Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:05 am
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.