Settle-Carlisle Railway

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June, 2017

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The Settle to Carlisle Railway must rank as one of the most scenic railways in England. The early history has been covered in another “review, “: and I don’t intend to repeat it.

It is a wonderful trip across the Pennines on a railway that managed to survive the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and refused to die. It faced closure again in the 1980s, mainly due to the estimated cost of repairing Ribblehead Viaduct. All stations along the line had been closed apart from Settle and Appleby and services had been slashed. Passenger numbers were dropping.

It only survived due to a maverick British railways manager brought in to run the line down prior to closure, the dedication of an energetic and vocal rail user group and a brave decision by the then Minister of Transport…

Ron Cotton was appointed as project manager to close the line. He came from a marketing background and was foresighted enough to realise the potential of the line not only for local use but also as a tourist line. He ran extra trains during he week and walkers trains at weekends which stopped at closed stations. Passenger numbers grew and people and the press began to talk about the railway.

Friends of the Settle Carlisle Line (FoSCL) was formed to support and promote the line, working with Ron Cotton. With the support of local MPs, councils, businesses along the line and Local Transport Users consultative Committees, they began a vigorous campaign against closure. This covered not only the local area but soon spread across neighbouring counties and soon everyone was talking about the railway. A massive petition was presented in Parliament against closure. Michael Portillo who was Minister for Transport at the this has often said this was one of the most significant policy decisions he ever took.

Since then, the line has gone from strength to strength. It is now an integral part of the main line providing an alternative rout to Scotland from the west and east coast main lines. Closed stations have been reopened and many are cared for by FoSCL volunteers. With their gardens and brightly painted station buildings, they are more like a well run preserved railway than part of Network rail. There is a pride in the line.

Stations have evocative names like Langwathby, Lazonby, Armathwaite and Culgaith, reflecting the strong Norse influence in the area.

I began my trip at carlisle, a splendid red sandstone building designed by the architect who built the london Stock exchange. There was sense of excitement and anticipation among the passengers waiting. There was no steam today; just a two car diesel unit.

The train pulled away from the station with the main line going off to the right and the Tyne Valley line to the left. The mountains of the Lake district could be seen to the west with the lower hills of the Pennines to the east.

We soon left Carlisle behind and the line follows the Eden Valley with glimpses of the river between the trees. This is red sandstone country and houses are built with the deep dusky pink stone and the soil is red too, contrasting sharply with the lush green of the fields, hedges and trees. Hay fields were yellow with buttercups and there were ox eye daisies and foxgloves along the banks.

This is a rolling pastoral landscape with cows and sheep. There were a few fields of barley waving in the wind. We went through cuttings with metal mesh to prevent rock falls and short tunnels.

Armathwaite signal box resplendent in its Midland colours of yellow and maroon was built by FoSCL to replace a box that burnt down.

The train stops to pass the carlisle bound train at Appleby with its name written in white stones.

After Appleby the line begins to climb and there is a much more upland feel to the landscape. Dry stone walls replace hedges. Limestone replaces the red sandstone. Small lime kilns can be seen on the slopes.

There is a brief stop at Kirby Stephen where the station buildings have been restored and offer self catering accommodation.

The line begins to clim in earnest along the bare flanks of the Pennines. The bulk of Cross Fell, the highest peak in the Pennines stands out clearly as do the radar balls on Great Dun Fell. There are isolated farms and stone hay barns in the fields, although many of these are now disused and derelict. Rough grazing replaces pasture. Sheep replace the cows.

Approaching Garsdale Head, there is a view down Wensleydale. This was a major railway junction and there are still the remains of sidings here. It was also the site of one of the worst railway accidents on 24th December 1910.

Commercial coniferous forestry covers the slopes with ferns and bilberry growing along the line.

The line contours round the head of Dentdale with views down the valley. Dent station is just over four miles from the town and at 1150′ is the highest station in England. Again the station buildings have been carefully restored and offer self catering accommodation.

This is an empty landscape with little settlement and isolated tracks and roads. It is bleak in winter and there are snow fences on the hillside.

Blea Moor tunnel is the longest tunnel on the line. Once through it, there are views of Ribbledale with Whernside and Pen y Ghent. Blea Moor signal box reached by a rough track is the most isolated on the railway. Beyond is the iconic Ribblehead viaduct, although there are only brief glimpses of it from the train, if you are sitting on the left hand side.

Through Ribblehead Station, again lovingly restored to its former glory by FoSCL and now a Visitor centre, the line begins to drop down the Ribble Valley, This is limestone country with limestone outcrops and dry stone walls. Sheep graze and fields are yellow with buttercups. This is a lush and fertile landscape with a sring of small settlements down the valley. Horton in ribblesdale with its sturdy church is the most important centre for walkers attempting the Three Peaks challenge.

The train finally arrives at Settle, over the viaduct with views of the town. This is where we got off. Settle is another very attractive station with a beautifully preserved signal box which is now run by a band of volunteers as a working museum. It is “open”: most Saturdays.

Settle water tower is the only original one to survive on the line. (That at Appleby was built in 1991 for steam locos running specials along the line.) This has been restored as a most unusual house.

Although we didn’t have chance to visit Settle, it is a very attractive town with a market place and good range of shops. It is a popular centre for walkers.

The settle carlisle is a wonderful run. Scenically , possibly the best side is the left hand side from carlisle to Settle (or the right hand side the other way), although this does miss the views down Dentdale. It is a a line everyone should travel at least once in a lifetime.

There are special doors allowing wheelchairs to access the coaches.


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