• Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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The ‘golden triangle’: England’s most picturesque railways


The three branch lines that form a triangle linking the Cumbrian coast and the Yorkshire Dales are among the most picturesque in the country – and together make a perfect day trip

There are places on the Cumbrian coastline where the train slows down to almost walking pace and edges gingerly along the reballasted track. We are on the beach really, with Atlantic waves breaking just beyond the strung-out colonies of bathing huts and makeshift homes.

There are other – some would say better – ways of travelling through the Lake District from Carnforth to Carlisle, including the M6 motorway and the so-called west coast mainline rail route, which shares that famously scenic corridor. Better only in the sense of quicker and less likely to be washed away by the sea.

But today I’m not interested in things such as speed and efficiency, because this line is the western side of a circuit known to enthusiasts as the golden triangle of English railways.

 Assuming we get to Carlisle, we’ll head back down towards Leeds on the mountainous Settle line, over the Ribblehead viaduct then wait at Hellifield for the train along the triangle’s third side back to Carnforth station with its famous Brief Encounter tearoom.

Why? To quote George Mallory when he was asked the same question about climbing Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.” In the course of the next seven hours, my three friends and I will have travelled just over 200 miles of the most extraordinary rail-scape in the country. In the world, some claim.

It feels different from most journeys in that it has no real destination: it’s just a thrown-together itinerary of branch lines. The very term sounds nostalgic after Beeching and his loppings-off. But if you accept its peculiar rationale, then the travelling and the arriving become one and the same. We are triangulating.

This top left-hand corner of England is not so much forgotten as unremembered. Grasmere, Ambleside, Coniston you’ve heard of. But Silecroft, Drigg, Braystones, Corkickle – I’m reading from the timetable – may have escaped your notice. At some of these stations the train doesn’t stop unless someone asks it to. Along this remote and skirting way, south of Sellafield, you see the country’s great hills from an unusual angle. Like catching someone famous when they’re not looking. There’s Black Combe, the lone outlier of the Lake District, standing in your foreground for nearly an hour as the train contours around the foot of it and the major fells stand dimly in the distance.

A classic shot of the Flying Scotsman at Grange-over-Sands on the Cumbrian coast line in the 1970s. A classic shot of the Flying Scotsman at Grange-over-Sands on the Cumbrian coast line in the 1970s. Photograph: Don McPhee/Guardian

Change at Carlisle, the old border town which, after the emptiness of the past three hours, looms like a metropolis. Stiff coffee from the open-backed van on the station concourse then off down the Eden valley on the celebrated Settle to Carlisle line, or vice versa for us. There is half an hour of aptly-named Eden valley before the hills start gathering themselves up into serious ranges and stark empty tops. Mallerstang Edge over to the east, Wild Boar Fell sharply up to the west. If you were beachcombing this morning, you are fell-walking now – but with the train taking the strain across, under and over some breathtaking Victorian constructions.

On the way to Hellifield and the last, brief side of the triangle back west to Carnforth, you are not so much travelling through history as along it. Still visible at the trackside are remains of the (mainly Irish) navvy communities which lived – and died – here in the unforgiving winters of Blea Moor and the other bleaknesses along the stretch known as The Long Drag.

You are also benefiting from one of the great reclamations in British transport: if it had not been for the dogged joint protest movement of rail workers and users late last century, this would have become yet another lapsed track bed. In its new lease of life, it not only pays its way but helps out when there’s a problem with the west coast mainline. It’s beautiful all right, but busy too.