1924, an express locomotive order was placed by the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway with Davey Paxman & Co of Colchester, for two Locomotives delivered the following year. They were designed to run at 25mph carrying 300 passengers up a 1 in 100 gradient. The Green Goddess performed well on trials at Ravenglass while waiting for the railway in Kent to open.
Today, the line connects with Northern Rail services at Ravenglass station so is easy to get to on public transport.
Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway
Cumbria CA18 1SW
Tel: 01229 717171
Fax: 01229 717011
Website: Click here to Visit