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Introduction | Route and Stations | Owd Ratty | La'al Ratty | Rolling Stock
Known locally as 'La'al Ratty', the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway first opened as a single-track three-foot gauge line in 1873 to carry haematite ore mined in the Eskdale valley in Cumbria for seven miles to reach the coastal town of Ravenglass. Due to its convenient location just a couple of miles away from the largest mountains in England, the wide gauge line, referred to as 'Owd Ratty', soon attracted more tourists than it could cope with, some of whom ended up riding the line in open-top iron ore wagons. Despite its popularity, the line became bankrupt just a couple of years after opening, and in 1908 a letter of complaint to Winston Churchill - then the President of the Board of Trade - saw that the line was quickly closed to passengers. Having been in receivership for much of its life, the line failed to produce any income, closing in 1913 despite all efforts. Fortunately, the line was bought by a model railway manufacturer just two years later, re-opening in stages as a 15-inch gauge tourist attraction while continuing to serve both the mines and a granite-crushing plant along the way.
However, having survived World War Two, the line became unprofitable by the end of the 1940s, closing in 1953 and then being put up for sale a few years later. No offer for the railway came, and so the entire railway was put up for auction in 1960, with the clause that if a bid didn't come, the line would be broken up and sold off piece by piece. Despite having only one month's notice to react, the local people managed to raise enough to make a winning bid, albeit with the help of a couple of rich enthusiasts who promised to subscribe whatever amount was needed to get the line back on track. One of these men, Lord Wakefield of Kendal, chaired the line until his death in 1984, ensuring that it remained one of the best tourist attractions in the north. Since then, the line has been relaid and the stations have been improved no end, but the narrow gauge line, known as 'Ratty' to the locals, remains more or less the same today.
As the name suggests, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway begins in the coastal town of Ravenglass, the only seaside town to be included within the boundaries of the Lake District National Park. From here, the line runs close to the River Mite for four miles, passing along the northern side of Muncaster Fell, before heading into the valley of the River Esk and running for another three miles to reach the eastern terminals at Eskdale (Dalegarth) station1. Both termini have turntables, thus allowing the locomotives to turn around and run back past the carriages before being hitched back on and departing in the opposite direction. Although the line is single track for most of the route, there are three loops along the way which act as passing places for services heading in opposite directions.
The railway has a small number of permanent staff but a lot of work is done by volunteers; and while the railway has attempted to fit itself into the mould of the modern tourist attraction, it still survives partly on subscriptions from its members. Trains take about 40 minutes to cover the seven miles between Ravenglass and Dalegarth stations, with the number of services per hour varying seasonally (see timetable link, below). The running of trains around Ravenglass station is governed by old semaphore signals, but the bulk of the line is controlled by radio communication using the line's call-sign RANDER. As there are three passing places along the length of the line, each of the four single-track sections can only contain one train at any particular time, and so drivers must obtain permission from the controller at Ravenglass before proceeding along each section. The points at the loops are spring-loaded so that they return to the correct positions once trains have left the loop.
While the bulk of the line's services are operated by miniature steam trains, early-morning and late-evening services are diesel-operated, as are most services during the winter months. During the summer, open, semi-open and closed carriages are all used to make up the train, while mainly closed ones are used during the colder months. A carriage with disabled access is available on every train. While tickets are available from ticket offices at Ravenglass and Dalegarth stations, a guard is present on every train and will usually be able to sell tickets to passengers straight away at the smaller stations. Passengers wishing to board at any of the line's intermediate stations should hail the train by sticking out an arm, and passengers wishing to alight at an intermediate stop should inform the guard.
While a daily service with quite a few trains in both directions generally operates between mid March and late October, during the colder months the line operates a limited service at weekends only, and has a couple of closed periods when no trains run at all. There is, however, a reasonable service between Christmas and New Year's Day. For more information about the services available throughout the year, it is best to check the railway's timetable.
While the railway starts off by descending into the flat reaches of Barrow Marsh, following which it draws past both the water mill at Muncaster Mill and a stone-crushing plant at Murthwaite, much of the journey takes place among woods, along the sides of hills, and through various cuttings as the railway sticks to the sides of the valleys. Meanwhile, fells such as Scafell2, England's second highest mountain, can be seen as the trains climb up alongside Muncaster Fell. The line is practically surrounded by fells by the time it reaches its terminal off the very road that leads over the top of the infamous Hardknott Pass. Dalegarth station is also close to Gill Force waterfall on the River Esk, and is a short walk from the village of Boot, which features both a mill and a pub or two. There are many good walks in the surrounding area that take in the line, making it possible to hike up the valley and catch a train back again. The book Walks from Ratty by good old Alfred Wainwright is very much recommended if you plan to go low-level hiking during your stay in the Lake District.
Getting to the Railway
Ravenglass station can be reached easily enough by road or rail, the latter being via the Cumbrian Coast Line which runs along the coast between Lancaster and Carlisle. A joint ticket is available from mainline stations which encompasses both the mainline journey and the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Driving to Ravenglass, it is possible to approach from the south (M6 Junction 36 - A590 - A5092 - A595), the north (M6 Junction 40 - A66 - A5086 - A595 from Penrith, M6 Junction 44 - A595 - A5086 - A595 from Carlisle), or from Ambleside via Coniston (A593 - A595). It's also possible to drive over Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass to reach Eskdale from Ambleside via the Langdale valley - but this sort of adventure isn't advisable for those of a nervous disposition, those with a car full of luggage, or for anyone visiting the Lakes during the winter. Finally, if you don't have as much time as you'd like to visit the railway, use a map to find your way to Irton Road or The Green stations - Irton Road station is hidden on a little side road, but The Green is directly beneath the road towards Hardknott Pass - and then catch the train to Dalegarth and back.