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This article was written in 1986, while the line was under threat of closure. How misguided that now seems for a railway working to capacity as a major strategic freight route, commuter line and leisure route, in which huge amounts are currently being invested to upgrade the infrastructure.
The Settle-Carlisle line is our most spectacular main line railway. It was born of the inter company rivalry of Victorian 'railway mania', when the obvious routes to Scotland up the East and West coast were taken, and the only way that the ambitious Midland could compete for this prestigious traffic was to find another route. The route they took cuts through the heart of the Pennines, but it is no ordinary mountain line. The Midland prided itself on speed and luxury so they had to build a main line to compete with the best that could be offered. This near impossible task was achieved by some of the most audacious engineering of its day. The route skilfully uses the contours of successive hills and valleys to climb to nearly 1200 feet. But this was not enough; to piece it all together into a smooth fast route needed many cuttings, embankments, tunnels and some of the most spectacular viaducts in the country. The result was an express route through the most impressive mountain scenery.
Small wonder then, that there was an outcry when British Rail decided to try to close the route, first by gradual run-down and now by formal procedures. It will be several months before we hear the results of the enquiries which have between them received over 22,000 objections.
I had only travelled over the line in Summer but had been very impressed by pictures of it and the surrounding fells in Winter raiment. I had spent the Winter wondering how I could find an opportunity to see it with snow on the hills. A round trip from home in one day was scarcely feasible, so when I had to go to Glasgow a couple of weeks after the country had been gripped by bad snow, it seemed an ideal opportunity to try my luck. My trip was arranged at half a day's notice, so my sightseeing would have to wait for the return trip, with an overnight stop.
My meeting finished by mid afternoon so, rather than stay in Glasgow, I decided to head south to Carlisle for the night. I made an inauspicious start when I enquired at Glasgow Central why the 16.15 to Carlisle was not on the board, first to be told that it left from platform 8, and then to be informed that there was no 16.15 – it was a Summer train – and the next one for Carlisle would be the 17.05 from platform 1. My colleague was still with me, so we adjourned to his office for a while.
As I retraced my steps across George Square, the snow which had been sweeping slowly towards us from the Highlands all day was falling steadily, providing a picturesque backdrop as people started to make their way home for the night.
Pulling out of the station into the gathering twilight, we made our way through the drabness and clutter that surrounds railways entering any big city, and after a quick suburban stop in Motherwell, the train sped South. We were soon threading our way through the shadowy forms of the Lowther hills silhouetted by little more than the lingering glow in the sky so characteristic of mountain country.
My thoughts turned to food. I had not checked our arrival time, but by analogy with the mythical 16.15, I reckoned we would arrive in Carlisle at 18.35. Worth eating something now, I thought, especially since my first task on arrival would be to find a place to lay my head for the night.
No sooner had I downed my snack, than we arrived, and I was disgorged into a cold Carlisle night. My search for a hotel need have gone no further than the station yard as I was immediately confronted with the Cumbrian Hotel. Railway splendour at its best, and probably priciest, I assumed, so I walked on. After surveying the nearest four alternatives which either looked seedy or were shut, I decided I could do worse than enquire the price at The Cumbrian. "£35" said the helpful young man on the desk. Unmoved, I said I was looking for something cheaper and without batting an eyelid he dropped his offer to £28. So, ever keen to foster the time honoured process of bargaining, I accepted.
Carlisle is a cathedral town, and I am an avid bellringer, but I had forgotten to check what night of the week the local ringers held their practice. Being here, though, I reckoned that I had a one in five chance of hitting the right night, so I set off to try my luck. Nearing my goal, I heard the familiar tone of bells filtering round the buildings and my pace quickened in anticipation. As I entered the cathedral close, the bells sounded distinctly odd. They seemed very tinny, and I expected a cathedral to have more substantial bells than these, but I pressed on. At the door I was confronted with a 'service in progress' sign. There was no external entrance to the tower so I gingerly passed the sign, only to discover that no one was ringing the bells, they were merely being chimed by a machine, and the ringers practised on Fridays. Ah well, it was worth a try, I knew the odds were against me! I returned by way of a small cafe where I ate a pizza and a delicious chocolate nut sundae.
