Introduction | Route and Stations | Owd Ratty | La'al Ratty | Rolling Stock
After a continuous struggle to survive for most of the 40 years it existed, the combination of a lack of funds and the end of passenger traffic led to the closure of Owd Ratty in April 1913. However, in 1915, a Robert P Mitchell of Narrow Gauge Railways Limited found out about the desolated line and came to pay a visit. The three-foot gauge track was all still there, but it was badly overgrown and the sleepers were starting to rot away underneath the points where the rails were attached. Despite both the state of the line and the fact that World War One was in full swing, Mitchell decided to take over the line with the help of miniature railway expert, WJ Bassett-Lowke. Just seven weeks after work began, the line had been cleared and rebuilt to a 15-inch gauge up to the first stop at Muncaster Mill, simply by moving the rails inwards and reattaching them to the sleepers. Thus La'al Ratty, the 'little narrow way', was created.
At first, the new line was served by a single model steam locomotive, Sans Pareil, but by 1916 the line had been reconstructed to the halfway point at Irton Road, with the line to Boot being completed just a year later. This led to the need for more engines, namely the model steam locomotive Colossus, along with Katie, Ella and Muriel - three Heywood side tanks that were never 100% up to the task. It wasn't until the 1920s that the famous River Irt, River Esk and River Mite1 appeared on the line, these being the one-third-size miniature steam trains that would later inspire the Reverend W Awdry tales about a tank engine named Thomas.
To begin with, services were generally provided only when required, but by 1920 a proper timetable was devised. However, the increased traffic during Bank holiday weekends pushed the line to its limits, sometimes creating the need to divide trains into two or three sections, each with a different locomotive. Unfortunately, this led to some trains being pulled by the rather untrustworthy Katie, who once ran short of steam on the way back towards Ravenglass after the Fell Dales Show at Boot. Some of the passengers set up a table and began to play cards by the side of the line while the driver struggled to build up a head of steam.
The Murthwaite Crusher Plant
At first, small passenger trains were run with the odd goods wagon attached, but the line soon started to run separate goods trains carrying coal, cattle food and various other goods up to Eskdale, returning with swan timber from Irton Road. More vitally, a proper granite quarry was finally opened at Beckfoot in 1922, thus providing traffic for the line all year round. A granite crushing plant was soon constructed down the line at Murthwaite, just east of where the Miteside Loop now sits, with trains carrying freshly-mined granite along an embankment to the top of the crusher and then collecting it via another branch off the line further down the valley. The crusher was cleverly designed to sort the crushed rock into seven grades, each of which filled a different wagon. The wagons would then be taken along the 15-inch gauge railway to Ravenglass, where their contents would be transferred to a standard gauge train.
In 1929, the decision was made to extend a standard gauge (4 foot 8½ inch) line up from the mainline at Ravenglass to the base of the crushing plant, with this so-called 'Big Ratty' straddling the miniature railway's tracks for the first mile or so out of Ravenglass. This led to the employment of a standard diesel shunting engine, making the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway the first public line in the country to use such a locomotive. 'Beckfoot Granite' continued to be extracted from the hillsides and crushed at Murthwaite up until 1953, when the standard gauge tracks were removed again.
Innovations and Progress
In 1922, turntables were finally added at Ravenglass and Boot stations, though almost as soon as the turntable had arrived at Boot the line was cut back to Beckfoot, thus dropping the final steep climb up to Boot. Instead, the line was extended a short way along the course of the old Ghyll Foss branch, ending in front of the old miners cottages at Dalegarth. A turntable was added, and one of the cottages was turned into a tea room. Meanwhile, the track was slowly re-laid and the old rotten sleepers replaced, with extra ballast being added once the quarry at Beckfoot had begun operations. Meanwhile, motor coach trips were laid on from Irton Road towards Wastwater lake, with the departure and return of the coach tying in with the trains from Ravenglass. Another novelty was run between 1923 and 1925, during which time slip coach working was used on the morning express out of Ravenglass. A couple of coaches for passengers to Irton Road would be added to the end of the train and then slipped as the express passed through Irton Road station.
