On the west coast of the Lake District, between Barrow-In-Furness and Carlisle, lies the tiny village of Ravenglass. Once a Roman port, part of a chain of defence and supply for north-west Britain, Ravenglass is now known for the almost unique distinction of laying within two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District National Park – and, of course, its railway.
For nearly 150 years the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway has transported minerals and latterly tourists up Cumbrian hill and down Cumbrian dale behind delightful miniature steam locomotives. ‘La’al Ratty’, as it is known in local dialect, was built in 1875 to 3ft gauge as England’s first public narrow-gauge railway and, after re-gauging to 15inches in 1915, still carries over 100,000 passengers annually.
The undulating seven-mile route, with gradients as steep as 1 in 40, is as challenging for the locomotive drivers as it is spectacular for the passengers. From the estuary at Ravenglass the line follows the course of the River Mite before climbing steeply and crossing into Eskdale; coastal views and meadows giving way to mountainous vistas as the little line clings to the hillsides ascending over 150ft to reach the terminus at Dalegarth, nestling in the foothills of the Scafell mountains. ‘Visit the English Alps… the Highest Mountain, the Deepest Lake in England by the Smallest Railway in the World’ as period advertisements put it. During the 40-minute journey passengers can also appreciate wildlife like Heron, Curlew, Red Squirrels and Deer and a profusion of Snowdrops, Bluebells and many other wildflowers depending on the time of year.
A daily service operates from March to October, with 13 departures from Ravenglass every day at the height of the summer season making the line one of the busiest steam railways in the country. Trains are hauled by 5 steam locomotives including River Irt – the world’s oldest working 15inch gauge locomotive and Whillan Beck, built in Germany in 1929 and a new addition to the fleet in 2018. Both are named for water courses along the line, along with two of their sister engines - River Esk and River Mite.
The railway strives to be an appealing experience for all - it was one of the first railways to introduce coaches adapted to carry wheelchairs, launched into service in 1982 by the Second World War flying ace Sir Douglas Bader. The railway and museum’s indoor and majority of outdoor spaces are wheelchair accessible, including a special signal box sensory garden. From the Eskdale terminus visitors can take one of the Lake District National Park ‘Miles Without Stiles’ paths suitable for push- and wheelchairs for a visit to the historic St Catherine’s church or the banks of the River Esk, catching a glimpse of the old iron ore workings. Quiet spaces for relaxation and reflection are also available at each end of the railway for those who desire a few minutes to regroup or just rest a while and watch the world go by.
The new Ravenglass Railway Museum is signed up to the ‘Kids in Museums’ manifesto, a commitment to providing welcoming, physically and intellectually accessible spaces for families. The Museum reopened in 2017 after a massive Lottery-Funded redevelopment and is located at Ravenglass station. Here the visitor goes on a journey from the beginnings of mining in Eskdale to the construction of the railway in the 1870s, its preservation in 1960 and the story up to the present day as told through more than 3,000 objects ranging from locomotives and carriages to tickets, uniforms, models and artefacts from the Railway’s iron ore mining and granite quarrying heritage. A star attraction is the steam locomotive Katie which worked at Ravenglass in 1916 and has been restored to working order for the first time since the 1920s. Visitors can also get hands-on by taking the controls of an interactive steam engine exhibit, deciding what job on the Railway they would like or dressing as 1920s tourists for a family photo. For more studiously-inclined visitors a private archive store is available by appointment for delving deeper into the intricate artefacts and memorabilia from ‘La’al Ratty’s history.
With spectacular waterfalls, friendly pubs and other local attractions such as the historic Eskdale Mill to explore nearby, a journey on the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway should be on the itinerary of any visitor to Cumbria.