Country & Coast: Rail seats with a view

The Ribblehead Viaduct.  Pic: Simon Hulme
The Ribblehead Viaduct. Pic: Simon Hulme
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THE SETTLE-Carlisle railway line appears to grow in popularity every year, and travelling along it one fine morning it was easy to see why.

Soon after leaving Settle, slanting green fields girt with bone-white limestone walls cradled the lovely villages of Ribblesdale. Then the three great peaks of Penyghent, Ingleborough and Whernside loomed large on either side, and that was just the first quarter of an hour of the 100-minute rat-a-tat-tat journey to Carlisle.

But enjoyment of the 72-mile line is not confined to appreciation of the stunning scenery. Nine lovingly preserved small stations along the route are all part of the experience, and they look immaculate in their original Midland Railway marooon livery. Settle’s is decorated with colourful tubs of pansies and petunias, and at the next halt of Horton-in-Ribblesdale neat flower borders are tended on each platform, all the work of volunteers.

On my journey, the train’s carriages were about three-quarters full and many passengers had rucksacks. When not gaping at the views, they studied Ordnance Survey maps with obvious anticipation. Others talked excitedly in American accents or foreign languages as they took photographs of Penyghent across the dale.

Through each carriage walked a volunteer from the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line - the group which helped to save it from certain closure in 1989 - to provide a commentary on the route. As we rumbled across the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct he pointed out the nubbly remains of shanty towns where 2,000 navvies and their families had lived during its construction in the 1870s.

While the line exists primarily as the major rail link between West Yorkshire and the west of Scotland and also serves many villages in the Western Dales and onwards through the Eden Valley, it is now clearly a major tourist attraction. As such, it must be the best value day-out in Yorkshire. If you have a Railcard, for around a tenner you can get a return ticket from Leeds to any of the line’s stations in the National Park, and step out onto a platform that instantly brings to your ears the cries of curlews, songs of skylarks and tinkling of meadow pipits. You can then do a seven or eight-hour circular walk or simply set off over a fell or down the dale to catch the return train from another station.

It’s a shame, though, that the stations passed by trains from Leeds prior to arrival in Settle have not been treated to the same tlc as those rural halts northwards to Carlisle. Beyond Skipton, the small stations are not kind to the eye. Gargrave has a messy builders’ yard strewn behind the north platform, Hellifield’s station is a Grade II listed building and has many ornate features yet the platforms are untidy and overgrown with weeds, while Long Preston’s is a bland, functional place that gives little clue to the delights of the Settle-Carlisle line just minutes away.