Lake District “Ratty” – The Ravenglass Railway

by David Murray on 10 August 2011

in Cumbria, Cumbrian Coast, Railways

“Ratty” is not here an animal character from a children’s book but the name popularly given to a railway – The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway – and this year (2011) is the fiftieth anniversary of its being saved from permanent closure.

Below is an article, slightly updated, which was originally written in early 2009 for one of our older sites.

Ratty of Ravenglass Railway

Today “Ratty” is an important tourist attraction on the west coast fringe of the Lake District, carrying visitors from Ravenglass village up into the mountains, but when it opened in 1875 it had a much more practical purpose. Iron ore deposits close to the head of Eskdale valley were the attraction for the Whitehaven Mining Company, but there was a little problem of how to get the ore down to the coastal railway station at Drigg.

The following year (after correcting a long list of inadequacies highlighted by a Board of Trade inspector) it was opened also to passengers. No-one, though, could then have foreseen how generations of visitors, young and old, would crowd these coaches for the seven mile scenic ride up into the fells.

This little railway’s story has not always been one of success and prosperity. Having initially been built as a 3 foot gauge line it passed through hard times, including the bankruptcy of its parent company, and lay derelict for several years before the first world war. In 1915, however, it was reopened with a track gauge of only 1 ft. 3 ins. and became known for some time as “the smallest railway in the world”.

Although its name includes Eskdale its route does not follow the river Esk from Ravenglass but rather the more northerly Mite past Murthwaite, until several miles inland it crosses over past Irton to Eskdale Green and so to Beckfoot and Dalegarth near Boot.

The iron ore of Eskdale did not prove to be economical viable. Granite from Beckfoot quarry gave considerable business to the line for many years until the 50s, but its long term survival has been founded on the same combination as many other previously industrial developments in the Lake District – delightful scenery and visitors wishing to enjoy it.

Ravenglass Railway at Dalegarth

My own memories of the “Ratty” go back to around 1950 and trips with aunts and cousins on the mainline train around the Duddon estuary from Askam to Ravenglass, then in the open carriages up the the Ravenglass Railway, or “the little railway” as we knew it. In the early 60s I introduced my fiancee to the delights of Dalegarth and its waterfall, and we still have the photographs. In fact it is to that period that my earliest Lake District photographs can be dated. Much later, in the 80s, business drew me back repeatedly to stay at the Bower House in Eskdale Green, and my acquaintance with “Ratty” was renewed.

The branching lines, beyond where Dalegarth station now is, were abandoned very early in the 20th century but in the 30s there was a proposal for extending it. The idea was to go beyond Dalegarth “either by rack railway or aerial ropeway” to the summit of Scafell. The Lake District, though, was not destined to get its equivalent of the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Will it ever? I doubt it.

Click here for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway web site

Click here for visitor accommodation in Ravenglass and nearby.

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