Friday dawned white, with half an inch of snow, which boded well for the scenery on my journey. The day's first train to Leeds was not until 10.40, and this leisurely timetabling gave me time to buy my ticket and look round, though I didn't stray far as the fresh trampled snow made walking precarious. I decided that I ought to lay in provisions for the journey, since I knew there would be no food on the train, and it was not due in Leeds until 13.21. There seemed to be a veritable plethora of shops offering hot or cold snacks to take away, and unlike British Rail, the shop I chose provided only brown bread sandwiches, and worked on the basis that it wasn't worth cutting the slices thinner than about an inch. They were cheaper than the mobile version as well.
I went to settle my hotel bill and the receptionist was most helpful when I pointed out that his excellent display of scenic attractions 'within fifty miles driving' did not include anything on the Settle-Carlisle line which started within fifty yards of his door. He said 'they used to have something', and told me that 'there was a woman connected with it who came regularly in to dinner'. While I paid my bill he instructed his underling to go round to the station for some more leaflets.
The train departed from the far side of the station so I had to cross the footbridge. I remembered the gently curved wooden design from my last visit. I wonder if there are any more like it? The train was well warmed. In fact the accommodation was very similar to what we get first class on our local line, but obviously older if the sag in the seat springs was anything to go by.
The train left exactly on time pulling out into a dreary overcast day, lightened only by the night's coat of snow. For several miles we trundled on, cutting through the rich red sandstone or looking down from embankments on sheep whose long fleeces almost swept the ground as they ran across the snow dusted fields. Although no snow was falling, the train was raising a fine mist of snow dust which flew past the windows. In Selkeld, the snow covered vehicles seemingly abandoned in the coal yard looked somehow more desolate even than the sheep huddled together by a wall.
Near Culgaith the morning train out of Settle sped past us in the thickening snow, and in a clearing among the conifers only the tips of the felled trunks appeared as dark spots on the white land. For some reason we slowed near the works at Stamp Hill, not that we were travelling very fast to start with, but we soon picked up more speed.
We should by now have seen Cross Fell towering above us, but it remained shrouded behind the mist and cloud. The roads we crossed here were white, where previously they had been wet, the drops on the window were turning to ice, and the dried stalks of last year's hedge parsley on the embankment were crowned with little caps of snow.
At Appleby, our first stop, the waiting passengers stood together in a huddle. As the train pulled in a few of them trudged down the platform towards me, kicking up the fresh snow with each step. I was joined by a couple making the round trip from Settle. They had always meant to ride the line, having grown up in Leeds and walked in the area, but had never done so. Now they had finally managed it, and having waited for nearly half an hour were glad to be back in the warmth of the train.
As we sped on higher into the deepening snow, we passed a field with the sheep neatly stretched across it in a straight line. Behind them was bare and in front of them the regular array of a crop, so I assume they were obediently following an electric fence in their quest for food to keep out the cold. The mist was starting to settle on the outside of the window, adding to the grime which was there already. This made seeing out harder though little could be seen beyond the other side of the valley floor anyway.
We passed Crosby Garret, over the deep ravine of Scandale Beck and through Kirkby Stephen. We were now in rougher terrain. No longer the soft Westmorland rock, no longer the gentleness of the lower Eden. This was true Pennine country. The hills were closing in, with the rough walled fields spread irregularly over the land.
With little to see and companions to talk to, the summit stretch passed quickly and we soon plunged through the tunnel into Dentdale. The thick snow in the cuttings had been carved by the wind into gracefully shaped drifts, and was overhung by frozen cornices. Knowing that things would happen quickly from here on, and determined to get photographs of something, I took up station in the corridor at the end of the carriage, with easy access to both sides of the train. If I couldn't see the mountains, then at least I could grab a shot of the viaducts as we swept over them.
I had leaned out of the window several times earlier in the journey, but not for some miles. Doing so now met an ice laden blast which made looking forward virtually impossible. I took a shot looking back as we left Dent Head viaduct, only to realise that in those few seconds my head had collected enough snow to be worth combing it from my hair.
We entered Blea Moor tunnel at full speed. My companions had told me how the train out of Settle had been held up by a sheet of solid ice hanging from the tunnel roof only a couple of hours earlier, but there was no sign of it now.
As we emerged from the tunnel the sun suddenly burst through the cloud with perfect timing, but not for long. On over Ribblehead viaduct, the longest and most famous on the line, and I took another picture, but can only guess what will be seen through the icy spray.
The sun's brief appearance did not herald any general improvement. Whilst there was a tiny blue patch where the sun had been, the cloud kept its grip elsewhere and Pen-y-Ghent remained completely hidden as we rolled down through Horton in Ribblesdale. Although the snow was lying more thinly here, we passed some spectacular frozen waterfalls, like brown stalactites in a motionless landscape.
