LAST week’s picture choice highlighted the discovery of a batch of old photographs from almost half a century ago recalled a glorious summer holiday exploring the railways of the Lake District.
The year was 1974 and for five railway-mad teenagers, the perfect destination for a first summer break away from home was a dream cottage just feet from the West Coast main line near Shap Summit.
From there, it was just a short drive to explore the spectacular scenery of the famous Settle & Carlisle route, or venture westwards to find out what was left of the long-closed Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway.
The Settle-Carlisle line is the 73-mile-long section of the old Midland Railway main line running through glorious scenery in the Yorkshire Dales and the North Pennines and boasting a number of notable tunnels and viaducts, making it one of the UK’s most popular routes for steam charter trains and specials.
Much loved by railway photographers for its glorious backdrops, the line links towns like Settle and Appleby-in-Westmorland with a number of rural communities along the route.
At the time of our visit, the line still boasted old-fasioned Midland “totem” signs, like those at Appleby West, where the Midland line crossed the old North Eastern Railway route to Kirkby Stephen, the Eden Valley line.
This was a time in the line’s history where services were not exactly flourishing, but thankfully the route survived closure attempts in the 1980s after a spirited campaign mounted by rail groups, enthusiasts, local authorities and residents.
Just as well. Passenger numbers have soared since then, with closed stations reopening and quarries being reconnected to the line, allowing passengers to continue to savour what has been consistently voted one of the world’s “ten greatest train journeys”.
Armed with old local Ordnance Survey maps, our mission was to track down the routes of the lost lines which once linked the surviving routes in a rainbow of colours on our pre-grouping atlas, the book which so helpfully shows the ownership of lines before the 1923 amalgamation into four major systems: the LNWR, LNER, Southern Railway and Great Western.
After a visit to Carnforth – then and now a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts and the station where the film Brief Encounter was partly filmed in February 1945 – there was time to meander back past the closed Midland stations at Halton, Caton and Hornby before rejoining the line to Hellifield and head north to Settle.
This is a landscape of evocative place names and stunning scenery, from the 1.5mile-long Blea Moor Tunnel to the towering 104ft-high Ribblehead viaduct. But back in 1974 many of the station buildings were in poor condition or privately owned.
Onwards to Dent, Hawes Junction and the signal box at Ais Gill summit and into Kirkby Stephen, where the East station still had its overall roof, though the goods yard and shed had been removed. Thankfully this is another location to get a new lease of life, courtesy of the Stainmore Railway Company.
If the West Coast mainline had its thundering Class 86 and 87 electric-hauled expresses barrelling up and down the main line between Euston and Glasgow, the Settle line still boasted a rich collection of the diesels of the era, particularly the “Peak” class locomotives whose names echoed the contours of the British landscape.
Originally numbered D1-D10, D11-D137 and D138-D193, the Class 44, 45 and 46 diesels rolled off the production line at Derby and Crewe from 1959 and were withdrawn from the end of the 1970s right through the 1980s.
Class 45s replaced steam as the main traction on the Midland Main Line from 1962 and had a 20-year heyday there until they were relegated to secondary services following introduction of high-speed trains on the route.
Back in 1974 they were still in their element on the main line as we meandered north through Long Marton, New Biggin and Culgaith to Langwathby, Lazonbury & Kirkoswald and Armathwaite, some proudly bearing their new computerised numbers introduced the previous year, like 45009 at Hawes Junction, others still bearing the original numbers, like 21 at Horton-in-Ribblesdale or 24 and 31 at Appleby West. The D prefix was dropped in 1968 when the last steam engines were withdrawn.
There are other diesel interlopers we stumble across on our wanderings too, naturally. A couple of Class 25s crossing Blea Moor viaduct, with others at Ormside, Long Marton and Culgaith. And even the smell of steam to be recaptured at the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway near Ulverston.
There are Class 50s galore over at Oxenholme, Kendal, Ulverston, Dalton and Barrow, not to mention the odd Class 40 wandering around Newbiggin and Culgaith.
But if the pictures predictably provide a visual record of railway comings and goings around the Lakes in the mid-1970s, they also offer a vivid reminder of a remarkable week of youthful exploration and discovery.
Rediscovering the shots when the slides were finally burned onto CD in 2019 provided a chance to look back through the notebooks and discover exactly where we ended up on that memorable Shap holiday.
Scrupulous notes and diagrams record what buildings and tracks remained on some of the closed lines, faithfully following the route of the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith route from Workington to Penrith, and then working east again from Kirkby Stephen towards the now-infamous Barnard Castle.
The Cockermouth line closed west of Keswick in April 1966 and the Keswick to Penrith section followed in March 1972, which meant that there was still plenty of evidence to be found of platforms, old station buildings and signalboxes. Today, much of the latter section is maintained as a cycle and walking route.
As for the old North Eastern Railway line east from Tebay, the tracks had long been lifted at Gaisgill, Ravenstonedale, Barras and Bowes following closure in the 1960s.
Not as insightful and amusing as Adrian Mole’s teenage diaries, perhaps. But a wonderful glimpse back into a time of innocence and adventure set against the timeless scenery of the Lake District landscape.