Carlisle – Settle Railway: A Trip on the UK’s Most Scenic Route

Carlisle – Settle Railway: A Trip on the UK’s Most Scenic Route
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The Carlisle to Settle railway – or Settle to Carlisle railway if you prefer – is the most iconic train route in England. Only The Jacobite in Scotland (aka the ‘Hogwarts Express’) can surely complete when it comes to sweeping panoramas and stunning viaducts.

In spring I went to Cumbria for a wedding, and had to travel during Easter weekend. Engineering works at London Euston meant I had to re-route for my return journey back to Dorset. Via Leeds. It was only when my dad dropped me off at Carlisle station that I realised I was about to step onto a train that would trace the historic, scenic route.

An accidental experience

My eight-and-a-half hour journey back home suddenly became far more appealing (the outward trip had only taken six hours). Totally by accident, I’d managed to end up on a train that I’d meant to see and do ‘one day’.

That completely made up for the fact that I wouldn’t have time to walk across London between KIng’s Cross and Waterloo, as I had done between Waterloo and Euston on the outward journey. Seeing some of my old haunts in the Covent Garden area en route (where I worked as a travel agent during the late 1990s).

And so – without as much as consulting a Settle to Carlisle railway timetable – I boarded the train. It wasn’t quite the Carlisle to Settle steam train, granted, but I’d already been on one of those in Minehead, Somerset during a visit to Butlin’s.

settle to carlisle line
The train stopped at Dent, England’s highest train station

A vintage feel

The train did, however, have something of a vintage feel about it, yet it was well maintained and comfortable. Even the windows were clean enough to ensure a pretty good view and I even managed to snap a few shots for posterity.

So what did I see? Lots of lush, green landscapes. Houses I’d love to try living in, even if just for one night. Train stations that looked like something from another era. Plus the lady with the trolley that made her way though the train. That reminded me of the National Express hostesses of my childhood, who kept an eye on me as I travelled solo between my parents’ homes in Bedfordshire and Northumberland.

Said lady had a well-stocked trolley with lots of reasonably-priced goodies to buy. Mostly snacks and beverages, but there were a few souvenir items thrown in too. Now, I kind of wish I’d bought one.

A big day out

A group of middle-aged guys in front of me were clearly out for a good time, though in far from a raucous way. They eagerly purchased local ales from the jolly hostess, to sup while enjoying the landscape. Reverential silence with the odd burst of animated chatter was what I witnessed. It was great to see them having such fun. (Incidentally their accents told me they were locals.)

Which calls to mind Bill Bryson, my favourite travel writer. Whose book The Road to Little Dribbling refers to the Settle and Carlisle railway. And who marvels at the way us Brits can extract immense enjoyment from even the most low-key forms of entertainment. Such as a mug of tea or cocoa plus a digestive or Rich Tea biscuit. Lovely (rubs hands together with anticipatory delight).

The scenery as captured from my window seat on the train

The line that almost never was

In the aforementioned book, Bryson describes the Settle to Carlisle train – or Carlisle to Settle, as it was for me – as both the most alluring and superfluous line ever constructed. In fact James Allport, who was by all account responsible for its conception, requested government approval to abandon the project at one point, but this was refused.

In fact the Charles Sharland, the Tasmanian engineer hired to oversee the scheme, ended up dying during his mid-twenties. Whether the exhaustion caused by his efforts was a contributing factor is uncertain.

Why not take an organised tour from Manchester, Liverpool or Chester to see the Ribblehead Viaduct, Bronte country and the Yorkshire Dales?

The highest station in England

One of the ports of call along the way is Dent, England’s loftiest mainline station. Apparently this station is some four miles from the village – and this is a typical example of the line’s impracticalities.

So is it worth taking a Settle to Carlisle steam train – or standard train in the opposite direction, as I did? It really depends how much trains float your boat. The scenery was by turns breathtaking, desolate and endearing – and timelessly, quintessentially British. And made my prolonged journey pass far more quickly, which counted for a lot.

I didn’t manage to glimpse the famous Ribblehead Viaduct, as I was unprepared and sat on the wrong side. At one point I did rise from my seat to peer out of a window on the left, but I couldn’t make it out.

Settle train station – look out for the photobombing pheasant!

A photobombing pheasant

Still, what I did see as we passed the area was lots of walkers making their way along a twisting road, presumably off to see the viaduct for themselves. Apparently that’s the best way to get a good view, anyway.

I only managed to take a few reasonable shots from the window – and one of those, as you can see, was photobombed by a male pheasant who was wandering along the platform. A charming and unexpected diversion – and an echo of the days I spent living on the Mitford Estate in Northumberland.

Seeing Saltaire

The highlight for me actually occurred on the Settle to Leeds sector, between Bingley and Shipley. For passing through Saltaire station gave me a pretty good view of a place that has always fascinated me.

I first heard of Saltaire when studying Sociology, and then again when I read Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island, the prequel to The Road to Little Dribbling. Named after its founder Titus Salt and the local river, the Airedale settlement was originally built for the employees working at his mill.

Nowadays the golden-toned houses are privately owned, and the village near Bradford enjoys an idyllic setting by the River Aire. Salts Mill now houses retail outlets, restaurants and art gallery.

I had long harboured a desire to see Saltaire for myself

If I was planning to move to the Bradford area, Saltaire would be first on my list of places to consider. Even though all I really got was close enough to George Street to read its name and peer at the line of snug-looking former workers’ cottages along it.

Should I take the Leeds to Carlisle train again, I’d try to schedule in stops at two points along the line. Saltaire, for a closer look at the village and perhaps lunch at Salts Mill. Also Ribblehead, to get a good look at the arresting viaduct from ground level.

Carlisle to Settle | The verdict

I’m really pleased I experienced a trip on the Settle to Carlisle line, even if not quite by steam railway. It kept me happily occupied for a good portion of an overly long journey and the views were incredible.

The atmosphere on the train was also one of – well, good fortune, if that makes any sense. I felt that my fellow passengers and I shared an almost snug satisfaction that we were here on this sunny Saturday in spring, enjoying unique and stunningly beautiful viewpoints over Cumbria and Yorkshire.

It’s certainly not grim up north when you travel the Settle to Carlisle line. Or vice versa. Especially when you need a change of scene from staying or living in a grimy big city.

Polly x

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This post is dedicated to Bill Bryson, whose highly entertaining books have helped me to appreciate my homeland on a whole new level. And caused me to almost wet myself laughing now and then. Thank you, Bill.

If you’re exploring the north of England, don’t miss my posts on Manchester weekends, pubs with rooms in the Lake District and day trips from Newcastle.

Note – This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy via these, I may earn a small fee. This has absolutely no effect on the price you pay. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.