There’s nothing better than the sight, smell and sound of classic steam trains in the English countryside.
The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is a sight to behold as its miniature trains steam their way across the dramatic landscape of the western Lake District.
Jump on board the train at Dalegarth in the heart of Eskdale and the train will take you over the fells to Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast.
A great adventure’s in store as you steam along through some of the Lake District’s most spectacular scenery.
Mini rail adventure
Now, I’m no train spotter but I do enjoy an old-fashioned ride on a steam railway – and this is one of the best I’ve been on.
It’s like travelling on your own personal railway line with top class service guaranteed and quirky stops available on request There are few delays, little overcrowding and everyone has happy, smiling faces – a far cry from modern rail travel.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Steam Railway so it’s a great time to visit this narrow gauge railway.
In the late 19th Century, the railway connected the iron mines of the Eskdale valley with the Roman port of Ravenglass. Granite was also transported by the railway in its later years.
In the mid 1930s the Ravenglass-Eskdale line was the smallest passenger railway in the whole world.
Today, the railway is a hugely popular tourist attraction, run by a preservation society, where you can step back in time, relax and be taken for a 40 minute ride through the Lake District National Park.
We made the trip to the coast, breaking off for an extended lunch break and beach walk at Ravenglass before leaping back on board to return to Dalegarth a couple of hours later.
You can ride inside one of the tiny carriages or sit outside in the open, breathing in the smell of the steam engine, soaking up the atmosphere and getting a blast of fresh air as you travel across the countryside.
It’s almost like travelling on a miniature railway in Lilliput. Everything is smaller than a conventional railway including the steam engines, carriages, stations and rail track.
There’s a sense of exhilaration and romance that comes with this train journey, something that has been lost from most modern rail travel. It helps that it’s run by enthusiasts who have a real passion for what they’ve doing.
Everything is spotless, well-maintained and shiny. It’s a real joy to visit the railway and enjoy a ride on its trains.
History in motion
The Ravenglass and Eskdale Steam Railway is one of the oldest and longest narrow gauge railways in England.
It’s known as La’al Ratty which means ‘little railway’ in the old Cumbrian dialect, although it sounds like a rodent from The Wind in the Willows.
The journey takes passengers on a scenic trip through ancient woodlands and countryside of the Eskdale Valley to the coast.
Keep your eyes to the skies and look out for birds including buzzards which circle overhead on the thermals. As you approach the scenic Ravenglass estuary, there’s a good chance of seeing wild geese, oystercatchers, ducks and wading birds.
The rail trip was one of Alfred Wainwright’s favourite journeys, crossing seven miles of spectacular scenery to the foot of England’s highest mountains, the Scafell Pike range (3,209 feet high). He also wrote a series of walks which could be taken from the Ratty railway line.
As you steam along at a leisurely pace, there are small station halts where you can request to jump on and off to explore the surrounding countryside.
My favourite stop is Irton Road, one of the few sections of the line where the rail track doubles up so trains can pass each other.
Our outward journey was on a diesel train so it was thrilling to watch as a steam engine approached us with billowing smoke heralding its arrival.
As we watched the steam engine disappear under the tunnel, my partner Tony remembered his adventures as a small child on the same railway back in 1962.
Apparently, a couple of the old trains from that period are still operating on the route so we made a mental note to check out the vintage engines when we arrived at Ravenglasss.
The great thing about these heritage railway trips is they have a timeless quality which brings out the romantic in even the most cynical of souls.
Rail travel has the great advantage of forcing you to go at a slower pace. These trains don’t go much faster than 20 mph which makes for a very leisurely, lazy trip.
There’s also the thrill of seeing a very different window on the world compared with driving in a car or hiking along the fells. You’re forced to look up at the hills which frame the valley – a different perspective.
As you ride along, the stations have evocative names like Miteside Halt, Beckfoot, The Green, Muncaster Mill and Fisherground, conjuring up images of a quieter age.
As our train pulled into Ravenglass, there was a lot of activity going on with an army of people working on maintaining the steam trains and welcoming us into the station.
Once on the platform, there’s a great opportunity to get close to the old trains and watch them being made ready for their next journey..
As we marvelled at the mini steam train, called Northern Rock, I was surprised to discover that most of the trains are relatively new, despite looking like throwbacks to an earlier age.
Most were built in the 1990s with a few older trains dating from the 1960s. Northern Rock, as it turns out, was completed in 1976. At the time it was regarded as the most powerful 15″ gauge steam engine in the world.
Naturally, Tony had to go in search of the River Mite engine which he’d travelled on as a child. Amazingly, it was still there after all these years – looking even better than in its heyday.
Meanwhile I became fascinated by the guys shovelling coal into the boilers to whip up enough power and steam to propel the next train leaving the station.
This looked like extremely hot work with the flames roaring in the boiler, heating the coal and turning it into piping hot steam.
The army of volunteer workers were obviously enjoying their hands-on roles and playing the parts of driver, engineer and stoker.
