Ravenglass to Eskdale and return

Last updated on May 3rd, 2024 at 01:43 pm

Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway

A meeting of the Ways and Means Committee decided that a visit to Ravenglass and its steam railway was required. Dissent would not be brooked.  Reports of riding the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway were examined.  Indeed, a stationary lurking locomotive had even been spotted a couple of times, at Ravenglass and Eskdale (respectively).  But the first hand (or buttock) experience had thus far eluded me.  My life was about to be enriched.  Incidentally, the railway is known – apparently affectionately – as ‘La’al Ratty’, which is said to mean ‘little railway’ in old Cumbrian dialect.  It tickled me that the railway’s website adds an ‘e’ to the end of ‘old’, because of course that is how people wrote (if they could) in ye oldene dayse. (See ‘Ye Olde Rupturede Ducke’, ‘Coppere Kettle’ etc).

  • Ravenglass main street
  • Ravenglass
  • Ravenglass
  • Ravenglass

However, let us begin with Ravenglass, a coastal hamlet on the north-west coast of England, in the county of Cumbria.  Apart from the railway, it is a quiet, predominantly residential, place situated at the tidal estuary of three rivers: the Mite, Irt and Esk.  There really isn’t much to it.  If you walk along the attractive main street and reach the shoreline, you’ve gone too far.  Yet, once upon a time, the natural harbour at Ravenglass was a bustling Roman naval base and the main port for this part of the province of Britannia.  From this seemingly unlikely spot, produce was landed from all over the Empire and taken along the trade route high over the mountain pass at Hardknott, where the Romans built a dramatically sited fort (Mediobogdum), through Wrynose Pass and then down to Ambleside (Galava).  From there, goods could head north to Brougham (Brocavum) near Penrith and thence to Carlisle (Luguvalium) – or south to Watercrook, Kendal (Alavana), Burrow in Lonsdale (Calacum), Lancaster, Ribchester (Bremetenacum), Wigan (Coccium?), Manchester (Mamucium) and beyond (ultra).  Additional routes headed up the coast from Ravenglass to other forts and thence to Hadrian’s Wall.  Roman Ravenglass itself was long thought to be called Glannaventa, but recent studies suggest its name was actually Itunocelum – and, indeed, that’s the name on the trusty old(e) OS map of Roman Britain.

Itunocelum included a fort with a garrison of 500 men as well as a substantial civilian settlement, a viccus.  The fort was built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117–38AD), though there may have been one on the site earlier, in the 1st century.  In any event, it seems to have been in continuous use for the best part of 300 years until being destroyed by fire in the late 4th century and rebuilt in a different style – possibly, by a local warlord after Roman rule had come to an end.  The only visible remains of this busy period in Ravenglass’s history is part of the shell of the Roman bathhouse, known locally as Walls Castle, which stood on the north-east corner of the fort.  The surviving walls, more than 12 feet high, are among the tallest Roman structures remaining in northern Britain.  Despite that, I suspect that many people, especially Romans and small children, will feel a little underwhelmed.  There is very little to see of what was once a sizable leisure complex measuring some 90 feet from end to end and not much in the way of interpretation boards.  I have visited twice now and on both occasions could only view the ruins from the path: the first time, because the remains were flooded and, most recently, because the structure was unstable and fenced off.  What’s left of the fort lies beneath woodland opposite.  The stones from the fort are said to have been used to construct nearby Muncaster Castle, home to the Pennington family since 1208.  Archaeological excavations had been taking place just before our visit, to trace Roman roads and gain further information on the site. It is possible that Itunocelum was part of the same chain of defences as Hadrian’s Wall and it is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ designation.

Because Ravenglass is in the Lake District National Park – indeed, it is the only coastal village in the National Park – it is in two World Heritage Sites.

