For seven glorious miles, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway chugs its way from the pretty seaside settlement of Ravenglass up through the Eskdale countryside to Dalegarth Station on the edge of Boot village. Known affectionately as the La’al Ratty – la’al being local dialect for ‘little’ – this narrow-gauge line passes along the base of Muncaster Fell, stopping along the way at Muncaster Mill, Miteside, Murthwaite, Irton Road, The Green, Fisherground and Beckfoot. The 40-minute journey makes for a lovely, relaxed way to see Eskdale, especially if you’re sitting in one of the open carriages on a hot summer’s day. (There are also covered carriages should the Cumbrian weather do its worst.)
The three-foot gauge line opened in 1875, and carried iron ore from the mine in Eskdale, as well as passengers, to the main railway line on the coast. It closed in 1913 but, just two years later, it was relaid to an even narrower gauge (15 inches) as a test track for miniature locomotives. After being used to haul granite for several years, it looked like its life was over when the local quarry closed. Then, in 1960, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Preservation Society stepped in and the heritage line was born.
Today, there are five steam engines serving the railway, including the River Irt, which was built in 1894, making it the world’s oldest working 15-inch gauge locomotive. Trains run from March to October, although the Santa Express runs on selected dates in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Other seasonal specials include Halloween ‘Ghost Trains’, school holiday ‘Wildlife Wednesdays’ with the RSPB and summer opportunities to ride on the footplate and fulfil long-held dreams of being a train driver.
There are cafés at both Dalegarth and Ravenglass stations, and the latter also houses a museum charting the history of the railway. Here, visitors can learn how steam engines operate, working the controls themselves on part of a boiler from one of the Ravenglass and Eskdale locomotives.
For a good, all-round experience of Eskdale, walk to Boot from Ravenglass and then catch the train back. The varied route, 8.3 miles in total, heads up through the grounds of Muncaster Castle, along the top of Muncaster Fell – for fantastic views of some of England’s highest mountains – and in and out of woodland beside the River Esk. Watch for red squirrels as you make your way up into the valley. Eskdale is one of the last strongholds of these cute, bushy-tailed native mammals, eliminated from much of England by their North American grey cousins.
For cyclists, there’s the fully way-marked Eskdale Trail which links Boot and Ravenglass via a mixture of quiet lanes, rough tracks and fields. All trains are equipped to carry bicycles but cyclists need to pre-book at least 24 hours before their journey to guarantee a space. Mountain bike hire is available locally.