At the far end of the station I watched the slow process of moving the train around on its turning circle. During this operation, the engines started to generate a lot of steam which I was blissfully unaware of, as I was busy looking through my camera lens.
Soon, I was engulfed in a giant cloud of smoke much to the amusement of fellow passengers.
I loved the smell and sound of the trains even if my hair was full of grit and smoke after getting enveloped in the fumes!
Once in Ravenglass, it’s time to enjoy the enigmatic delights of this small coastal town which boasts an estuary, beach and seaside community which feels authentic and under-developed.
Down on the sands at low tide, there’s a strange atmosphere of desolation and quietness which makes this a slightly surreal experience.
Walking amongst the yachts, catamarans and abandoned boats is interesting – and full of surprises. You never know quite know what you’re going to see next.
This isn’t a posh place but it feels timeless, as if left behind by the rest of the world.
The main street is lovely but very quiet with little of the rampant commercialism that has ruined many coastal towns. Although it could do with a few more charming cafes and shops, it has a certain charm and unspoiled character.
There’s also an interesting walk around the estuary from where you call see interesting views of the town as well as indulging in bird watching and train spotting.
Oystercatchers dominate the town’s tideline, running around in the gloopy mud looking for the next seafood dinner.
Boat lovers will enjoy the amazing range of vessels anchored close to the shore from posh yachts to fishing boats and unsalvageable wrecks.
For those who like exploring historical sites, take a walk from the station to the Ravenglass Roman Baths, a short 10 minute stroll down a wooded back lane.
The Roman Baths are better preserved than I expected although the site is fairly small. You can still see the niches in the walls of the baths where the Romans kept their altars to the gods.
The Romans were in Ravenglass around 130 AD and the soldiers lived in a garrison over the road from the bath house, although there is little to be seen of that building today other than the earthworks.
The remains of the bath house are among the tallest Roman structures surviving in northern Britain with the walls standing at almost four metres high.
The fort at Ravenglass once guarded what was probably a harbour and there is evidence that soldiers stationed here served in the Emperor Hadrian’s fleet.
From here, we headed back to the station to enjoy a leisurely ride back to our Eskdale camp site on the return steam train.
A journey on one of the world’s smallest passenger railways is a great adventure in miniature. Next time I’ll be returning for a much longer ride.
Tammy’s Top Travel Tips – Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway
The Ravenglass & Eskdale Steam Railway runs from Ravenglasss station on the coast to Dalegarth near the small village of Boot in Eskdale in England’s western Lake District.
Trains run on a variety of timetable schedules depending on the season including the pink and yellow timetables in the summer when trains leave about every 40 minutes.
The steam railway is also open in winter on selected days only.
There is an admission charge of around £13 (pay once and ride all day) with family tickets available for bigger groups. You can also buy a Ratty Rover for £40 covering the whole week.
There are good facilities for tourists at the Dalegarth and Ravenglass stations including a shop, cafe and refreshments. There’s also a small rail museum at Ravenglass Station.
Look out for special events including Ghost Trains, the Santa Express, 100th Anniversary activities and Photography Days. Ravenglass can be reached by modern train if you don’t want to take a car and need a transfer to the steam railway.
Don’t forget to check whether your train is likely to be a diesel or a steam train – this is indicated on the timetables. About 3/4 of trips are on the steam engines.
Looking for somewhere unusual to stay? Self-catering holiday accommodation is available in former railway carriages at Ravenglass Station next to the main platforms.
Three carriages are available on a weekly rental rate from Saturday to Saturday. What a thrill to be in the thick of the railway and its steam trains.
Built in 1915, former first class Pullman cars, Elmira and the Maid of Kent, provide holiday accommodation for up to six people whilst the Hilton Cottage on platform 1 sleeps up to four people.
Alternatively, there are a few small B & Bs in the Ravenglass and Boot area plus the larger Pennington Hotel in Ravenglass. Self-catering cottages are another option.
If you have a camper van, motor home or caravan, there are several good quality sites at Eskdale Camping Club, Ravenglass (near the station) and another close to the Eskdale Steam railway halts.
Both the Eskdale and Ravenglass caravanning sites also offer facilities for camping including pods for ‘glampers’.
A word of warning
If you’re walking along the estuary and beach at Ravenglass, keep your eyes open for the Ministry of Defence red flags and signs which tell you when the shooting range is operational.
The gun fire is the best warning of all but don’t stray into the area without checking first!
Nearby tourist attractions
Tourist attractions within easy reach of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Steam Railway include:
* Stanley Ghyll waterfall, 25 minutes walk from Dalegarth station
* England’s oldest working corn mill at Boot.
* Muncaster Castle is one of northern England’s best historic houses and gardens within walking distance of Ravenglass.
* ‘Britain’s Favourite View’ at Wastwater is not far from the railway line.
* Hardknott Pass and Roman Fort are 12 minutes drive from Boot/ Dalegarth Station.
* The Roman Baths at Ravenglass are open daily and admission is free.