Anoraks over Ais Gill

Another piece from the archives, first published in “Direct Current” in 1999

A cold, wet day in April, around nine am. Crewe station, grey and draughty as ever. My train arrived, a few minutes early, and I quickly crossed the footbridge. A not uncommon event for me on a Saturday, though this time I didn’t descend to platform six for a Virgin train to Preston; instead, I continued to number twelve to the chocolate and cream mark 1s I’d seen as the sprinter from Stoke drew in. A large crowd milled about as I walked along the platform. At the north end, immaculate electric loco 92001 hummed in an adjacent platform, behind it, two venerable class 37 diesels. After a few minutes, all three moved off and set back onto the train. I found my seat, irritated it was on the aisle, and next to the door. The train was also unheated. People began returning to their seats, and the coach was soon full and noisy. It eventually left several minutes late. As usual, I was not sad to be leaving Crewe, but that’s another story.

The Saturday illusion continued as the train headed north along the West Coast Mainline. I watched the now familiar sights slip by, swathed in grey haze: The bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal, Arpley yard, Wigan, then slowing on the approaches to Preston. After a brief stop, the train set off, and I realised that the 37s were working as well. A strange combination, I thought, feeling mild annoyance. It rumbled onto the bridge over the Ribble, and I smiled as I looked down at the park by the river, remembering the walks I’d taken there. Speed picked up through the station, and my smile faded. By now, I’d been bumped and bashed by careless people staggering to and from the bar, most of them leaving the door wide open, something which only emphasised the lack of heating. Worse, the so-called haulage bashers insisted on opening the windows. To add further insult, some man, obviously mates with those sitting opposite, paused to talk to them, waving his pint with carefree abandon, and leaning into my space as if I didn’t exist. It’s fortunate indeed that thoughts don’t kill. Any pleasure in the journey had evaporated.

After Lancaster, where the line passes near the sea, the distant fells to the west were covered in snow. There was a signal box here, looking out over Morecambe Bay to the Furness coast. What a place to work, I thought, not that most of these people would appreciate it. As the train headed into Lune Gorge, the viaduct from the abandoned Ingleton line curving in from the right, this view was confirmed. Despite the fine scenery, all they seemed interested in was talking in very loud voices about loco movements elsewhere. This continued to be the case later as the train headed over the Settle & Carlisle line. How anyone could be so unmoved by such scenery, travelling merely for the locomotives and hardly even glancing outside, never ceases to amaze me.

For the run over the S&C, some of the loudmouths moved to another part of the train, so I was able to get a window seat. And some peace. It soon became apparent that all was not well at the front end. Speed was stuck at about 40-45 mph, increasing only on the brief downhill stretches. Apparently, there was a multiple control fault, so only the front loco was able to provide power. Shortly after Armathwaite, the line emerged from a tunnel onto the side of a wooded gorge, the river Eden far below. I had completely forgotten about this place, my memories dominated by the more dramatic scenery further south. Passing Appleby, I noticed the rusty connection to the Warcop branch veering in from the left, out of use now for about ten years. Indeed, my last trip over the S&C had been to traverse the branch, and may even have been the last passenger train. I remember it creeping all the way to the buffer stop, headed by a soon to be withdrawn class 47, then clambering out even though there was no platform (would that be allowed now? I think not!) Of course, I had no camera!

At Ormside, the “Long Drag”, the infamous fifteen miles of 1:100 rising gradients began. Speed immediately began falling, and was soon at around 30mph. At Kirby Stephen, there was a sprinter train which had been damaged in the recent landslip parked in the siding, one end covered up. After Birkett tunnel, the line began to cross Mallerstang Common. I’d read the name in the guide earlier and it sounded familiar. Now, as I saw it again, the memory rushed back: standing at the door of an old 1950s carriage in 1988, looking down from the ledge on which the line is perched. The valley falls away steeply, then rises sharply up to the long, flat top of Mallerstang Edge, today lightly dusted in snow. At its foot, the narrow grey of a road, the single lorry looking smaller even than a Matchbox model; no more than a flea on an elephant set against the Titanic mass of the moor above it. Even here, there were trees, though still largely bare. Primroses provided small colour on this monochrome day. The skies, grey white, heavily pregnant with something, which soon emerged: hail, then snow, then rain, then all at the same time!

Then the summit, complete with new signs, though the signal box long gone, 1169 feet above sea level, the highest mainline railway in England. There’s no immediate fast descent, rather, the line undulates and remains at over 1000 feet for the next ten miles. The tunnels and viaducts, once perhaps seen as an intrusion, and an attempt to tame the landscape, now seem as much a part of it as the fells themselves. A harsh, windswept place it is, so bleak and forsaken, yet beautiful because of it. Beautiful despite the vicious winds, snows and torrential rain, that can melt away into sunlight as quickly. Beautiful for the massiveness that renders the individual, human, car or train, utterley small and insignificant; yet this isn’t oppressive, quite the reverse.

Sweeping through Dent, the line curves dramatically to the right. In the distance, two further viaducts – Arten Gill and Dent Head – then the northern portal of Blea Moor tunnel. Over a mile long, and a very wet place. The brakes went on past the signal box, as the main descent began, 1:100 all the way to Settle Junction, over fourteen miles away. The train paused at Ribblehead, so I moved forward and alighted. There’s a good view of the famous viaduct to the north, dwarfed by Whernside above. It was raining and hailing, with a sharp wind, yet I was in no hurry to be back on the train; I simply gazed about me, enjoying being here.

Inevitably, the descent of the “drag” was something of an anti-climax. Thanks to the loco fault, we were now some twenty minutes late. However, there was another photo stop at Hellifield – now magnificently restored after years of dereliction – and our departure was retimed to 1520, almost forty late, so as not to clash with a stopping train after Clitheroe. By now, I had become bored, and wanted to be home. The lateness also made me anxious about my connection at Crewe.

Slowly through Clitheroe, and back into sunlight at Blackburn. Speed picked up after here for the first time in ages as the train headed down the three mile 1:99/101 bank to Bamber Bridge. I smiled at the familiar sight of a long traffic queue at the level crossing, and at the dark, uninviting subway under the line (though “sewer” would be more appropriate when it rains, as I can testify). Shortly after, the main line was regained at Lostock Hall, and we were given the fast line, and even allowed preference over a sprinter at Euxton.

And so back to Crewe. Fortunately, a clear run into the station (makes a change), a mad dash through the crowds to platform one to the single carriage train for Stoke. It was stopped a considerable way along, so I broke into a sprint, convinced it would leave as I reached it (this has happened). Luckily, the conductor saw me coming, so I was spared this humiliation, and the boredom of a wait of over an hour. I’d no sooner found a seat – the thing was packed, why do single cars always get rostered for busy services? – than the doors were closed and it was off. Phew! I returned home via the off licence and takeway. After all, it was a Saturday!

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