There’s a certain rucksack-bearing, bearded demographic on the platform. Excited chatter.
We board the undistinguished carriages, but with the knowledge that this is, according to the Settle-Carlisle partnership, ‘England’s most scenic railway’ (plaudits for not claiming it to be the UK’s). It’s 25 years since the line was declared safe from closure, and it’s being marketed hard as a tourist destination (as well as a link from the West Coast mainline through to Leeds).
It’s a cold day, and the train sets off there’s discussion inside the carriage of the draughtiness of train stations, model railways, and other such trainspotterish chat. Outside, cows big with calf and sheep with unborn lambs fill the fields. Piebald ponies canter alongside the train. A deer bounds frightened from the engine and, as we pull higher and higher, a hare runs madly from us too. The rain makes the roads in places indistinguishable from the swollen rivers.
One passenger wears both large head-phones and an eye-mask, not interested in the view. The most nerdy of fellow travellers is explaining to his companions, ‘Everyone knew in those days a back way into the engine shed, to prowl around a bit. Sometimes you’d know a member of staff, they’d turn a blind eye. That wouldn’t be allowed nowadays.’
Wensleydale sheep huddle against barns and stone walls in the sleet. A young couple, in urban attire and with over-sized suitcases, alight at Kirkby Stephen. They look lost briefly, but are swiftly greeted by a woman who warmly welcomes them into their accommodation right in the station building.
We pass by a flock of black sheep – Hebridean perhaps? – standing close in the wind. It’s snowing properly now, and I order a coffee which comes in a commemorative cup. We pass Dent, the highest station above sea level. The lights are on in Blea Moor signal box, and it looks cosy inside compared to the driving snow outside. Two hikers, well protected against the elements, take a path running parallel to the train tracks. The surrounding hills and mountains are hidden from view.
We reach Ribblehead viaduct, a place I often visited as a child, as it is close to where my grandparents lived. This is the first time I’ve travelled over it, though.
The weather is looming grey, and the light is failing as we slide into Settle. Inside the houses, lights are coming on, and I imagine the smell of coal fires keeping homes warm.
The train heads on to my destination, Shipley. The day turns to night, and the snow back to rain.