The Yorkshire Dales from the Settle-Carlisle Railway

Yesterday we finally made the trip to Carlisle through the Yorkshire Dales on the Settle-Carlisle railway. I have been wanting to take this train journey ever since we arrived and I have Bill Bryson largely to blame. Here’s what he said about it in his book, Notes from a Small Island:

The Settle-to-Carlisle line is the most celebrated obscure line in the world. British Rail has been wanting to close it down for years on the grounds that it doesn’t pay its way, which is the most mad and preposterous line of argument imaginable.

We’ve been hearing this warped reasoning for so long about so many things that it has become received wisdom, but when you think about it for even a nanosecond it is perfectly obvious that most worthwhile things don’t begin to pay for themselves. If you followed this absurd logic any distance at all, you would have to get rid of traffic lights, lay-bys, schools, drains, national parks, museums, universities, old people and much else besides. So why on earth should something as useful as a railway line, which is generally much more agreeable than old people, and certainly less inclined to bitch and twitter, have to demonstrate even the tiniest measure of economic viability to ensure its continued existence? This is a line of thinking that must be abandoned at once.

Having said that, it can’t be denied that the Settle-to-Carlisle line has always had something of the air of folly about it. In 1870, when James Allport, general manager of the Midland Railway, took it into his head to build a main line north, there was already an east coast line and a west coast line, so he decided to drive one up the middle, even though it went from nowhere much to nowhere much by way of nothing at all. The whole thing cost £3.5 million, which doesn’t sound much now, but translates to some fantastic sum like £487 trillion billion or something. Anyway, it was enough to convince everyone who knew anything about railways that Allport was totally off his head – as in fact he was.

Because the line went through an insanely bleak and forbidding stretch of the Pennines, Allport’s engineers had to come up with all kinds of contrivances to make it work, including twenty viaducts and twelve tunnels. This wasn’t some eccentric, pootling narrow-gauge line, you understand; this was the nineteenth century’s bullet train, something that would allow passengers to fly across the Yorkshire Dales – if, that is, anyone had wanted to, and hardly anyone did.

So from the very beginning it lost money. But who cares? It is a wonderful line, gorgeous in every respect, and I intended to enjoy every minute of my one-hour-and-forty-minute, 71%-mile journey. Even when you live near Settle, it isn’t often you find a reason to use the line, so I sat with my face close to the glass and waited eagerly for the line’s famous landmarks – Blea Moor Tunnel, almost 2,300 yards long; Dent Station, the highest in the country; the glorious Ribblehead Viaduct, a quarter of a mile long, 104 feet high and with twenty-four graceful arches – and in between I enjoyed the scenery, which is not just spectacular and unrivalled but speaks to me with a particular siren voice.

I suppose everybody has a piece of landscape somewhere that he finds captivating beyond words and mine is the Yorkshire Dales. I can’t altogether account for it because you can easily find more dramatic landscapes elsewhere, even in Britain. All I can say is thatthe Dales seized me like a helpless infatuation when I first saw them and will not let me go. Partly, I suppose, it is the exhilarating contrast between the high fells, with their endless views, and the relative lushness of the valley floors, with their clustered villages and green farms. To drive almost anywhere in the Dales is to make a constant transition between these two hypnotic zones. It is wonderful beyond words. And partly it is the snug air of self-containment that the enclosing hills give, a sense that the rest of the world is far away and unnecessary, which is something you come to appreciate very much when you live there.

I loved the trip every bit as much as I was expecting. This is despite the freezing cold train on the way over to Carlisle and then boiling hot one on the way back. I think this is a must-do train trip for anyone keep to see the Dales but I recommend preparing for all seasons on the train. Take shorts and tshirts should the heating be up too high and snow gear should it be switched off altogether. Here are some photos I took from the train:

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The train stations along the way were also gorgeous.

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We got to spend a couple of hours in the very lovely Carlisle before making the journey back. Carlisle has a castle, a cathedral and various other interesting buildings, all made with a distinctive red brick/stone.

