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Yorkshire The Settle Carlisle Railway - The line that refused to die

The Settle to Carlisle Railway is a wonderful trip across the Pennines on a railway that nearly wasn’t built, managed to survive the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and closure in the 1980s.

Some history

By the mid C18th, railway lines between England and Scotland had been built along both the east and west coast. The Midland Railway Company had no direct link to Scotland and was dependent on gaining access to its rivals tracks.

The Midland Railway built a line as far as Ingleton where it shared stations with the London and North Western Railway. They were very dependent on the goodwill of the London and North Western to carry their good to Carlisle and Scotland. This often led to passenger coaches being attached to slow moving coal trains rather than passenger trains.

The Company Board decided the only solution would be to build their own route to Scotland, through the Pennines. The line was approved by Parliament in 1866. Work was due to begin in 1869, but changing economic climate, rapid increase in interest rates and the failure of several railway companies prompted a shareholder revolt. The Board began to have second thoughts and petitioned parliament to abandon the scheme.

The other railway companies, realising that they would be able to use the line whilst contributing nothing towards its building costs, put pressure on Parliament and Midland Railway was forced to build the line.

This was the last railway line in England to be built almost entirely by hand. The line follows valleys and climbs over the watershed of some of the bleakest and most isolated parts of England. Work was often halted for months during the winter because of frozen group, snowdrifts or flooding. Many stations were miles away from the villages they allegedly served.

More than 6000 navvies, mainly of Irish origin, lived in makeshift townships built along the route of the line. They had shops, bars, post offices and schools and records show that these were wild and raucous places. The Midland Railway Companyhelped pay for priests and scripture readers to try and counteract the effects of drunken violence in isolated communities. The remains of one such township can still be seen at Batty Green near Ribblehead Viaduct.

The work was dangerous with many men were killed during construction as a result of accidents, fights or disease. Eighty died in a smallpox outbreak at Batty Green alone. Many were buried in small churchyards along the route, especially at St Leonard's Church in Chapel le Dale, where there is a memorial in the church..

The line was opened in 1875 for goods traffic and passenger traffic in 1876. It cost £3.6 million to build, 50% more than the estimate.

The line survived the Beeching cuts of the 1960s although many stations were closed. There was little investment in the line and services were reduced. There was talk of closing the line throughout the 1970s and closure notices were posted in 1984.

It only survived due to a maverick British railways manager brought in to run the line down prior to closure, the dedication of an energetic and vocal rail user group and a brave decision by the then Minister of Transport…

Ron Cotton was appointed as project manager to close the line. He came from a marketing background and was foresighted enough to realise the potential of the line, not only for local use, but also as a tourist line. He ran extra trains during the week and walkers trains at weekends which stopped at closed stations. Passenger numbers grew and people and the press began to talk about the railway.

Friends of the Settle Carlisle Line (FoSCL) was formed to support and promote the line, working with Ron Cotton. With the support of local MPs, councils, businesses along the line and Local Transport Users Consultative Committees, they began a vigorous campaign against closure. This covered not only the local area but quickly spread across neighbouring counties, Soon everyone was talking about the railway. A massive petition was presented in Parliament against closure. Michael Portillo who was Minister for Transport at the time has often said not to allow closure of the line was one of the most significant policy decisions he ever took.

Since then, the line has gone from strength to strength. It is now an integral part of the main line providing an alternative rout to Scotland from the west and east coast main lines as well as carrying freight. It carries commuters as well as holiday makers and walkers. Closed stations have been reopened and many are cared for by FoSCL volunteers. With their gardens and brightly painted station buildings, they are more like a well run preserved railway than part of Network rail. There is a pride in the line.

Stations have evocative names like Langwathby, Lazonby, Armathwaite and Culgaith, reflecting the strong Norse influence in the area.

The line is 73 miles long and runs through some of the best scenery in. England with 14 tunnels and 22 viaducts, including the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct.


The run from Carlisle to Settle

I began my trip at Carlisle, a splendid red sandstone building designed by the architect who built the London Stock exchange. There was sense of excitement and anticipation among the passengers waiting. There was no steam today; just a two car diesel unit. Windows didn’t open and it its difficult to photograph through glass on a moving train…

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The train pulled away from the station with the main line going off to the right and the Tyne Valley line to the left. The mountains of the Lake District could be seen to the west, with the lower hills of the Pennines to the east.

