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THE CUMBRIAN MOUNTAIN SCOT
Saturday 29 May 2004
Reviewed by Michael Nunn
It only stopped raining as we left the house to make our way to Lancaster station, but it was still a grey, overcast and damp morning – ‘dreech' as the Scots call it. That had not deterred the passengers, some 500 in total, who had braved the rain and early start (it had started at Barrow at 0619 and left Lancaster at 0733) for a trip out over some of the most spectacular scenery in England for an afternoon in the Scottish Capital.
The passengers were largely family groups, some with young children, and there was a number of the not-so-young and well-to-do in the first class and Pullman seats (the picnics and bottles of wine came out in due course). There were few heavy-duty, overt rail enthusiasts, and the atmosphere as we set off contained a frisson of the expectation of a good day ahead, despite the weather.
Our journey took us through the verdant open and fertile countryside between Preston, Blackburn and Clitheroe into Yorkshire to join the Settle-Carlisle line at Hellifield. Here the arduous climb over the bleak and remote Pennine landscape, past the Three Peaks of Ingleborough, Pen-y-Ghent and Great Whernside began in earnest. If anything, the rotten weather (it was by now raining again) added to the harsh drama of the landscape, vividly calling to mind the sheer Northern grit, determination and sacrifice of those thousands of souls who constructed the line in the 1870s.
On reaching the historic border city of Carlisle some 30 minutes early (!), the train halted for a while in order to await its due path onwards to Scotland, giving a welcome chance for a leg-stretcher. Then further forward, over the Lowland hills (and through tragic Lockerbie) through Carstairs (more waiting as more important trains passed by) and on to Edinburgh, which was reached just before 1330.
What to do for four hours in such a place? There will have been as many answers to that question as there were passengers.
As the weather was now brightening up, and the sun showing signs of emerging from the clouds, decisions as to where to go were not limited to indoors. As planned, John and I took a trip out to the Forth Road and Rail Bridges, two stunning structures carrying people, vehicles and, surprisingly, a seemingly endless procession of coal trains, between Edinburgh, Glasgow and the South, over the wide reaches of the Firth of Forth, and the Kingdom of Fife and further north.
A tub of Orkney ice cream from a shop in the attractive and historic Forth-side town of North Queensferry fortified us for the brief return to Edinburgh, and we continued to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Here we were delighted by a recently-identified portrait of Mozart in 1771, and a fine oil painting of John Rennie, who built the Hull Docks, London Bridge – and our own Lune Aqueduct.
The two pleasant women from Barrow who sat next to us on the train had been shopping; others had explored Princes Street and its Gardens, and yet others just taken in the many sights. There were, no doubt, many packets of shortbreads and other local goodies and souvenirs making their way back over the border.
The city centre was now baked in warm sunshine, and thronged with tourists from all over the globe. In some ways Edinburgh centre is as commercialised as London's West End, but the difference is the distinctive and elegant Caledonian chic which marks it out from its English equivalent.
In a defiant gesture, the weather actually improved further as we finally left Edinburgh at around 1740 and retraced our steps to Carlisle (no stop here this time) and straight on through Penrith and over Shap to Lancaster for around 2030 with hardly a slowing down.
Because of small-minded Network Rail regulations, the long train (thirteen carriages behind a single but powerful Class 47 diesel locomotive) had to continue to Preston to ‘change ends' so it could continue to Carnforth and stations to Barrow, which was finally reached around 2230.
A long day, and tiring for even the hardiest of souls. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves, and there was a distinctly party feeling as the train sped southwards home. The bar did a thriving trade, and spirits were high, if beginning to flag.
Throughout the whole day, the staff on the train – without exception – were friendly, polite and as helpful as could be wished for. This personal treatment, like the rest of the day's travelling experiences, is something so sadly lacking in our creaking ‘national' rail system today.
Our evaluation? Value for money – at £40 a head it was excellent for a return trip of some 400 miles. Good company – fine, not a sign of bother of any sort (except a few failed lightbulbs). Scenery – stunning by sun or sleet. Shopping – as much as you wanted, with the chance of that ‘something different'.
A great day out.
Copyright © 2 June 2004 Michael Nunn
More to come …