Once upon a time, going to Eskdale for the day would have been simple. It would have been alarm at 6.00am, behind the wheel at 7.00am, cross the Cumbria border at 8.00am and, depending on which of the many short cuts available that I chose, Eskdale for about 10.00am, early enough to climb Scafell, if that was my thing for the day.
But let’s not pretend that’s my option now. Public transport won’t do that sort of thing for me. Today’s expedition is going to cost a lot in terms of traveling time, the best part of ten hours on trains, or waiting for connections. And that’s not counting the Ratty.
Given that, at the very best, I’ll only get two and a half hours in Eskdale itself, some have asked if it’s going to be worth it? That’s before we throw in factors like being on a week’s leave, which means that this year’s extraordinary heatwave has vanished out the window, leaving cool, cloud-laden and frequently wet conditions all round, or that I’ve been feeling drained and dozy all week, the wet weather has brought out my arthritic knee and hip, not to mention that I’ve been finding sleep as elusive as the point to Boris Johnson, and I’m asking myself the same question.
It’s not merely tradition that sees me keep too the 6.00am alarm, which has to drag me awake. I’m booked on the 8.30am train from Piccadilly but I intend to catch the bus at 7.00am: it’s a 203, remember, and my paranoia about that service is entirely justifiable. I then excel myself by painfully half-jogging to catch the 6.50am bus which, with a clearly energised driver charging through traffic lights instead of slowing down in a bid to get them to turn red, drops me off with over an hour to spare.
Of course, if I had taken even half of that hour for additional sleep, I would not have been here for 8.45am.
My bag is full of all the wants and requirements for the day – scotch egg barms, water bottle, mp3 player with old-style ear-covering headphones and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I want to read in readiness for the English publication of The Labyrinth of the Spirits next month – except for cold drinks. I acquire two small bottles of Diet Coke and take up position in Platform 14’s ‘Departure Lounge’ by 7.50am, wondering how I’m going to get to Lancaster on a train bound for Blackpool North.
The mystery is solved when this is fully announced as one of those split services: from Preston the rear two carriages will detach and head for the seaside and the front two carry on for, ultimately, Windermere via my first change. Needless to say, Piccadilly announce that the other way round and we’ve reached Bolton (hack, plew!) before the conductor interrupts my musical reverie to tell me I’m in the wrong half of the train. I’d snagged myself a nice window/table seat too, but then I get another one further up, albeit with the surface sticky from spilt juices.
The day’s early tension faded out once I was on the train and everything was out of my hands, but the relaxation didn’t last.
There were some hints of blue streaks in the sky, pale from a hundred washings, and they grow a bit until, by Horwich Parkway the forward sky looks very promising.
We’re six minutes late at Preston and by the time the carriages are separated, we’ve eaten up fifteen of the twenty-five minutes I have between connections at Lancaster, enough to set the butterflies off again. The sky’s getting better and hotter, though there’s still enough cloud ahead of us to leave it all balanced.
I leave the train at Lancaster with that ten minutes still preserved, debouching onto the same platform the Barrow-in-Furness train will arrive at, but I relax only for moments. The Edinburgh train immediately before it is running late, enough that it will inevitably delay mine. For which I have a five minute connection at Barrow…
The Edinburgh train is processed out quickly, but next on the board is the bloody Glasgow train, which, as an express, takes precedence. A friendly porter confirms the Barrow train will follow it, about ten minutes late: they do try to hold the Coast train connection.
What can I do? Nothing but play it as it lays. I’ve been on a hot streak with the pen all the way so far, and I’m loving the music. So what if the bloody Glasgow train is itself five minutes late? My careful plans didn’t factor in checking alternatives, so until I get to Barrow, I won’t know when the next Coast train is. Every hour? Every two hours? Even if all I can do is turn straight round at Dalegarth, I’ll get my Ratty trip if it kills me.
At last, no more than seventeen minutes late, we move off. I’ve grabbed another window/table seat, from which I’ll be able to see the hills inland, once we’re around Morecambe Bay, but until then the views are through the other windows.
At Arnside, we begin the crossing of the Bay, wide, flat expanses of water to both sides, long horizons. Kent’s Bank, where (Great-) Uncle Alfand Aunty Marion used to live, is an isolated platform in the middle of nowhere. I detect we’re approaching Ulverston (where I was once offered a job I declined) by the sight of the monument we only knew as Hoad (pronounced in a deep and serious tone not unlike Hoder), and this is where I get my first serious views of the fells. I have to puzzle out exactly what I’m looking at before I realise it’s the Conistons – this is an unusual angle to see them at – with the Old Man and Dow Crag cloud-bound.
