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Summer was drawing to a close, the schools were back and it was time for a day out.  So, on a lovely, sunny morning we set off, the tickets had been booked beforehand and we caught the train at Skipton for the celebrated Settle Carlisle railway journey.  We had visited the town some years earlier and it was time for a re-acquaintance.  The city’s wide streets and imposing Victorian buildings in red sand stone were impressive, we had had lunch in a trendy but cosy coffee bar, visited an art exhibition, about which I can remember little, and wandered round the shops then late afternoon hopped back on the train and came home.

We have meant to make a return visit for ages and today was the day. Leaving Skipton, the line winds its way through drumlins; elongated rather oddly shaped, small, sharply rising hills of glacial deposit that have the appearance of an upturned spoon and, just in case you need to know, a group of drumlins is called a ‘swarm’! The name derives the Irish ‘droimnín’. Nearer Settle the landscape begins to change from low lying green rolling fields to give glimpses of moorland on the horizon. We pulled into the station where more passengers piled in, some on a day’s excursion but many commuting, and off we set into wilder county.

From Settle it is 72 miles to the city of Carlisle, crossing 17 major viaducts and through 14 tunnels, the line is known as The Long Drag by train drivers due to the relentless long climb up to Dent which, at 350 metres above sea level, is the highest station in the country.  Snow barriers, looking rather forlorn and battered are set on the hillsides to stop drifting on the line similarly it is the same a few miles further along at Garsdale.

Before that however, there is the famous and spectacular viaduct to cross.  Started in the 1869 it was completed seven years later and took 6,000 men to construct it.  Life was tough and fights and accidents resulting death were high and unaccounted for.  The valley across which the line crosses is deep marsh both difficult and dangerous to work in and foundations for the Ribblehead viaduct with its massive 24 stone arches 32 metres above the moor, are 8 metres (25 feet) in depth.

Shanty towns were built nearby to house the men and their families. Some of these had romantic names like Chelsea and Belgravia whilst others bore reminders of the Crimea War and were called Sebastapol and Inkerman, another was named Batty Wife Green in memory of a man who murdered his wife there, and sympathy in this case must have been for the husband. Whatever the names of these communities were, sanitation was non-existent and small pox and other diseases caused local graveyards to be extended to cope with the ever increasing numbers of dead. The weather up there is harsh and wet, marshy underfoot and living conditions were appalling and sanitation grim. Labour was cheap and plentiful and those who died were simply replaced; Health and Safety was another 150 years away.

I have to say that crossing the viaduct in the train is not as impressive as looking at it from below.  The ground drops away gradually as the train slowly crosses the 440 yard (440 metres) of railway line ‘in the air’.  Grassy hummocks of the marsh below must have been a nightmare to work in and the moors beyond are both beautiful and dramatic, but also unforgiving, the climate is extreme by most people’s standards and you need to be stalwart, independent and very self-sufficient to live in the remote farmsteads and cottages.

Blea tunnel is upon you immediately after the viaduct, over 2,000 metres long it took 4 years to dig out. Enormous spoil heaps on the northern side are a reminder of how much earth was manually removed cart by cart.

We stopped at most of the stations en route, all of which were of a similar design, some large some small. The Midland Railway Company built and owned the line and their livery colours of maroon and cream are there to see on the gable fasciae, window frames, doors and platform benches making each station look as if it had been plucked from a story book and plonked down in the Yorkshire Dales.  Embellishments and decorative features were added into the designs to impress the Victorians and Edwardians who loved this journey. Interestingly no two station designs are the same.  When the line was first built it transported goods so as well as the station, there would have been a collection of other buildings comprising cattle pens, goods sheds, an engine shed and sometimes workers’ cottages.

On through tunnels and over viaducts we travelled until eventually leaving the moorland we came into the Eden Valley.  It is always surprising to me that parts of the country are so very crowded and others quiet and remote. The Eden Valley is one such, aptly named, it is truly beautiful.  Perhaps its lushness is so evident because of the stark contrast of moorland we have just passed through, whatever; here is an area of natural beauty which has not been overrun with the crush of tourism.

Finally we drew into Carlisle. Built on a flood plain, this city was devastated in 2012 when the Rivers Eden, Pettereril and Caldew burst their banks; it has now undergone a redesign and regeneration.  I love the station; in fact I love railway stations …. mostly.  Carlisle station has had its face lift and is now bright and welcoming with wide platforms and plenty of seating.  There was a large steam train on the opposite platform huffing and puffing as passengers boarded, I don’t know where it was bound but gave an air of authenticity to the day. Our train from Skipton was diesel so there was no steam belching from the engine and no smell of smoke, there is something about the whistle of a steam train and the belching of coal smoke to remind us of a bygone age.

We had lunch in an Italian restaurant in the city and then wandered round the pedestrianised streets.  Carlisle is not how I remembered it, the multiples are here in force all paying the rents and rates which small businesses are often unable to meet, and I suspect that is because of the huge regeneration costs that were needed after the flood damage.  We didn’t have time to visit the castle, see the museum or art gallery, those will have to be for next time, we returned to the station and did the journey backwards.