In December 2014 my late evening train from Liverpool was delayed. It stopped just beyond the platform at Lime Street. It was just a minor fault and after 15 minutes it was on its way, but I missed the last train from Piccadilly. I sent a complaint to Northern Rail and a few weeks later I received a written apology and a special ticket for one day’s travel anywhere on the Northern Rail network.
I had planned to use the ticket on the longest Saturday of the year, 20 June, and go to Newcastle and Middlesbrough via Leeds and Carlisle. In the end I went on the 31 July, via Leeds and Carlisle but then I took a different route. It was a fantastic day out and here’s my travelogue.
It’s 5.50am when I arrive at Victoria Station and would you believe it, the train is late! Not the train I intend to take, but the previous one, the 5:46 departure. It has not yet left and so I am able to hop on board and get ahead of schedule. Late trains are not always a bad thing.
We head out through the north of Manchester, hillier and more rural than the south. Soon we are leaving Rochdale station, and shortly after, we enter the tunnel that seems to mark the transition from Lancashire to Yorkshire. Beyond the tunnel is actually historic Lancashire, only since 1974 designated as Yorkshire. More on boundaries later.
The train is still quite empty when I fall asleep but when I wake up it’s full of commuters travelling into Leeds. It’s standing room only and I have to give up the seat next to me.
Leeds is so similar to Manchester and yet so different – Different region, different accent, a white rose rather than a red rose. I have one hour and twenty minutes to wait. What can I say about Leeds station? Big. Modern. Functional. Efficient. Fit for purpose. The only part that retains an air of the past is the art deco style entrance hall, now occupied by shops and cafes.
THE SETTLE TO CARLISLE RAILWAY
I sit and have a cup of tea, check my e-mail and then it is time for my next train, the 8:49 to Carlisle, which is waiting at the platform, just a few steps away. It’s a DMU, that’s Diesel Multiple Unit, like most Northern Rail trains. Rail enthusiasts will be aware that this is a British Rail class 158 Sprinter. I take my seat, it departs on time and I drift into another snooze. Some time later I open my eyes and see a glorious landscape coming into view on either side. We are about to go onto the Settle to Carlisle railway. It is cloudy today but the views are still magnificent.
It’s hard to imagine that the Settle to Carlisle railway line was once scheduled for closure but after a campaign, it was saved and today it is a thriving transport link, moving people and goods through this otherwise inaccessible but spectacular region of northern England.
The train moves north along wide valleys, tall hills, small farmhouses, steep slopes, sheds, houses, lanes, fields full of sheep, and soon we are in sight of the famous three peaks: Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent, a Welsh type name that reminds us of England’s Celtic heritage.
The train slows down to cross the Ribblehead viaduct, and then gathers speed. There is plenty more spectacular scenery along the way. This is how I like to travel – sit back, look through the window and admire the view – I’m taking lots of photos of course! I want to prove that a trip like this provides plenty of photo opportunities and you don’t even have to move from your seat. The only disadvantage is that on modern trains, there are no open windows, so you always have to shoot through glass.
North of Ribblehead we leave Yorkshire and enter Cumbria. In traditional terms we travel through the county of Westmorland and then Cumberland. In 1974 Cumberland, Westmorland and part of Lancashire came together, with a few boundary adjustments, to form the present county of Cumbria.
When the train arrives at Carlisle I am sorry the journey is over and would like to do it again in the other direction. Everyone should travel on the Settle to Carlisle railway, it is one of the most spectacular railway lines anywhere. At the end of the platform there’s a display about the campaign to re-open Gilsland station on Hadrian’s Wall. This sounds like a great idea.
Carlisle Station retains the grandeur and history of the 19th century railway age, though it’s been updated for the present with modern signage and facilities. I take photographs including a panorama but if I don’t hurry I’ll miss my next connection, the 12:08 to Barrow-in-Furness.
This is another DMU, a Class 153 railcar, and almost as I jump on, the doors slide shut and it starts to move. The first part of the journey is uneventful but before long, the sea comes into view and we are travelling south along the coast of Cumbria (here, historic Cumberland). Dumfries and Galloway is visible across the water like an island, in front of it is a vast offshore wind farm. This is Robin Rigg wind farm, completed in 2010.
The train moves on at around 30 mph, rounding curves. We are just a few distance away from the shore. We stop at station after station. There are lots of people getting on and off. This coastal rail link is obviously very important for the local economy. The train continues its journey south, and then I catch a glimpse of a place I’ve heard of since childhood: the word that comes into my head is Windscale, but for many years it’s been Sellafield, the nuclear power station. It and the facilities associated with it now being decommissioned. Though there’s plenty to see outside, I notice a wasp on the inside of the window, and I carefully photograph it.
FROM CARLISLE TO THE RAVENGLASS AND ESKDALE RAILWAY
Just a bit further, one more station stop and we are at Ravenglass station and it’s time to get off. This is a small town by the sea with Roman connections – there was once an important port and there’s a Roman ruin. It’s the only coastal town in the Lake District National Park. Now it’s famous for the intriguing Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. The station is just opposite the mainline station and as we enter, we see the tiny railway carriages parked on narrow gauge tracks.