Dalton, where we holidayed with Uncle Frank a couple of times before the bust-up over Aunty Lily Bunting’s Will that split the family, is much more extensive than I ever remember it. It’s alsowhen my connection should be leaving Barrow.
The train eventually crawls into Barrow, not that that matters when the conductor announces that the next Coast train leaves from Platform 2 at 12.06. So much for the 12.10 or 12.45 Ratty. So much for two hours in Eskdale.
If I have to sit around for half an hour in Cumbria, I wouldn’t choose Barrow Station (or anywhere in Barrow, come to that). It’s now bright, breezy and sunny and I’m filling in page after page in my Notepad with almost manic determination, swapping from the first draft of this post to a vital scene in my current novel, to another ‘Infinite Jukebox’ blogpost, inspired by one of the songs on my new, extended playlist.
The train arrives and the station announcer reels off a list of stops that takes almost as long to read as we were late in getting here. The driver wanders off for a cup of tea, leaving us standing on the platform, listening to the recitation over and over, until a couple of minutes before departure, when we are finally allowed to board. I score my fourth window/table seat of the day but I’m planning from here to spend more time gaping at Black Combe than writing.
At first, the Combe’s on my left as we swing north to cross the Duddon Estuary. A long line of rounded fells extends beyond it, and the predatory cloud keeps picking it its summit as I try to work out just what I’m looking at in the darker distance, but I’m unable to orient the angles to my satisfaction. On my side, the shrouded Conistons reappear.
I’m seeing the Duddon Fells again. It’s been a while. Proud and shapely little Stickle Pike, so easy to access from the top of the Broughton Mills road. Caw, beyond it, that I wanted to desperately to have been included in Wainwright and which I finally climbed from ‘The Outlying Fells’.
Next stop Foxfield (‘all change for Broughton and Coniston’, at least until Dr Beeching swung the axe that had so recently cut off that branch line when first I sailed past here). Shy red deer, a long long way from Martindale, peer at our train from an overgrown field, startled into stillness.
Millom, where one Friday teatime of a cottage holiday we went for fish’n’chips, stunned at the silence, the emptiness of the streets, as if we were in a ghost town, and indeed we were for though we didn’t know it then, this was the day they closed the Ironworks, throwing practically the whole town out of work without a word of warning.
This land is full of memories and the train just a line on which to peg them out.
Now we’re properly in the shadow of Black Combe, the cloud still snatching and retreating, and I can see the line of the path from Wicham by which we climbed it, without fuss or bother, in 1974, was it, when the haze was too great for the extensive view from the top, and then Silecroft but not its beach of stones, so perfect for two kids to try to hurl back into the sea. Rolling grass undulations keep us from seeing the sea.
Bootle, where Uncle Alf and Aunty Marion moved to, and to which I drove, in two successive Aprils, for their funerals. Some of the lower Eskdale Fells are now visible as we finally pass the Combe’s mammoth footprint, Muncaster Fell (which we climbed one morning before paying a duty visit to our elder relatives), a denuded Irton Pike, cloud behind.
I see more when we cross the Esk estuary. I see the gates into Eskdale, I see the shape of reclusive Miterdale, where last I reached its head I took my then-wife and her children. I see Scafell is cloud-choked.
And then it’s Ravenglass, and I may be way behind on my carefully planned schedule, but I am nevertheless here. Because this is where I come from, in whatever an atheist has for a spirit. Great Grandad Robert, who I never knew, was Station Master here. Grandad Arthur was born here in 1894. This is where the Crookalls are from, for all that the rest of my lineage is pure Manchester.
Do I recognise the Ratty? Not a bit of it.
It’s changed and grown, and I’ve seen too little of that, and nothing for the last fifteen years or so and everything of the ramshackle little organisation with the two trains, run by Volunteers from a Preservation Society, the members of which included my Dad, descending to me after his death, is gone. Only the lines and the turntable remain. I’m booked on the 1.30pm from Platform 3 (Platform 3!). There’s a green steam train hooked up to it.
I hasten down to see it (and take a photo), though it’s ‘Northern Rock’ and not the familiar and very old faithful, ‘River Irt’. The surroundings may have changed, but the small of coal and steam is instantly recognisable.
There are a variety of carriages: open, closed, roofed. I stake a claim in an open carriage with ages to go. I am going to see everything the clouds will allow me to see. And this really is how it used to be: I remember roofed carriages first being introduced. I remember ‘Northern Rock’ being introduced to the line, and the debate about what to name it: it was suggested that, to harmonise with the three steam trains already operating, it be called ‘River Bleng’, and wondering where the heck the Bleng was.
