Snuggled on the remote coast of Cumbria, on the edge of England’s Lake District, lies the ancient Roman naval base of Glannoventa. Situated at the natural harbour at the mouth of the River Esk, it provided our ancestors with ready access to the Irish Sea.
Glannoventa1 must have been a bustling place in its day, situated 12 miles from the high-up fort of Mediobogdum (Hard Knott) and just 55 miles from Maia (Bowness-on-Solway) at the western end of Hadian’s Wall.
These days, Glannoventa is a sleepy village with little sign of commercial activity, save for a couple of hotels. We know it as Ravenglass, and it is home to one of the most unusual steam railways in the British Isles, the Ravenglass & Eskdale, affectionately known to locals and the wider band of enthusiasts as “La’al Ratty”.
The Ravenglass & Eskdale is a 15-in (381mm) narrow-gauge railway which runs for seven miles along the Eskdale valley to the village of Boot. The village lies at the foot of Scafell which, together with nearby Scafell Pike, constitutes England’s highest mountain. At 3,209 ft (978 metres), though, it’s vertically challenged by international standards. Yet to the little picture-perfect 15in steam engines of La’al Ratty it probably looks just like Everest.
The village of Ravenglass, despite its tiny size, boasts two railway stations. The first is the stop on the main Cumbrian coast railway. The other, cheek by jowl, is the terminus of the R&E. This conjunction is significant because it was where the La’al Ratty’s predecessor, a 3ft gauge railway known as Owd Ratty (Old Ratty), transferred hematite ore to the main Cumbrian coastal line. This, in 1876, was the first public narrow-gauge railway in England.
It wasn’t all plain chuffing for Owd Ratty. The company went through a series of financial and operational problems, and it was always under threat of closure.
The coup de grâce came in 1905 when a passenger train was derailed at Murthwaite due to a combination of a defective locomotive and ill-maintained track.
By 1908, the track-work was in such poor condition that it was declared unsafe for passengers by the Board of Trade. The railway closed to passengers that year. Following bankruptcy and a gap of seven years, the present ultra-narrow-gauge railway was opened in 1915.
Model railway enthusiasts will be fascinated to read that this new miniature line was constructed by the model maker Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke and his business partner Robert Proctor-Mitchel. The first train operated over the re-gauged line on 28 August 1915, running initially to Muncaster Mill. By 1917, the entire line had been converted, and trains were running along the whole length to Boot.
Escape from bondage
Having been confined to London and the South-East for much of 2020, my thoughts turned to on a mini-scale tour. No flights to the USA, Australia or Patagonia for me this year; even little Switzerland was too adventurous by far.
After all these months of covi-confinement, a drive up the Lake District had the makings of high adventure. I wasn’t disappointed, and I doubt I could have gained more satisfaction from a trip to the furthest of continents. La’al Ratty was the first stop on my little drive. More next week.
For, you see, La’al Ratty holds an exceptional place in my heart. As a little boy, I travelled this railway dozens of times and, to me, it was the most wonderful railway in the world. My sole ambition in life was to be a train driver on La’al Ratty.
I lay awake at night, mentally pulling and pushing all those brass levers and knobs, chuffing into the evocative intermediate stations such as Irton Road, Muncaster Mill, Murthwaite Halt and Beckfoot. I was fascinated that this was, and still is, a public railway, operating a scheduled service for locals as well as hosting thousands of tourists every year.
It was thus appropriate that I returned to La’al Ratty to celebrate my first journey on the line at the age of seven. On that distant occasion, I was under the aegis of my old grandmother. As a miniature human, naturally, I found the miniature railway to be tall and imposing.
During my school holidays (when the sun was always shining, as I remember), we would take a weekly season ticket covering all the railways in Cumbria, which included the R&E and, even, the steamers on Lake Windermere. We could travel up and down on La’al Ratty all day. I thought that wheeze was absolutely wonderful and I couldn’t get enough of it. I don’t know about my long-suffering grannie, but she made the sacrifice. I must have been an engaging child.
This visit, unfortunately, was somewhat clouded by the ever-present shadow of Covid-19. Ugly plexiglass screens had separated the glorious open-plan four-seater compartments. Sadly, needs must when the Devil drives… And face masks were obligatory. Nonetheless, it was a glorious experience, taking me back to the middle of the last century when a seat in the first compartment behind one of the two engines, Irton Road or River Esk, was the high point of my little life.
Next week, I shall be relating the second part of my visit to the Lake District: Another heritage railway and those wonderful lake steamers, a touch of Como in Cumbria.
Following this article, my old friend Don Morley recalled a trip through the notoriously difficult Hard Knott pass, above Boot village on the western side, in the early 1950s. He was with his girlfriend Jo—now his wife of over 60 years—on a BSA B31 motorcycle with dropped, racing-style handlebars. It was hardly the form of transport, especially with a pillion passenger on board, for the steep hills and narrow roads of the Hard Knott. Here is Don’s photograph, taken on the Hard Knott, which hasn’t seen the light of day for over 60 years. It was taken on a Leica IIIb screw-mount with a 5cm f/2 Summar lens.
Photographs by Mike Evans using the Leica Q2
- As usual, the scholars differ. The consensus is that Ravenglass was called Glannoventa but others maintain that it was actually Tunnocellum. But let’s not spoil a good story… ↩