At the top is a scaled down version of a steam train. With its shiny green paintwork and brass fittings, it appeals to the child in all of us. But it is a fully functional steam locomotive capable of pulling a train fully loaded with adults and children. It was originally a mining railway but has been a visitor attraction since the early 1960s.
I take my seat in one of the open carriages, the guard checks the tickets and we are ready for departure.
With a toot of the whistle the train moves forward and gathers speed. Once we have left the station we enter an attractive, hilly landscape with views over the river estuary and hills in the distance. To the right, there are steep tree-covered hillsides and to the left, woods full of wildflowers. After being cooped up inside the modern train, to sit in an open miniature carriage is literally a breath of fresh air. The train gathers speed and heads up the long and gently winding narrow gauge track. Every so often the driver toots the whistle but he pulls very gently, as tiny water droplets fall on the passengers, including me! The train stops half way at the passing point where we stop next to the down train, then we continue our journey into the hilly landscape. After a final curve to the right we arrive at Dalegarth Station.
There are lots of people on the platform. At the very end of the tiny track, adults and children watch as the drivers push the locomotive around on a small turntable and then move it down to the bottom end of the train for the journey back down to Ravenglass.
The station looks well used and very popular with visitors. On a plaque I read that it was opened by Pete Waterman, pop producer and railway enthusiast.
We climb in for the return journey. I get into an open carriage again. Now it’s an easier journey for the miniature locomotive as it’s downhill. We pass by more wonderful landscapes of woodland, hills, trees and views over distant mountains and finally we are back at Ravenglass and the end of our narrow gauge journey.
FROM RAVENGLASS TO BARROW AND HOME
After taking a few final photos, I rush back to the mainline station expecting to see the Barrow train arriving, but there is no sign of it. I overhear from people on the platform who’ve phoned for information that it’s half an hour late. That’s fine as there is plenty of time for my connection from Barrow-in-Furness.
Looking up along the line, in the distance I see what looks like a freight train hauled by a diesel locomotive, but as it approaches it reveals itself to be a passenger train. It stops and I realise this is a ‘real’ train, an old-fashioned diesel locomotive hauling older-style carriages – they look to be from the 1980s. It’s not operated by Northern Rail but by Direct Rail Services. I discover that they are a railfreight company connected to British Nuclear Fuels. Earlier in 2015 they were contracted to provide some of the services on this route, freeing up Northern Rail’s DMUs for use elsewhere.
The train screeches to a halt and I see that there are many passengers on board. I get on board, and it’s like going back a couple of decades. The carriages are old but spacious, with slam doors, windows that open and wood interior finish. There are even compartments at the front – I thought they had disappeared from the British railway network years ago.
The train is quite full, so I stand next to the door to take photos through the open window and with a loud grinding sound from the diesel locomotive – it sounds more like an agricultural machine – the train slowly gathers speed. The coastal line continues to offer stunning views over the Irish Sea. Inland further south the hills have taken on rich colours, and then we drift away from the coast and look out over distant expanses of water, and finally the train turns towards the west and arrives at Barrow-in-Furness station. We are now in historic Lancashire, the north west section that became part of Cumbria in 1974.
We get off and I pause to photograph the locomotive with its vintage yellow and blue livery. There is another loco at the other end of the train, ready to pull it back along the coastal line and on up to Carlisle.
I am disappointed that Barrow Station is smaller than expected. I would like to visit this historic town, but that can wait for another day. Soon a train moves up to the platform. It’s going to Preston. I’m disappointed to be back on a modern style DMU. The old fashioned carriages were a much more enjoyable experience and much better for photography.
Now heading along the line from Barrow-in-Furness towards the east, there are more wide vistas with water on both sides – the railway was built on causeways that cut in a straight line across land and water along the uneven coastline. The main road, the A590, passes north of here, no cars can venture into this watery landscape, and as dusk falls, we are approaching the town of Arnside. The houses overlooking the water seem to be to be built upon one another. After a brief stop at the station, we head further towards the main West Coast line further inland.
TO PRESTON, BLACKBURN AND HOME
Now we are in Lancashire, both historic and current, heading towards Lancaster. After a brief stop we continue along the main West Coast line to Preston where I get off. There’s one thing I need to do: Walk into the town centre and photograph the famous Preston Bus Station.
I return to the Preston railway station and get on the train that passes through Blackburn, where 25 minutes later I change to my final train of the day, which will take me back to Manchester Victoria. Now it is dark. All I can see in the window is my own reflection.
As the train approaches Manchester Victoria I looked over towards Strangeways prison and imagine what it would be like to be inside. No days out on the railway. No days out, full stop. Thankfully that’s not my place of residence and I’m very glad that today I have been able to enjoy the freedom of taking any (Northern) train and going anywhere I want on the network.
That freedom to travel is precious.
Northern Rail is the main train operator in northern England. It’s run by a joint-venture Serco and Abellio. Serco is a UK company that provides outsource public sector services including public transport. Abellio is a subsidiary of the state railway company of the Netherlands Nederlandse Spoorwegen. Northern Rail has held a franchise since 2004 and it expires in 2016. Northern rail operates the largest number of stations in the UK, 462, nearly a fifth of the 2550 stations in the UK’s rail network.