Wain­wright’s Ratty Walks

Evergreen - - Contents - David McVey

Afew years ago I was asked to write a chap­ter for a book cel­e­brat­ing the achieve­ments of Al­fred Wain­wright, the pen- and- ink bard and artist of Westmorland and Cum­ber­land. Wain­wright ( 1907- 1991) was a lo­cal au­thor­ity ac­coun­tant, but be­tween 1955 and 1966 he scoured the Lake District fells ( by bus, as he never learned to drive) writ­ing, draw­ing and record­ing. The re­sult was his seven- vol­ume Pic­to­rial Guide to the Lake­land Fells which showed walk­ers how to reach all the ma­jor sum­mits of the re­gion, but with ev­ery map and il­lus­tra­tion hand­drawn, all the text in im­mac­u­late man­u­script. The books are all still in print and sell ex­tremely well — they are beau­ti­ful items to read and han­dle, even if you never set foot on a fell.

After com­plet­ing this se­ries, Wain­wright pub­lished many other vol­umes, and my chap­ter in the book was in­tended to fo­cus on his work after the clas­sic seven. One lesser­known pub­li­ca­tion that I was keen to highlight was a work of very lo­cal in­ter­est that’s no more than a small pam­phlet; Walks from Ratty.

Walks from Ratty was Wain­wright’s first book not to be pub­lished by the Westmorland Gazette; it was pub­lished di­rectly ( and still is) by the Raven­glass and Eskdale Rail­way Com­pany and orig­i­nally ap­peared in 1978. Wain­wright was com­mis­sioned to do the job by Lord Wake­field of Ken­dal who had been vital in se­cur­ing the fu­ture of the rail­way and who then headed the rail­way com­pany.

The Raven­glass and Eskdale Rail­way — known af­fec­tion­ately as La’al Ratty — is a 15- inch gauge line that runs seven miles from Raven­glass on the Cum­brian coast to Dale­garth, deep in Eskdale and sur­rounded by soar­ing Lake­land fells. It has op­er­ated as a pre­served rail­way since 1960 though its ori­gins are as an in­dus­trial line.

Walks from Ratty has the same page size and de­sign as Wain­wright’s clas­sic seven but it only has 32 pages, is un­bound and the pages are merely sta­pled to­gether. It sits in the hand like a race­card or an or­der of ser­vice, but it’s very pleas­ant to hold, particularly in its ear­lier edi­tions. As you’d ex­pect from the mas­ter, it gives a com­pre­hen­sive list of sug­ges­tions, 10 of them, for walks be­gin­ning and end­ing at Raven­glass and Eskdale Rail­way sta­tions. Most start from Dale­garth Sta­tion at the head of Eskdale but oth­ers use the sta­tions at Raven­glass, Ir­ton Road and Beck­foot.

The most ad­ven­tur­ous walk is the as­cent of Harter Fell from Dale­garth, with ma­te­rial cribbed from the ap­pro­pri­ate chap­ter in Wain­wright’s The South­ern Fells, Book Four in the Pic­to­rial Guide se­ries ( which doesn’t ac­tu­ally men­tion the rail­way). The other routes of­fer gen­tler op­tions on lower fells, in val­leys or to pic­turesque tarns.

Walks from Ratty recog­nises some­thing im­por­tant about the rail­way, some­thing that dis­tin­guishes it from many of the

UK’s her­itage lines. Ratty ac­tu­ally goes some­where; it takes you places. At a typ­i­cal her­itage rail­way, peo­ple will ar­rive ( al­most cer­tainly by car), go for a ride, re­turn to the start and drive away again. Many peo­ple do ex­pe­ri­ence the Raven­glass and Eskdale in the same way but it’s ca­pa­ble of of­fer­ing a whole lot more, and Wain­wright’s lit­tle book makes this clear. Want to have a bar lunch at the Wool­pack Inn in the de­light­fully named vil­lage of Boot? Visit friends who live nearby? Go for a walk? Ratty can take you there.

It be­comes ob­vi­ous when you look at the map. From Raven­glass Sta­tion on the Na­tional Rail sys­tem the Raven­glass and Eskdale pen­e­trates to the heart of Eskdale, a stun­ning val­ley oth­er­wise de­void of pub­lic trans­port, just like an old- fash­ioned branch line. Iron­i­cally, Ratty in its present form was se­cured just as the UK’s last sur­viv­ing ru­ral branch lines were be­ing ruth­lessly culled.