How long is it since I actually rode on the Ratty? It isn’t this century, but Hell’s Bells, it could be as long ago as the Eighties! It was a cold, frequently wet day, with the fells out of the question and I made up my mind on the spur of the moment, killing time with a there-and-back-again to Dalegarth that I remember for getting chatty across two carriages with an attractive young blonde (wearing a wedding ring) who was up from Lancaster for the day. At Irton Rose, she invited me to sit with her in her carriage to continue the conversation, an enthusiasm for my company I wasn’t used to. Alas, to my everlasting regret, I took the ring pretty seriously, and let her go off wandering from Dalegarth instead of volunteering to accompany her: what else was I doing with my time anyway? Frequently, the kindest word I can say for my younger self is ‘chump’. Absolute chump.
There are no blondes today, attractive or otherwise, and the conductor reckons it will rain before we get to Eskdale. So what? If it rain, it rains. (And it doesn’t).
Steam starts to be produced up top amidst a regular noise more like clicking than chuffing. I’d worried about getting a train in mid-August, even on a midweek day, remembering crowded carriages and sharing compartments but we’re not much more than half-full. It never used to be like that on the Ratty in August.
We’re only waiting for the line to clear, for ‘River Mite’ all handsome in gleaming maroon, to draw in the down train. Oh God, I remember ‘River Mite’ being introduced, and the shock of seeing it not being in green livery, before the decision to repaint ‘River Esk’ in black.
Then we’re really off and outside the station everything is as it was fifty years ago, and if you think I’ve waxed nostalgic this far, now I’m mainlining times that were. Parents and Uncle and kid sister crowd me into the corner of this little compartment and for a moment, several moments, eyes sting and my cheeks are wet.
Irton Road (where I am shocked to find we don’t stop) means we have swung away from the line of the Mite and the miniature crags and cliffs of Muncaster Fell, and are entering Middle Eskdale. Harter Fell stands proud, taller than its real height, and Green Crag’s Cullin-like ridge commands the eye. Eskdale Green has, shockingly, been renamed ‘The Green’ (and we don’t stop there either, what is this place coming to?) But we do stop at a station that never existed in my time, Fisherground Halt, because these intermediate stations are now only request stops.
Next is Gilbert’s Cutting, which flabbergasts me by being so green, moss and fern having softened the bare rocks of its creation in 1963. And Beckfoot Crossing, where the line of ‘Owd Raty’ runs parallel for a stretch before diverging to Boot village, a section deemed too steep for ‘Laal Ratty’ when it was rescued from oblivion.
At last I’m in Dalegarth, for 2.10pm, giving me only eighty minutes among hills and fells, rock and grass and woods not seen in like forever, that I’d honestly given up hope of seeing again, and I was wrong about that, and glory be, ‘River Irt’ is sat here, bright as ever, waiting to pull the next down train.
Where our walks to Boot tended to be more of an amble, I haven’t the time now to be anything but brisk. I cross to the right hand side to face the oncoming traffic, little of it that there is, but nobody else does. Boot has been heavily re-developed, and they’re still knocking it about now, scaffolding over the bridge: tourism. I don’t recognise much.
But the path I want, up beside the Whillan Beck (we always called it ‘the’: I wonder why) has to be the only one on the right. The cascades and torrents, the rushing, milk-white water crashing down over broken rock is immediately familiar, but it’s inaccessible now, and I’m sure there used to be a monkey-puzzle tree along here. And surely this wasn’t a tarmaced lane? Often steep, it leads me almost to Gill Head Farm (National Trust) and the real footpath, to Eel Tarn and Scafell. A half day scrambling around here, that forlorn week of going away after Dad died, me with my little transistor radio in my anorak front pocket, my mother disgusted.
From here I should have the perfect view of Scafell’s least interesting side but for that bloody cloud. It’s not much, it’s not far, it’s maybe 500′ at the very best, but it’s all I can do in the time I have.
So, down to Dalegarth again. The steep bits of the lane are worse for my knees than in ascending, but its still quicker downhill. The Whillan Beck cascades are too screened by trees for a decent photo but I take one anyway. Back in Boot, there’s a big pub with a big beer garden, full of benches and tables full of people, with parasols advertising Robinson’s Bitter (our Robinson’s Bitter? Robbie’s from Stockport?) and that’s just wrong, completely wrong. My parents would have had a fit.
