The slow train to Ravenglass on the Ratty Railway

PUBLISHED: 01:16 21 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:14 20 February 2013

The slow train to Ravenglass on the Ratty Railway

The slow train to Ravenglass on the Ratty Railway

It is regarded as one of Britain's most scenic rail journeys but many Lakeland visitors don't know it exists. Mark Gilligan hops aboard

As a child, I distinctly remember the evocative sound and smells of the steam trains. My walk to school turned into a chase to the bridge as the engine thundered towards us, powerful plumes of smoke growing larger as it passed under the parapet.

Id run to the other side, hold onto the stonework and close my eyes. As
it re-emerged into daylight, I was engulfed in the cloud that exploded and billowed around me. The rattle and hum would then trundle off into the distance. Then along came Doctor Beeching, the man who axe our
branch lines.

Today, Im photographing one of my favourite haunts, the Esk Valley
and every now and again that old familiar toot, toot, that chugging
and a the billowing cloud reawakens that memory as the Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge trains make their way up and down the line.

Standing on the bridge near Eskdale Green, I watch as the carriages pass underneath. Families out for the day on the much loved trains they affectionately call Laal Ratty.

Passing through some of the most glorious scenery this country has to offer, its become a pleasing and effective way to access walks and attractions that adorn this area of outstanding natural beauty.

It began life as an iron ore transporter in May of 1875 and just over a year later, a passenger service was introduced. While the surrounding fells havent changed much since its inception, this line has experienced many ups and downs throughout the years.

Richard Copping, the company marketing manager, told me: Initially, it was a three foot gauge system, and it continued as a working train with passengers until 1913 when, unfortunately, it became unsustainable.

A renowned model maker called W. J Bassett-Lowke bought it and converted the line to a 15" gauge to test miniature engines on. His smaller trains were proving themselves and he transformed the fortunes of the railway.

Just prior to the beginning of the First World War, and much to the astonishment of local people, he reopened it to fare paying passengers.
With a granite quarry opening at Beckfoot, prosperity seemed guaranteed and even the Royal Mail was carried. However, it wasnt to last. The next 45 years saw it lurch from one crisis to the other.

In 1960, a consortium acquired it at public auction for 12,000.
This was under the chairmanship of midlands stockbroker Colin Gilbert and Sir Wavell Wakefield, whose business interests included the tourist attraction we now know as the Ullswater Steamers.

Stability meant that it continued to develop and following the death of Colin Gilbert in 1968, Sir Wavell - who became Baron Wakefield of Kendal when he retired from parliament - acquired his interest and took over the role of chairman.

The Wakefield family are the longest owners of the railway and its not only the National Park that has a birthday to celebrate in 2011, as this year marks their 50th anniversary with Laal Ratty.

Faith Newell, the Visitor Services Officer told me: We have a series of events planned throughout the season and begin with the bank holiday weekend in early May. We are very conscious of our heritage and its important that we not only preserve that but make sure Laal Ratty retains its place as a 21st century attraction. Conservation is another area we are keen to encourage.

A full time staff, enthusiastic volunteers and a Preservation Society strive to make this railway not only special but a viable business, too. The line is open all year round apart from January to mid February when larger maintenance projects take place.

When you look around the stations at Ravenglass and Dalegarth, its evident they never stand still. You can see the renovation that has taken place but its wonderfully in keeping with tradition. The marriage of old with new is vital in ensuring that this little treasure continues to grace the Western Lakes. Carefully and lovingly restored steam engines, allied with their modern diesel counterparts, ensure Laal Ratty is a piece of history that has embraced the 21st Century.

So just where does that affectionate nickname come from? Both Richard and Faith agree its a mixture of the old Cumbrian dialects with Laal meaning little and Ratty a combination of Ratoun which means narrow and the word trod, which is defined as a track or pathway.

Combine the originals together and ratty more or less emerges! That is the story favoured by the staff and most locals.

I continue my walk up the valley and that sound is emitted again. I stop and smile as it passes by. I just know that this little gem will continue to evoke memories and bring pleasure for many generations to come!

Off the beaten track

Most passengers start at Ravenglass, stopping at Jans caf to sample the brilliant home-baking. The trains travel across Barrow Marsh, a haven for wildlife including oyster catchers and ringed plovers.

The first intermediate station is a request stop at Muncaster Mill, an old water-mill converted into a private house. From there, it heads into Miterdale, where you can spot red squirrels. Muncaster Fell provide a breathtaking backdrop to Miteside halt with its boat-shaped shelter.
Rock Point is the high spot in Miterdale. The line hugs a promontory high above the river with views across to the Scafell range.

Irton Road station is the only original building on the line serving Eskdale Green village. From here, thie line climbs its steepest section, Hollinghow Bank.

Fisherground, a request stop used mainly by campers, is followed by the picture perfect Gilberts cutting.The last leg involves another steep climb before halting at the new station and visitor centre at Dalegarth. Key CA18 1SW into your satnav to reach Ravenglass station and CA19 1TF for Dalegarth.

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