Ravenglass is one of those intriguing places that I want to know more about, but probably never shall.  Local lore has it that St Patrick was born in Ravenglass – so that’s a definite possible claim to fame.  Wicked King John granted the local manor to the Penningtons of Muncaster in 1208 and awarded the village a charter to hold a popular fair and market. At one time, I believe slate was exported; there was shipbuilding, coastal trading and fishing, particularly of oysters and mussels.  People did things here. I read that the harbour silted up, which makes sense and would have curtailed economic activity.  But, without more reading, my very limited knowledge jumps 800 years from the Romans to the High Middle Ages and then another 600 years, to the 1870s, when the railway came.  You almost get the impression that the Roman occupation was a high point.  What happened to all the people and their jobs after the Roman army left?  Did the Anglo-Saxons ever get here?  I picture the arrival of fearsome Norsemen in their dragon-prowed longships, then more upset wrought by the Norman conquest and, no doubt, by raiding Scots in the centuries thereafter.  It must have been such an isolated place for most of its history.  To be fair, it feels pretty remote today – though, of course, that is a relative term; it is just as far away from London as London is from it.  Anyway, my fertile imagination also sensed pig-tailed smugglers navigating watery passages through the marshes in the 18th century, away from the prying eyes of those pesky excise men.

Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, bitaboutbritain

The name somehow suggested some old Scandinavian origin, but according to the trusty Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names, it was Rengles in around 1180 which means ‘lot or share of a man called Glas’ from Old Irish ran plus the personal name.  Ah, well.  Of course, there would have been a lot of contact between Ravenglass, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

What about the train, then?

If you’re expecting great thrusting pistons, heavy puffing and all that stuff, you will be disappointed.  The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is a modest narrow gauge (15 inch) heritage railway with 1/3 scale model locomotives of the grownup ones.  I am no railway enthusiast, but they are lovely pieces of work, all polished paintwork and brass.  The railway runs over a seven-mile track between Ravenglass and Dalegarth, near the village of Boot, in Eskdale – the valley of the River Esk.  The full journey takes about 40 minutes each way through a wonderful range of countryside, from the sandy estuary, through woodland and verdant meadow, gently rising as the craggy mountains approach.  It is truly beautiful, although because most of the carriages are open, it is inclined to be chilly.  The lack of sides is a better option for the keen photographer, though I imagine it can be somewhat unpleasant when the weather is less than clement.  This is the Lake District, remember; the clue’s in the name.

  • Ravenglass estuary
  • Ravenglass and Eskdale
  • Ravenglass and Eskdale
  • Ravenglass and Eskdale
  • Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway
  • Ravenglass and Eskdale

The railway was built between 1874-75 for the purposes of hauling iron ore from mines near Boot.  It began carrying passengers in 1876, but has been through a number of vicissitudes in its 150-year history.  In the 1920s, it started transporting granite hewn from a quarry near its current eastern terminus.  By the 1950s, the future was looking bleak but a preservation society was formed to save it and, since 1961, it has been run by a private company as a tourist attraction.

Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, La'al Ratty

Like most (if not all) heritage railways, the Ravenglass and Eskdale is supported by a host of volunteers.  I find attractions with a strong volunteer element exude a certain charming flakiness. When something doesn’t work quite as well as perhaps it should, it’s impossible to get cross about it.  Whereas, if you’re dealing with a pompous organisation with an inflated sense of its own corporate importance, it’s impossible not to.  I liked the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway very much.  And it worked very well indeed.  There are also good and essential facilities at both termini – clean loos and a café.  Less essentially, there are gift shops too.  At Ravenglass, there is an excellent, and free, museum that explains the history of the railway in minute detail and includes some fascinating information about some of the people involved.  I should say that buying tickets seemed a little difficult, perhaps exacerbated by my ignorance of La’al Ratty lingo, or terminology.  There seemed to be a bewildering array of carriage choices, when all you really need to know is that a few seats are in covered plushly upholstered wagons protected from the elements, and most are not.  Is it being too picky to also mention that the coffee in the café did not, in fact, have much coffee in it? Or that the pasty was a crescent of stodge? It probably is.  It doesn’t matter, anyway: all of the staff and volunteers were lovely, especially the nice chap that sorted out our return seats that ‘the system’ had given to someone else.

