WEE train trip is a gem
The massive Ribblehead Viaduct. The photo was taken with a bit of help from Martin Whittaker.

It may seem preposterous to mention it in the same breath as the Trans-Siberian or the Orient Express but ask any self-respecting train buff and they will tell you that the 172km stretch of railway through the Yorkshire Moors from Settle to Carlisle is right up there with the world's greatest train journeys.

As if to prove the point, the American news network, ABC, recently ranked the Settle to Carlisle second - yes, second - in its top 10 of the world's great rail journeys.

The aforementioned "biggies" trailed in its wake, as did other luminaries such as Canada's Rocky Mountaineer and Malaysia's Eastern and Oriental. Only South Africa's Blue Train pipped it.

So what is it that makes this wee gem such a giant in the pantheon of epic rail trips?

Well, call me biased but, having "Tyke" blood in me, I can tell you the route cuts through the most magnificent countryside in the UK, namely the Three Peaks district of the Yorkshire Moors. It matters not what time of year you make the trip either - come fair or foul, this is glorious terrain.

Then there is the history. The line was built, curiously enough, by the Midland Railway Company in the 1870s. Needless to say, working conditions were dreadful for the thousands of navvies who laboured on the project and countless numbers died in accidents or because of disease during the seven years of construction (three years longer than planned).

What they bequeathed to us, however, were 14 long dark tunnels, 19 charming little stations and, most impressive of all, 17 magnificent high-arched viaducts. The "big daddy" of these is the famous Ribblehead, of which more in a moment.

Scenery, history - and I haven't even mentioned the sheer romance of the line. Just consider some of the names given to places, tunnels and viaducts. In the 75 minutes it takes our four-carriage multiple unit to whisk us from "S to C" we are treated to Long Meg, Langwathby, Wildboar Fell, Armathwaite, Crowdundle, Dandry Mire and even my old namesake, High Stand Gill.

Even the Blue Train would have a job to beat that marvellous little lot.

As you will have gathered, I find it quite easy to wax lyrical about this particular railway and I must admit that, over the years, it has become something of an obsession. I can no longer contemplate a trip to the UK without a day on my favourite railway.

On a few occasions I was fortunate to be in the hands of the wonderful Martin Whittaker, a true railwayman of the old brigade for whom being a guard on the Settle to Carlisle meant a whole lot more than simply having a "job on the railways".

Mr Whittaker was an aficionado and appreciated that most passengers on his special route were not commuters but travellers, who were there "for the journey". To that end he would provide an illuminating rolling commentary on the route.

On one particularly memorable trip, when I was travelling with a flock of young extended family members, he interrupted their computer game playing to give them a potted history of the railway and how it had defied the odds, not once but twice, when threatened by closure - first by the notorious arch enemy of railway lovers, Lord Beeching in the 1960s, and then more recently in the early 1980s when British Rail announced plans to axe the line.

Dear old BR didn't count on the hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts, not just in England but from around the world, who rallied against the dastardly scheme. Mercifully, common sense prevailed. The line is now more popular than ever and the future looks pretty secure.

Mr Whittaker did me another personal favour. It is difficult, nigh impossible, to take a picture of the Ribblehead Viaduct from the train. You can easily nip on and off the train to photograph the lovely stations en route, all maroon- painted and festooned with hanging baskets in the summer as they vie for one of the umpteen "Best Kept Station" awards.

But the viaducts are a different kettle of fish. You can whiz over one of these engineering marvels without even noticing it.

This time, he led me to the back of the train and into his private cabin. This would be akin to a football fan gaining access to the dressing rooms at Wembley. He then pulled down the window and told me to hang out as far as I could.

Doubtless, this breached every rule in the BR book of safe conduct but, in a marvellous moment and with Britain's greatest train guard hanging on to the back of my belt, I stretched out and clicked off a couple of frames of the great structure.

And it is great, let me tell you. Over 400m long and 31m high, it has 24 mighty arches and its piers are sunk on to rock through 7m of mud and clay. More than 2000 navvies toiled over its construction. They lived in a shantytown, sharing 100 squalid huts. The guidebook I bought from Mr Whittaker's well-stocked trolley (coffee, tea, cakes and DVDs were also available) told me their main recreational activities were drinking, gambling and fighting. One chap apparently sold his wife for a barrel of beer.

Ribblehead done, we passed through the claustrophobic Blea Moor Tunnel, at 2.4km the longest on the route and which consumed almost a third of the total construction cost of the line.

In the days of steam, it had a notorious reputation for the way the smoke used to linger in the tunnel despite three ventilation shafts. And yet steam trains still ply this route on special occasions during the summer months.

The journey was over in a flash and we disgorged in Carlisle, a fine border city, for a leisurely lunch break before our return trip with the indefatigable Mr Whittaker. The journey back was almost anticlimactic for some reason. Perhaps because the excitement of the trip there, coupled with a boozy lunch, had taken its toll. Nothing detracted from a wonderful excursion, however, on a great railway. Long may the Settle to Carlisle thrive and long may Martin Whittaker, who retired at the end of last year, enjoy his well-earned rest.

>> www.settle-carlisle.co.uk.

The West Australian

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