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The best thing about train travel is you get to enjoy the many magnificent train stations around the country. Here’s the one in Carlisle:

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I never tire of York train station though which is very special and without a doubt my favourite. We arrived back in York after dusk, unlocked our bicycles and cycled home.

I’m going to let Bill Bryson have the last word because he says in the following few paragraphs pretty much what I think:

It looked so peaceful and wonderful that I could almost have cried, and yet it was only a tiny part of this small, enchanted island. Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bee and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? (‘Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.’) What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardeners’ Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.

How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state – in short, did nearly everything right – and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.

All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you. And then I turned from the gate and got in the car and knew without doubt that I would be back.

23 thoughts on “The Yorkshire Dales from the Settle-Carlisle Railway

  1. What gorgeous countryside and stunning buildings. I love Elizabeth’s tiara. Just perfect for a day’s outing on the Settle-Carlisle railway. 🙂

    1. As you’ve probably noticed, I love trains! They’re a bit of a novelty for us because NZ doesn’t really do trains and Australia is pretty hopeless too.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    I’m glad you like Carlisle – my wife’s from there and we go up there a couple of times a year to see the in-laws. We don’t often go via the Carlisle-Settle line but my little boy loves trains and we have promised him that next time we go up we will go by train and will go that way.

    1. I loved Carlisle. I thought it was a gorgeous little city. I do prefer smaller cities to larger ones though so perhaps I’m biased.

      My kids weren’t that interested in the train trip itself and spent their time playing with devices or colouring in. But there were no complaints from them at all. They’re used to traveling on the train now since we do it so regularly.

    1. There was snow on some of the distant hills in the Dales too but it couldn’t be seen in the photos I took. Hopefully the train will continue making trips to the Dales for another century yet.

  3. Oh Rachel. Firstly, I adore the Yorkshire Dales but have never taken the train ride from Carlisle through them so I very much enjoyed reading about it and also looking at all your great pics. Also, you saw snow!! Yay! Well, it may have been in the distance but at least it was something! Oh I do hope that this wet, windly weather gives way to some snow soon, especially for you…

    Secondly, reading the last paragraph by Bill Bryson made me cry. It brought home my feelings when I was so terribly homesick living in California and missing not just my family but my homeland and all its ‘crazy as fuck’ ways. I never could put my finger on it, just what was it that I missed so much? Bill Bryson couldn’t have said it any better (I adore his books btw as I know you do).

    It made me cry too because I know how much you love it here and your wonderful enthusiasm and great appreciation for this ‘crazy’ isle of ours and your writings about all your days out have made me smile so much. As I’ve said before, we hear so much that is bad about life in the UK and I am always at such pains to tell people not to complain because we have so much here if they were just to take a minute or two to see for themselves. Or maybe move away for a few years to a place where you never see any rain for months at a time and then see how it feels.

    Loved this post Rachel, thank you, and I wish I could give you a great big British hug 🙂

    1. Thanks, Sherri. Your comment brought tears to my eyes. Here’s a virtual hug for you { }

      I thought Bill Bryson summed it up all so well and I knew that nothing I could write would sound as good as his words. He used to live in the Yorkshire Dales near Skipton. I’m not sure where he is now. I love all the crazy place names too and the bit about cricket was so true. I really don’t understand that game although I probably should given that I’m Australian.

      I’m so glad you’re back in your home country now after all those years abroad and that you appreciate it all the more having lived away. I am sad we are leaving soon but I’m confident we’ll be back 🙂

      1. Ahh, now you’ve got me crying AGAIN!!! But also laughing at your cricket comment – guess what, I don’t understand it either, despite the fact that my dad used to play it and tried to teach me, once-upon-a-time 😉
        I’m so glad that you will be back here…and that we still have our blogs to keep in touch through 🙂

  4. I had to have a peak at this old post – because of the title! I lived in Yorkshire for years as a kid, and it is lovely to see your photos. I’m glad you got to experience this part of the UK. Also, Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors. He does have a way with words, and I have enjoyed “travelling” through many places with him 🙂

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