Wainwright’s Ratty Walks
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Walks from Ratty was Wainwright’s first book not to be published by the Westmorland Gazette; it was published directly ( and still is) by the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway Company and originally appeared in 1978.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.