Ten reasons to enjoy the Lakes and Dales with puffs of steam

Beverley Watts travelled to Carlisle to join Rail Discoveries’ road and rail tour.

Explore CarlisleThe Citadel © B Watts

Sited 10 miles south of Scotland, Carlisle is a great historical city and the perfect place to start a trip to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. Carlisle railway station, also known as Carlisle Citadel, is right next to The Citadel, originally a 16th century gatehouse. Its 1811 oval towers once housed assize courts and a jail. Just 15 minutes’ walk away is 900-year-old Carlisle Castle which stands on the site of an old Roman Fort. In 1568 Mary, Queen of Scots sailed across the Solway Firth in a fishing boat and was imprisoned within the castle’s walls.

Step in Queen Victoria’s footsteps

The Hallmark Hotel, where I stayed, is just a couple of minutes from station platforms so couldn’t be more convenient. That’s thanks to Queen Victoria because the hotel was built – as The County and Station Hotel –  in 1853 for her arrival on the way to Balmoral in Aberdeenshire and situated so she could walk straight to her accommodation from her carriage.

Steam engine © B Watts Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway steam journey

The Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway claims to be ‘The Smallest Public Railway in the World’ and children, adults and pet dogs love it. This narrow gauge railway is known locally as La’al Ratty and runs the seven miles between Ravenglass and Dalegarth. It was first opened in 1875 to transport iron ore and the pint-sized but powerful 1894 River Irt (originally named Muriel) was one of the steam engines to inspire Reverend W. Awdry, author of Thomas the Tank Engine. After the scenic 40-minute ride, we tucked into a cream tea with home-baked scones at the station cafe, then enjoyed the journey back.

Muncaster Castle Library © B Watts Get spooked at Muncaster Castle

Muncaster Castle in Ravenglass, Cumbia has been the home of the Pennington family for 800 plus years and its Great Hall and Library are majestic. The fortification was erected in the 13th century on Roman foundations and, while one of its towers has ancient two-metre thick walls, other parts are later Victorian pastiche. The 70-acre hillside gardens overlook the River Esk, with a view of Scafell Pike, and are full of mature rhododendrons and azaleas. Muncaster’s Tapestry Room is believed to be haunted and the Pennington family’s former jester, Tom Skelton – whose portrait hangs on a wall –  is said to be the Tom who inspired the expression ‘tom foolery’. 

Muncaster Castle owl © B Watts Owls on the wing

The Hawk & Owl Centre at Muncaster Castle has several daily flying displays and I was lucky enough to see the World of Owls Display at 11.30am. These beautiful creatures fly low over your head and you can feel the edges of their wings as the birds respond to prompts from their handlers. We watched Griffin, the tawny owl, Pixie, the long-eared owl, Weasel the boobook owl, Cavalli, the Verreaux’s eagle-owl and Linford & Christie, two tiny burrowing owls who love running through underground tunnels. At 2.00pm it’s the Sky Hunters Display and at 4.00pm the Wild Heron Feed.

Scenic view © B Watts Scenic Settle-Carlisle Railway

Completed in 1876, the Settle-Carlisle Railway was not easy to build in the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines. Living in shanty towns in this wild area, 2,300 men worked on its construction. The deep bog at Dandry Mire was almost impossible to cross and at Ribblehead Valley, a remarkable 24-arch viaduct had to be put up over Batty Moss. With ‘72 miles of scenic splendour’, the Settle-Carlisle Railway’s dramatic views are very special.  

The Folly © B Watts Coffee at The Folly

Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe wrote ‘Settle is the capital of an isolated little kingdom of its own surrounded by barren hills.’ The pretty market town was remote, with just pack horse trails, but in the 1700s mill owners invested in a turnpike and its cotton mills thrived. Make time to visit the museum and Coffee House at The Folly, an impressive home financed in the 1670s by Richard Preston, a wealthy Settle lawyer. Since then the building has been a farmhouse, bakery, warehouse, furniture store, fish and chip shop, bank, salvage business and lodging house. Now it’s owned by a preservation trust.

Victoria Hall © B Watts See the World’s Oldest Music Hall

Settle’s Victoria Hall is The Oldest Music Hall in the World and was opened on 11 October 1853. Now the Grade 2 listed building is run by volunteers as a charity and the restored 1876 painted stage backdrop is extraordinary. General Tom Thumb once appeared here for Phineas T. Barnum, as did executioner James Berry, who turned his back on being a hangman and toured as an evangelist. This year Victoria Hall has hosted the likes of Jason Donovan (complete sell-out) and has regular community activities such as line dancing.

Signals and water

In operation until 1984, the refurbished Signal Box at Settle station is now a Visitor Centre and you can pull the levers to see how signals used to work. The Water Tower has been converted into a very unusual private home, retaining all of its 1876 original features, and was featured in Channel 4’s Restoration Man TV series. Owner Mark Rand joined us on our Settle-Carlisle journey and it was great to hear about his passion for railways.

Signal Box © B Watts Wave to Ruswarp

Loyal Border Collie Ruswarp, who stayed with his dead master for 11 weeks in the Welsh hills in bitter winter weather, has been commemorated with a bronze statue at Garsdale station on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. Ruswarp’s owner, Graham Nuttall, helped save the railway line when it was threatened with closure in the 1980s and Ruswarp added his pawprint to the petition. It’s a touching tale.

More information

Experience Lakes and Dales by Steam on an escorted group tour with Rail Discoveries, 01904 734 812. From £395, the 5-day trip starting at Carlisle also includes a heritage train journey on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, a Lake Windemere boat trip, 4-star hotel accommodation, all rail tickets and excursions and selected meals.

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Beverley Watts

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