Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway

The vast majority of my Cumbria-based posts to Holme & Away are focused on locations in the Eden Valley, and the eastern side of the Lake District National Park. This time, I am venturing out and heading over to the West Coast of Cumbria, to the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway. It is practically on the opposite side of the county to myself and sits roughly 18 miles south of Whitehaven.

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This charming little railway has a past full of ups and downs but remains one of the more interesting attractions in Cumbria. A railway was first etched onto the landscape in 1849 with the creation of the Whitehaven & Furness Junction Railway which linked the iron ore mines with furnaces and ports in the area. Iron ore had been mined on the West Coast for over 2000 years, and quite frankly I am staggered that there was any left to take by the end! They were extracting it at such a rate that in just eight months from May to December 1875, the line had transported over 6,300 tons of iron ore.

At this point, the railway used a three-foot gauge line for their locomotives, as opposed to the 15-inch gauge you see there today. For the non-train enthusiasts among us, the gauge is basically how far apart the individual rails are. If I’m honest, I’m not as fluent in train-speak as I should be following my visit, but I’m working on it! But back to the story… This three-foot gauge line was built to replace the traditional horse-and-cart transportation, and to bring the costs down hugely for the owners. At its peak in 1872, it would have cost 10s to move one ton of ore seven miles using a horse-and-cart. Via railway, it cost 2s (about £10 in today’s terms). If you do the maths, which I won’t do here, it makes the cost of £30,000 (£3m today) entirely worth it.

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In 1876, the line opened for passengers and would take them the seven miles between the villages of Boot and Ravenglass. On the day of the first passenger trip, 20th November 1876, The Whitehaven News reported that “the first train, gaily decorated with flags, left Ravenglass at 8:35 am, stopping at all stations, and reached Boot… at 9:20 am.”

After some years of financial difficulties, the railway was forced to close firstly to passengers in 1908, and then altogether in 1913. But of course, this is not the end of the story, otherwise, there would be nothing for us to visit today. The story of the present-day ‘La’al Ratty’ begins with Arthur Heywood in 1874. He created the 15-inch gauge railway, which he found was obviously very narrow, but still stable enough that his sisters couldn’t push it over. Some incredibly thorough testing there, Arthur. He demonstrated this narrow gauge railway at his home, Duffield Bank, and in other public places, with his sons being used as drivers, and his daughters were employed as signal-women. In fact, one of his locomotives, ‘Muriel’, was donated to the Eskdale Railway by Heywood before his death in 1918. This locomotive is still in the possession of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, albeit under the new name of River Irt, after its repair job in the early 20th century. It is officially the oldest working 15-inch gauge locomotive in the world. Hooray for Muriel!

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Later, in 1915, Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd. leased the Eskdale Railway and gave it a new lease of life, converting the old three-foot tracks to the current 15-inch gauge. Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd. (or NGR) was founded in 1912 by Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke and a group of fellow railway enthusiasts. Bassett-Lowke was a manufacturer of trains already, and when I say trains, I mean mostly the table-top model variety. He did, however, make trains to fit the 15-inch gauge and various smaller sizes too. On the 28th August 1915, only six weeks after the relaying of the tracks began, the first passenger trains ran to Muncaster Mill. It was a huge success, and in the first four days of operation, the trains had carried over 700 passengers! The whole route was completed over the following 12 months.

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Miniature trains as an attraction were a bit of a novelty in the early to mid-1800s. In the 1830s, miniature trains had toured the USA, advertised as a less dangerous and less alarming version of the full-size trains of the day. In the 1840s, they were presented to the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas I, and Louis-Phillipe I, King of the French. This trend continued well into the 1900s, and even now, the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway is one of the more unique attractions in Cumbria.

When it faced closure in the 1960s, locals and non-locals alike rallied around to ensure it was protected, and I certainly am glad they did! The Railway is a wonderful part of all Cumbria has to offer and brings a lot of tourism to an often-overlooked area. There’s quite a bit to do around Ravenglass too. Muncaster Castle is not far away, as well as the town of Whitehaven which has a rich industrial and maritime history. I’m sure I’ll be back to visit both of those at some point in the future.

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For now though, if you’d like to find out more about the Railway, visit their website here, and to see more of my photos from my trip, head on over to Flickr. As always, to see more of Holme & Away, please do follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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