I re­cently trav­elled to the rail­way by train from Carlisle on a com­bined ticket that in­cluded my jour­ney on Ratty. In the Blair years they’d have called that “joined- up travel”. Ef­fec­tively the Raven­glass rail­way is a part of the Na­tional Rail sys­tem.

I de­cided to try Walk Four from Walks from Ratty, or part of it, any­way. Wain­wright rec­om­mends alight­ing at Beck­foot ( a halt just a few hun­dred yards be­fore Dale­garth), climb­ing the steep zig- zag path to Blea Tarn, and then wheel­ing clock­wise via Boot to the sta­tion at Dale­garth. I just had the time for a quick dash up and down from

Beck­foot, but all the same I re­mained on the train all the way to Dale­garth, just three whis­tle- toot­ing min­utes on from Beck­foot.

Dale­garth for Boot Sta­tion ( to grant it its full cur­rent name) is in the high sea­son a café, shop, pic­nic site, play­ground and car park that hap­pens to have a cou­ple of work­ing rail­way plat­forms at­tached. The large sta­tion build­ing is rel­a­tively new, hav­ing been opened in 2007 by record pro­ducer and rail en­thu­si­ast Pete Water­man. It gets very busy but most vis­i­tors don’t stray very far. It’s worth stat­ing “McVey’s Iron Law of the Lakes”: wher­ever you are in Lake­land, how­ever busy it is, it is al­ways easy to es­cape the crowds, given a few min­utes and the will­ing­ness to walk for a bit!

I proved the truth of this law again. I quickly back­tracked along the road to Beck­foot and went off- road on to the Blea Tarn path, cross­ing the rail­way on a wee level cross­ing. The path climbs quickly but eas­ily, thanks to the zig- zags, and I was able to take a pic­ture of a train paus­ing briefly far be­low at Beck­foot. In Walks from Ratty Wain­wright de­scribes the view of up­per Eskdale from here as “de­lec­ta­ble” and he’s not wrong. At Blea Tarn, on a good day in school- hol­i­day Au­gust, I met three other par­ties. One had come

from Was­dale and the other two were walk­ing from cars. Per­haps peo­ple just buy Walks from Ratty as a sou­venir.

The tarn is a de­light­ful spot; it was warm and cloudy dur­ing my visit but there was a breeze, so the twin Au­gust mis­eries of midges and rain were held at bay. Well, al­most; on the de­scent, as I saw my train for the re­turn toot to­wards Dale­garth, a light driz­zle be­gan.

Twenty min­utes be­fore the train was due to leave Dale­garth, peo­ple were al­ready stoutly claim­ing seats for the jour­ney, in­clud­ing some for mys­te­ri­ously in­vis­i­ble com­pan­ions. I even­tu­ally found a space in one of the open car­riages, seated on solid wood, the wind whistling past me and rain bat­ter­ing my back and the back of my head. It was a true in­tro­duc­tion to third- class rail travel in the 1840s. It’s not of­ten you get more rain- bat­tered on the train jour­ney after the walk than you did on the walk it­self! Hav­ing said all that, it’s mar­vel­lous what you see when your train has 360- de­gree “win­dows”, and how it helps to make clear the ge­o­graph­i­cal con­text of your jour­ney.

Ratty is a key to un­lock­ing the fells, but it’s also a joy in it­self and a means of get­ting some­where. Wain­wright’s Walks from Ratty cel­e­brates these as­pects of the lit­tle line per­fectly. Fit­tingly, al­most the only places you can pick up Wain­wright’s pam­phlet are the sta­tion shops at Dale­garth and Raven­glass. Plan your next trip soon, and get hold of Walks from Ratty be­fore you get on the train.


Raven­glass Sta­tion is the start­ing point for the seven- mile long rail­way.


The view to Harter Fell from Boot Bank, Eskdale.

Wain­wright’s book and ( be­low) the busy plat­form at Dale­garth Sta­tion.

Eskdale viewed from the Blea Tarn path.

Above: The River Mite on the turntable at Dale­garth Sta­tion. Be­low: En­joy a walk to the Wool­pack Inn in the vil­lage of Boot.

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