There are seven unmanned stations en route to Dalegarth (aka ‘Dalegarth for Boot’). These are request stops for walkers who know what they’re doing, or for residents and visitors staying nearby.  Day-trippers tend go all the way, as it were.  Eskdale is beautiful – I might have mentioned that.  Furthermore, because the western valleys of the Lake District are less accessible than tourist hotspots like Windermere, it is less crowded and has a different vibe.  Unless you plan a serious walk (in which case watch your time very carefully), effortless joy can be gleaned simply spending a couple of hours meandering along the banks of the Esk.  The crystal clear water seems to illuminate the different coloured rocks – which I assume are types of granite though I really don’t know – and there are enough bubbling becks and little tumbling waterfalls to please most eyes.  Take a sandwich and munch on it, perched on a rock. Perfect.

  • River Esk stepping stones
  • The River Esk
  • River Esk

The simple little church of St Catherine’s reflects a way of life that is worlds removed from most people’s these days. It has some astonishingly beautiful, and rich, stained glass.  The building dates from the 14th century, replacing an earlier 12th century chapel built by the Lord of Egremont and owned by the Priory of St Bees.  Legend has it that a 6th century hermit lived on nearby Arment Hill, beside a holy well, and would offer water, healing and prayers to travellers.  It is still there, apparently.  The Esk can be crossed by stepping stones at St Catherine’s, if you’re feeling brave.

St Catherine's, Eskdale

The tiny and pretty village of Boot is a stroll from the station.  It features a couple of very tempting looking pubs.  It is hard to resist the idea of whiling away an afternoon in the sunshine, supping good ale, surrounded by lovely scenery; and several people didn’t.  The road past Boot leads to Hardknott and Wrynose Passes – incidentally not a route to be undertaken by inexperienced drivers, in poor weather, or bad light. At the far, moorside end, of Boot, across an old packhorse bridge, is Eskdale Mill, the last remaining working water-powered corn mill in the Lake District National Park with title deeds dating back to 1737.  It is probably older – and it is open to the public.

Boot, Cumbria
Eskdale Mill

After all that excitement, it’s time to catch La’al Ratty back to Ravenglass.

Before I go, have you ever wondered what heritage railways (and there are a lot of them) will use to power their engines now that traditional coal is no longer a sensible fuel for the future?  As one just about old enough to remember the evocative coal-smell of steam engines and coal fires, I think the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway may have found an alternative.  However, whatever they were burning had all the heady aroma of old boots and compost.  I have enquired, and will update you if I get a response.  So far, they haven’t bothered to reply – I expect they think ABAB is something subversive.

Despite that, here is the website for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and here is the website for Eskdale Mill.

53 thoughts on “Ravenglass to Eskdale and return”

  1. I lovely reminder of a week in beautiful, less frequented, Eskdale. Including a memorable day’s climb over the Scafell peaks from here. And of course the railway!

  2. Such an enjoyable post, Mike. Thank you. My husband has always loved the Lake District and since our marriage we have visited it many times though not as far west as Ravenglas and Eskdale. Perhaps I ought to try to persude him to venture out of his comfort zones? He is a rail enthusiast and I asked him about fuel and what the heritage groups are considering using. Apparently they are testing bio-fuels; mainly wood-based pellets. Many of the engines don’t like this new fuel as it doesn’t burn as hot as coal. I hope this is of help.

    1. Thanks, Clare. The western Lake District is quite different – certainly quieter. Interesting coast, too. Yes, I wondered about bio-fuels. At time of writing, they still haven’t replied to my enquiry – which is pretty poor, I think.

  3. Colin Harrison

    A sublime piece of work, Mike, thank you. I last visited the railway in the late 70s and I can confirm that there was a lack of ‘facilities’ at both ends of the railway line. Also, Walls Castle could only be accessed down a track and the structure itself was all but hidden in a dense plantation, with a lot of overgrowth. It’s good to see that it’s been opened up. Keep up the excellent work.

    1. Ahh I am back. In more ways that one (not being able to comment here) and from the death of my computer.

      I am commenting from my new replacement laptop.

  4. I have been on that railway – in the seventies. A friend and I went youth hostelling round the Lake District, as I was not long back from Australia, I took for granted our rain free week. I’m just back from a week by Windermere, it’s always good to be back in Lakeland. Isn’t it rather comforting that big busy human settlements can return to quiet times?

  5. Well done Mike. Your travelogue does Ravenglass to Eskdale true justice. I wouldn’t claim to know the area back-of-hand like but Eskdale is my second favourite area of Cumbria and visited repeatedly since early childhood, and now I’m introducing my children to the delights of bridge jumping into the Esk at Boot, and other sundry stuff.
    Thoroughly enjoy all your posts, and especially those from areas and hotspot I have some previous knowledge of. Well done, keep it up.