On entering Settle we had our only glimpse of a 'hill'. Sugarloaf Hill, at 1300 feet and less than a mile distant was not concealed by the mist. This tiny eminence, though, could never hope to match the views which had been hidden from us: Wild Boar Fell, Ingleborough and all the others. Still, I wanted to experience the line in Winter, and that I had certainly done. To expect bright sunshine as well was perhaps pushing the odds, (like my chances of ringing in Carlisle.)
By the time we had descended to Settle junction, the ice was melting on the windows and snow was confined to the edges of fields, apart from picking out the criss-cross patterns of hollows and the crazy patterns left by tractor wheels. The Leeds to Liverpool canal was covered in thick ice, whitened by frost and snow.
Our headlong rush down the long drag now passed, we had reverted to a gentle amble. At Skipton, I was joined by an old lady. We chatted together, mostly about the weather, but in that charming way that old folk have, she was most concerned I should know she was actually going to Leeds, although she had to get out at the next station. Her place was taken by a couple of youths who swapped tales about being banned from driving. One claimed to have written off two of the three cars which he had owned, while the other was planning to take his driving test when he got back his licence! Clearly the railway has a social role to play even if it is only transporting teenage drunken drivers in safety while they are 'off the road'.
We passed through Saltaire with Salt's impressive mill and church. Through Shipley and eventually, through an increasing jumble of mills, roofs and railways into Leeds, a few minutes ahead of schedule.
As I left the train, a crowd of youngsters were standing round the guard, a friendly old chap who had told me that he had a camera like mine. He was trying to persuade the much younger driver to take notice of something leaking from underneath the train.
Leeds was much busier than Carlisle, and I had to queue for my ticket. This left little time before the train left, so I abandoned any thought of looking at Leeds and went to make sure I got a seat. I needn't have been in quite such a hurry as we had to wait for the cleaners to finish before piling aboard. It was fascinating to see how people, quite happy to stand and wait while the train was locked, became agitated and edgy when the next carriage was unlocked but the one they were waiting to enter was not. The train rapidly filled up; there was clearly to be no hopping up and down taking pictures on this trip.
Our train was a sleek 125 but it left several minutes late, and spent quite a few more waiting just down the line. In fact it didn't really get into full stride until after Doncaster. We were now in very different country, speeding through flat farmland lit with a hazy sun that had at last decided to grace us with its presence. We started to see the clean grey steel uprights by the track patiently waiting to be fitted with all the tackle of electrification, and soon stopped in Grantham with its Victorian ironwork neatly repainted in red, grey and black.
We passed acres of fields patrolled by armies of plastic sacks on sticks ably commanded by a few real scarecrow generals. The sun started to turn red, though it was only mid afternoon, and as we passed into Hertfordshire the trees, covered in hoarfrost, glowed eerily in the soft light. We went through suburbs and innumerable suburban stations and through a final flurry of tunnels. As we passed the Alexandra Palace looking distinctly tired, the sun managed to push a few dim rays through the cloud before we slid, midst tower blocks and terraces, into King's Cross, a quarter of an hour late.
The clear cylindrical span of the roof, though splendid, looked somehow too plain by Victorian standards, but I did not have long to muse on the subject as I contended with a train load of bodies being poured into the Friday evening melee.
Travel by tube, and from Waterloo home, is sufficiently familiar not to merit great comment, save, perhaps, the observation that the comfort and quality of the rolling stock, (second class on this trip,) were inferior to anything I had met earlier in the day.
These thoughts led me to ponder on the comparison between the different legs of my journey. They differed in distance, cost and speed. But were there any measures by which they could be compared, say cost per mile, or cost per mile per unit speed? I also compared my whole trip with the way I would have travelled if I had not been lured by the chance of riding the Settle-Carlisle line. I could not put a value on the time taken, or spending a night away, nor could I cost the worth of breaking routine and getting away from the rat race. And of course I could not put a price on the opportunity to travel over England's most spectacular main line railway.
|Stage of Journey||Length Miles||Cost||Time Hours||Speed mph||Price per mile||Price per min||Price per mile per mph|
Cost of this trip: £83 (Train fares: £46.20, Hotel & breakfast: £31.50, Meals & snacks: £5.30)
Cost of normal route back: £84 (Car to airport: £5, Shuttle air fare: £64, Car from airport: £15)
Click here for more information about the Settle-Carlisle Line .
All material Copyright © 1986 John Harrison.
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