The first thing I do back at the station is to leave a little liquid reminder that I’ve been here (TMD, I hear you cry but I couldn’t resist the alliteration). I’ve just finished buying replenishments when my train steams in: this time it’s ‘River Mite’, to my disappointment, having hoped to see the old holy trinity of trains (‘River Esk’s driver is off ill, I later hear). Three rivers three trains, three memories.
I transfer the contents of a bottle of cold Harrogate Spring Water (what’s wrong with Buxton, then?) to my water bottle and drain the cold can. As I recycle plastic bottles and cans fervently, I have to take these home. I’m now accumulating quite a stock.
As we pull out, the first fine spatters of rain hit us, but we quickly outrun them. So much for showers in Eskdale.
I sit with my back to the engine, looking back at where I’ve been, at Eskdale for the longest possible time. At the end of the line, bordering the Mite estuary, there behind me is Nether Wasdale, free from cloud at last. Seatallan, where it ended, and Middle Fell, where it started, side by side. Unseen, all the other Wainwrights crowd between them.
As I cross the the mainline station that Great Grandad would probably still recognise, I’m gratified by one last reminder that not everything has changed: ‘River Mite’ has edged onto the turntable, and the driver still has to turn it round by applying his shoulder and pushing!
It’s all about going home now and retreat is never as interesting as advance. It should be straightforward as I have only the one change, at Lancaster, ahead of me, with a forty-six minute connection to sit out. Of course, that depends on the 4.25pm train turning up on time and it doesn’t. A clearly disgruntled customer with a smartphone reports it is running twenty-five minutes late. Still, if i have to hang around a railway station, Ravenglass is my preference.
Once the train arrives, correctly late, it’s chocker with homebound workers from Sellafield. There’s not a seat to be had and I’m bloody lucky that I only have to stand until Silecroft. It’s now a beautiful evening, glorious traveling weather: beyond Bootle, I can catch glimpses of the sea from my ‘extra’ height, sparkling and light, but we’re both too low and too far south for there to be the remotest possible chance of glimpsing the Isle of Man.
Coming this way, I remember a Sixties holiday when we all drove up as usual in Uncle Arthur’s car on Saturday, but he had work commitments and couldn’t stay the week, so on the Tuesday morning after the Bank Holiday Monday we saw him off from Silecroft to Manchester on the ancestor of this train, and he left his car keys for Dad to drive the rest of the week.
At long last, my non-stop writing is slowing down, not that it stops for a very long time yet. But this is Barrow again, and it’s now nearly twelve hours since that alarm dragged me awake. And still hours to go before I get home.
After Barrow the train becomes an express, stopping only at Carnforth, which I’m sure it wasn’t originally. We flash through empty station after empty station, chasing the sun and the glitter on the Bay towards a mainland dark with cloud that we nevertheless brush away. The train was originally scheduled to reach Lancaster for 6.26pm, then forecast for 6.44pm, and it pretty near exactly splits the difference when it does arrive. Which means another thirty minutes hanging around before I grab my last window/table seat of the day.
Even with all the stops we have to make, I’m not sure why it’s supposed to take us more than ninety minutes to Piccadilly, but I get my explanation at Preston, where we arrive at 7.30pm. In a symmetrical moment I would normally appreciate if it hadn’t been so long a day already, we are to be joined by a Blackpool North train and depart at 7.44pm. Trains, eh?
I’m still writing away, though the energy level has dipped. A quick check at the end of the day confirms I have covered fourteen and a half two-sided sheets of the Reporters Notepad, which is going to make for a lot of typing up and redrafting over the next couple of days. Not looking forward to that.
Sunset is now advancing like a Roman Army conquering Gaul, and will coincide with my arrival at Piccadilly. There’s Rivington Pike and the Winter Hill transmission mast to the right, and to the right are the last sunlit clouds, the ice cream castles of Joni Mitchell’s words and Judy Collins’ voice, earlier in the day, massive vanilla ramparts. When I worked for Bolton Council, one of our Chief Surveyors took me up our private road to Winter Hill. It’s bloody flat up there, no place to be on foot in cloud.
Finally, it’s Manchester. I’m lucky enough to drop onto a 203 bus after only a couple of minutes and now I’m really tired and glad to get in for more or less 9.30pm.
Could it have been better? Of course it could. Would I have preferred to have had a companion? Yes, I would. Was it worth it? Course it bloody was, and I’ll do it again, and there’s the full Coast train run to Carlisle to try.
Because it’s possible. And because when life hands you lemons you make lemonade, even if it takes you ages to work out the recipe. I’ve been back to the Ratty, I’ve been back to Eskdale. What’s next?