  6. An interesting journey! your pictures are beautiful.
    We drove (not me, my husband!) over both Hardknott and Wrynose passes many years ago. Decades, in fact, but it was in pleasant weather. Beautiful countryside.

  7. artandarchitecturemainly

    Excellent! Certainly Ravenglass should have Heritage ruling for its part in the Lake District National Park, but I don’t remember what the other Heritage importance was. It is a bit small for most of us to live in, but it is totally perfect for tourists and photographers.

  8. What folly to ban coal! What do the buggers want, locomotives with a plastic windmill on the top? Made in ruddy China in a coal fired factory?
    This was a lovely post, both in words and in photographs, I learned so much from it.

  9. Looks like a wonderful place to visit. I love all that history and you explained it so well. And the train ride would be very special. Thanks.

  10. Another excellent post from my father’s native county, Cumberland, Mike – a worthy successor to Abbeytown and the nearby monument to the Hammer of the Scots. I’m from Westmorland, me, and it too deserves your attention – though maybe it has had it and I have missed the posts. Wonderful to see the name of Westmorland rising again after the recent reorganisation of local government. Yes, Ravenglass is delightful, with a lovely relaxed atmosphere – and I was much amused to read that one of its exports used to be “muscles” – those strong farming lads, I guess…..

  11. Hi Mike – love your post … written as usual with your appropriate notations – which make me laugh or happily smile as I read through. We used to spend time up there – stunning countryside. I love your images – beautiful. (Excellent thought?!!!!:
    ‘It is just as far away from London as London is from it’). Cheers Hilary

  12. The variety in countryside is beautiful and amazing, and I would love to explore it on foot. The comparatively low speed of the steam train (compared to modern trains, I mean) also seems a good way to see a lot.
    I wonder what it would be like to live in a village like Boot.

  13. Very pretty. It’s probably 20 years or more since I was last on a steam train and it was a full-size one. I found it uncomfortable, smelly and dirty. It was quite impressive watching it pull into the station from the platform, though.

    1. Ah, yes – this one is very much a baby in comparison to the big boys of steam power! It still wasn’t terribly comfortable – at least, not in the cattle class that we travelled in.

  14. Lovely post Mike. I am informed by a steam train enthusiast acquaintance that some steam train charities are having to reduce their running times because they now have to import suitable coal from abroad as it is illegal to produce in the UK.

    1. Thanks, Peter. Yes, that makes sense. It must be difficult for them. Perhaps we should nationalise the heritage railways and bulk-buy an alternative, greener, fuel – if there is such a thing. If there isn’t, then I guess these attractions will simply become impossible to operate.

  15. Golly goodness me! Looks like we weren’t staying all that far from this place not so many months ago. What a charming railway ridey-thing and place to boot. Looks like you were lucky with the weather ol’ chap. Pity about the poor coffee and not so sticky bun.

    1. Not that far at all – though getting anywhere in the Lakes isn’t a speedy experience, as you know. Re the coffee and pasty – I need to remember that one of the founding principles of this project was to ‘say it as I found it’! Mind you, I daresay sometimes these things are a matter of taste.

  16. An interesting post with some great photos Mike. I camped at Boot a couple of times several years ago, it’s a lovely little village, and the landlord of the Boot Inn at the time quite coincidentally came from my home town. Ravenglass is a lovely little place and very photogenic but there’s just nothing there – did you see the little shop in the main street? Easy to miss as it’s in what would be someone’s front room and isn’t always open – if you do manage to get in there it’s an absolute tip but it does have most essentials 🙂

  17. Your picture of the Ravenglass railway took me back many years when my father would drive us to the Lake District so he could take my train mad brother on this during a day out . It always rained and my mother and I had to occupy ourselves as best we could . She wearing her wellingtons which were always in the boot of the car for “rainy days out”
    I used to spend time looking at the gravestones in the graveyard in St Catherine’s in Boot
    The dislike for smoky trains still remains with me as does an interest in graveyards and the comments which are on some gravestones

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