For me, travelling to a walking trip is as much fun as the actual walking. It’s part of the trip. Full of memories. Who can forget that walking holiday in France where we arrived in a tiny village in the pitch black several hours late after being stuck in a battered local train which had been sat on a platform baking in the sun all day? Still at 10:40pm we got to our room to find a platter of food and a carafe of wine sat waiting for us.
Ah trains. The best way to get somewhere. In the South East you’ll be taken on a sleek, swish modern train with air conditioning and a smooth ride. In the North or Wales you’ll get transported in a clapped out shed on wheels, fully equipped with bus seats and enough grime to suggest that in the 20 years the train had been in service, no one had considered such a thing as a “deep clean”.
Then there’s the walks which involve being deposited in a tiny village by a National Express coach, driven by a chatty but slightly mad driver from Runcorn. Or, less glam, arriving by a bashed up single decker, relegated from the big city as “these rural types are frankly just happy to actually have a bus in the first place, so aren’t likely to complain about the lack of wheelchair access or buggy space.”
Ah memories, but oh to arrive on a walk in style. A grand entrance; a journey that puts joy in your heart and a spring in your step. A journey through grand scenery, hauled by a steam train.
No, you’re right. That’s just a pipe dream; a mad fantasy of a walker who has spent too much time enduring Northern Rail’s motley collection of “Pacers”.
Well unless you’re heading out to the west of the Lake District; unless your destination is Eskdale anyway. For if you’re travelling up to this quiet, remote part of the Lakes, well arriving in style, arriving by steam, well that’s more than possible my friend. In fact it’s almost compulsory!
Thanks to rail replacement buses and a fatality on the line, it was three hours late when I finally stumbled off a horribly dirty train with a broken toilet and found myself at Ravenglass station. It didn’t look much, but the number of people hanging around made it stand out from the other stations on the Cumbrian Coastal Line. That and the second station a short distance away where everything looked distinctly smaller than usual.
I was heading to Boot for four nights and several Wainwrights and whilst most of my journey had been horrendous, I was going to do the last bit in style. I was going to get to Boot by steam train. And not just any old steam train, but by the 15″ gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, or La’al Ratty as it’s affectionately known.
Originally built to 3′ gauge in 1875 to service the local iron ore mines, the railway quickly went bankrupt after it diversified in to passenger services. Then in 1914 it reopened, having been rebuilt as a 15″ line, serving passengers and the local granite industry. The granite trade has gone but the line is a thriving tourist attraction, taking passengers seven miles up the line to Boot.
Most of them come back again, but not me. Buying my single ticket, I head out on to the diminutive platform where a dinky set of carriages sat waiting.
Most of the passengers sat waiting for the 1550 had colonised the open top carriages at the back, but where’s the fun in that? When it’s steam you’re talking about, you want to be sat right near the engine so you can smell the smoke and get those all important flecks of soot in your eyes. So that’s where I went, sitting in a open-sided carriage so I could breathe in those glorious fumes. Also all the open top carriages were full.
There was just one thing missing. A locomotive at the front. But that came soon enough, quickly unhitched from another arriving set of carriages, turned round on a turntable and then attached to the front of ours.
To call the engine dinky was an understatement. A tiny locomotive driven by a heavily bearded man with bushy grey hair, the whole thing looked like someone had taken a steam engine and applied some sort of shrink ray to it. No need for a fireman – the engine was too small anyway. All the driver had to do was turn round to the tender, get a shovel of coal and fling it in to the engine.
A group of children looked out excitedly with loud cries of “It’s Percy! It’s Percy pulling the train!” with Percy being a last minute substitution for Thomas as soon as they’d spotted that the locomotive wasn’t blue but green. Although for my money, Henry was far closer. But what do children known? Funnily enough though, La’al Ratty does have a Thomas the Tank Engine connection. The line was used as the inspiration for the fictional Arlesdale Railway, which stared in the book Small Railway Engines.
After a quick oil of the wheels, the little green engine, its brass polished to a high shine, pulled out of the station taking us with it. Only one thing looked out of place: a large modern looking aerial wobbling around on the back of the locomotive which is part of the signalling system. For most of the line there’s no physical signals and drivers must radio to the signal box to get permission to continue.
The train slowly made its way through the valley, through attractive woodland, and alongside sheep filled fields. Tiny halts were regularly passed by – no one wishing to alight at them on this trip. Every now and then the train would head in to one of the passing loops to wait for another train to go in the opposite direction; the crackle of the radio control system mixing with the voices of excited children.
A gleaming red diesel and then a light green steam locomotive stood waiting for as we pulled in to the first big station, Irton Road. Eskdale Green then followed, but all too soon we were at the end of the line. Crowds stood waiting patiently at Dalegarth for Boot, all keen to take the return journey to Ravenglass.
For me though, it was time to get off. My campsite awaited, and the next morning I had some walking to do. As I walked up the lane, I did so with a massive grin on my face. The Ratty had brought me here in perfect steam powered style