In 1926, the line was extended further along the route of the Ghyll Foss branch to reach its current terminus at Eskdale (Dalegarth) station, with the tea room and turntable following in 1927. There had been plans to extend the line even further, but legal problems concerning the line crossing the main road meant that the line could go no further. However, improvements were still made to the existing line, including the digging of a new cutting to take the top off the steep incline in Mill Wood just before the Miteside Loop. Before the top was removed from this troublesome bank, trains often needed a little help from passengers to make it to the top of the 1 in 42 gradient - in fact, passengers were said to feel cheated if the trains made it to the top without at least a little help. Finally, one particularly big change came when the all the locomotives adopted the Great Western green colour scheme that can still be seen on River Esk today.
The first signs of trouble came in 1928, when the line's contract with the Royal Mail expired and post started to arrive in the valley via little red vans instead. In fact, various motor vehicles were now starting to find their way all the way up the valley to Eskdale, and it wasn't long before the line's winter services were withdrawn completely. However, the line continued to run very successfully until the outbreak of war in September 1939, when passenger services were suspended until 1946. However, traffic from the quarry at Beckfoot continued throughout World War Two, and the quarry's tough granite walls were used to test various new explosives, thus helping the military refine various new bombs and missiles.
Unfortunately, the wartime service was performed entirely by petrol locomotives, and the shortage of fuel after the war had ended meant that the steam locomotives could only be used from time to time. This time off provided plenty of time to overhaul River Esk and River Irt, although the original River Mite had started to experience problems that eventually led to its withdrawal from service. However, the line was soon to suffer a major blow. Having been sold to the Keswick Granite Company in 1949, the railway's granite quarries soon became uneconomic compared to other quarries in the area, and so in 1953 the Beckfoot Quarry was closed for good. Failing to survive on passenger traffic alone, the line was closed and put up for sale in both 1958 and 1959. However, there was no interest, and so the line was scheduled to go to auction at Gosforth Public Hall in September 1960 with just a month's notice. If the line didn't sell then, it would be broken up into 60 separate lots and sold off piece by piece to whoever would buy it.
Fortunately, the single month's notice led the vicar Murray Hodges and the local parish council to start a preservation society to ensure the safety of the railway. Subscriptions poured in from all sorts of places, but the amount of money coming in just didn't seem to be enough. It was only on 7 September, the day of the auction, when stockbroker Colin Gilbert and local landowner Sir Wavell Wakefield MP offered to make up the balance required to get the railway running again, thus allowing Douglas Robinson to make the winning bid of £12,000 on behalf of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway Preservation Society. A new company was formed with Gilbert at the head, with the Preservation Society helping a team of full-time staff under Douglas Ferreira get the railway back on track. The line started to be re-laid during the winter periods using new rails and sleepers, new closed and semi-open coaches were laid on, and the old steam locomotives River Irt and River Esk were joined by the current incarnation of River Mite.
With the death of Colin Gilbert in 1968, the line's management was taken over by Lord Wakefield, whose wealth soon went into replacing the rest of the worn out rails and sleepers while also purchasing the old British Rail station building at Ravenglass, now the Ratty Arms public house. The mainline shelter there also became part of the miniature railway, forming the line's museum and gift shop - in fact, the platform awnings, footbridge and seats were all otherwise-redundant items bought from various mainline stations in order to maintain Ravenglass station's traditional appearance. In 1975, Douglas Ferreira introduced the radio control system used by the line today that allows each section of the single track line to be used by a single train without any form of signalling.
Another miniature steam locomotive, the Northern Rock, arrived in 1976 to celebrate the line's centenary, and new diesels such as Silver Jubilee and Lady Wakefield started to serve the line. Over the years, the trains visited various festivals, with Queen Elizabeth II travelling in a train pulled by Shelagh of Eskdale at the 1984 International Garden Festival in Liverpool. However, the line's most notable achievement came when two new steam locomotives based on Northern Rock, namely Northern Rock II and Cumbria, were built and despatched to the Rainbow Park in Shuzen-ji, Japan in 1990 and 1992 respectively.
In 2001, the line made the move to become more like other modern tourist attractions, adopting an anthropomorphised water vole called 'La'al Ratty' as a mascot that appears during the summer months to 'shake paws' with children. In 2007 came the opening of a new, bigger station building at Eskdale (Dalegarth), complete with garish green railings around the turntable and an oversized gift shop - it would seem that little old Ratty has finally been dragged remorselessly into the 21st Century. However, the beautiful countryside that the line runs through remains unchanged by the passage of the years and, more importantly, it is still possible to get a good pint of bitter in the valley's pubs, and tea and cake can be found at both Ravenglass and Eskdale stations.