We soon left Carlisle behind and the line follows the Eden Valley with glimpses of the river between the trees. This is red sandstone country and houses are built with the deep dusky pink stone and the soil is red too, contrasting sharply with the lush green of the fields, hedges and trees. Hay fields were yellow with buttercups and there were ox eye daisies and foxgloves along the banks.

This is a rolling pastoral landscape with cows and sheep. There were a few fields of barley waving in the wind. We went through cuttings with metal mesh to prevent rock falls and short tunnels.

Armathwaite signal box resplendent in its Midland colours of yellow and maroon was built by FoSCL to replace a box that burnt down.


The train stops to pass the Carlisle bound train at Appleby with its name written in white stones.

After Appleby the line begins to climb and there is a much more upland feel to the landscape. Dry stone walls replace hedges. Limestone replaces the red sandstone. Small lime kilns can be seen on the slopes.

There is a brief stop at Kirby Stephen where the station buildings have been restored and offer self catering accommodation.

The line begins to climb in earnest along the bare flanks of the Pennines to the highest point of the line at Ais Gill. The bulk of Cross Fell, the highest peak in the Pennines stands out clearly as do the radar balls on Great Dun Fell. There are isolated farms and stone hay barns in the fields, although many of these are now disused and derelict. Rough grazing replaces pasture. Sheep replace the cows.

Approaching Garsdale Head, there is a view down Wensleydale. Garsdale was a major railway junction and there are still the remains of sidings here. It was also the site of one of the worst railway accidents on 24th December 1910.

Commercial coniferous forestry covers the slopes with ferns and bilberry growing along the line. The line contours round the head of Dentdale with views down the valley.

Dent station is just over four miles from the town an, at 1150’, is the highest station in England. Again the station buildings have been carefully restored and offer self catering accommodation.

This is an empty landscape with little settlement and isolated tracks and roads. It is bleak in winter and there are snow fences on the hillside.

Blea Moor tunnel is the longest tunnel on the line. Once through it, there are views of Ribbledale with Whernside and Pen y Ghent.

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Blea Moor signal box, reached by a rough track, is the most isolated on the railway. Beyond is the iconic Ribblehead viaduct, although there are only brief glimpses of it from the train.

Through Ribblehead Station, again lovingly restored to its former glory by FoSCL and now a Visitor Centre, the line begins to drop down the Ribble Valley, This is limestone country with limestone outcrops and dry stone walls. Sheep graze and fields are yellow with buttercups. This is a lush and fertile landscape with a string of small settlements down the valley.

Horton in Ribblesdale with its sturdy church is the most important centre for walkers attempting the Three Peaks challenge.

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The train finally arrives at Settle, over the viaduct with views of the town. This is where we got off.

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Settle is another very attractive station with a beautifully preserved signal box which is now run by a band of volunteers as a working museum. It is open most Saturdays from 10-4..

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Settle water tower is the only original one to survive on the line. (That at Appleby was built in 1991 for steam locos running specials along the line.) This has been restored as a most unusual house.

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The Settle Carlisle is a wonderful run. Scenically, possibly the best side is the left hand side from Carlisle to Settle (or the right hand side the other way), although this does miss the views down Dentdale. It is a a line everyone should travel at least once in a lifetime.
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I travelled it as the coda to a few days' walking Hadrian's Wall some years ago. Impressive scenery, the bleakness of so much enhanced by the fact that it was raining most of the way. A fine example of how much you can do by train (in my particular case, London to Newcastle for a couple of days, then train to Hexham to start the walk, train from Carlisle to Settle, then on to Leeds for the London train).


100+ Posts


1000+ Posts
Thank you for posting the video Patrick. I'd not seen it before and really enjoyed it. I've also discovered why the snow huts were built at Dent Station now. I didn't know that.

Michael Portillo's enthusiasm really shone through.

I was also involved in the campaign to save the railway and was part of the massive petition presented to Parliament to save the line. I collected over 1000 signatures in Scunthorpe and our MP was one of those presenting it on our behalf.
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100+ Posts
Well done you!

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