"I'm trying to visit all the stations."
He baulked. "All of them?" Because what kind of nutcase would want to do that?
"Just this line."
"How long's that taking you?"
"About four days. I'm staying at the station house in Kirkby Stephen."
"That's a fair way from town."
"Not too bad."
He shook his head. "I need a pub nearby. I went with the wife to Whitby once - God knows why - and once she'd put the kids to bed I said I'm off for a pint. I walked in this pub and it was like An American Werewolf In London. Everyone just turned and stared at me."
I laughed and told him about Armathwaite the night before, and he nodded enthusiastically. "I went to the West Country with some mates. Before I was married. We went in this pub and there was no-one behind the bar so we just stood and waited. After a few minutes this woman stood up and said, 'I'd suppose I'll fucking serve them then.'"
"Tell me about it. And when they found out we was Cockneys..." He chortled to himself as the train pulled up at the platform. "Good luck anyway!"
Garsdale's a cold, isolated station, but that day it was a little more populated than normal. One person got on the train, and there was a minibus waiting in the car park. It doesn't sound much, but by Settle & Carlisle standards, that's practically Waterloo.
I was so keen to get walking I managed to miss Garsdale's main claim to fame. There's a statue on the platform in honour of Ruswarp, a border collie that belonged to Graham Nuttall, one of the people who worked to get the S&C back into productive use as a railway. Ruswarp was such a presence, he was made an honourary member of the Friends. Sadly, Graham went walking in Wales, and never returned. When his body was found Ruswarp was still with him, having stayed with his master.
I didn't know all this at the time. I read about it when I was doing a bit of research afterwards. I can only apologise for not giving it the dues it deserved.
Out of the station there was nothing to see. Not a thing except the wide expanses of English countryside, wild, rugged, dangerous looking. I turned for my road to my next station and immediately encountered a warning sign:
In case you wondered, "U5509" is the classification for the road (like A and B roads); the "U" stands for "Unclassified". Spot the oxymoron.
I was quite excited by the sign. It gave a perverse sense of danger to a walk in the country. I know it was spring, not winter, and so the odds on me being stranded on a hilltop in a blizzard were minimal, but there was still a frisson of risk to the whole thing.
Soon I was climbing a steep hill, my lungs gasping for air (so unfit), sweat pouring down my face. It kept going, up and up; every time I thought I'd reached the pinnacle the road merely dipped for a moment before rising up even higher. At first I followed the Highway Code and walked at the side of the road but as time went on, it became increasingly obvious that I wasn't going to be mown down by a stream of traffic, and I ended up wandering to the centre of the tarmac.
Tiny streams bounced down the hillside and under the road in drains. I saw the occasional bird - I think there was a grouse; I recognised it from the whisky bottles - and now and then a rabbit would dart into the undergrowth as I approached. Beside that there was nothing. I reached a flat, with a gate and a stone wall, and I took the moment to pause and drink the cup of tea I'd made myself before I left.
I felt totally alone. The landscape here plays tricks with you. It's been tamed to a certain extent, made into grazing land, covered with stone walls and tracks, but that's only surface details. The real world is harsh and natural, and the human interventions are insignificant. Even the railway, that streak of industry that had brought me here, seemed to have vanished; the hills had folded over it, swallowed it up. There were no houses or cars or trains anymore. Just me and the endless, green and brown vistas.
It was astonishing and humbling. Every few moments I had to stop to take in another breathtaking scene, another landscape. Vivid skies turning over a solid mass of granite, Turner-esque colours churned in fields, mixing and weaving in the wind. It was all so beautiful.
A cyclist jarred me out of my haze, freewheeling over the top of a mound; I think we startled each other with our presence. He streaked by, all pink lycra and muscles, barking "Hello!" at me as he did so. I replied in kind but he was already gone.
As I rounded another corner, I saw a walker in the distance, coming towards me. This was awkward. The hill had plateaued, so we could both see one another approaching; it looked like we were going to meet by a gate at the side of the road. I began to panic. I'd already managed to careen through one conversation with a complete stranger that day - I didn't think I'd be able to handle a second. Just nodding a "hello" would have seemed rude; we were the only human beings for miles (it was about twenty minutes since I'd seen that cyclist - he was probably in Penrith by now).
He must have been suffering the same anxiety as me because, as we got closer, he veered off to a small side road. He was wearing a giant blue anorak and had one of those map-bibs (the second in as many days - I wonder if I should get one?) and he seemed to be finding the fastenings for a gate terribly interesting. I guessed that, as another solo walker, he probably also suffered from crippling shyness, so I kept my head down and continued on my way.
Soon I was heading downhill again, but at a gentler pace than the ascent. I guessed I wasn't going to hit sea level any time soon. Signs of human habitation began to appear, livestock, a jeep taking advantage of the national speed limit. The remains of a brick hut, the roof and most of the walls gone, now just a kind of open pen.
A ramshackle farmhouse was protected by a metal gate with a hand stencilled sign saying Private! Keep Out! A cynical voice in my head wondered how that meshed with the "right to roam", but I pressed on.
The railway bridge came as a shock. I'd seen the house, obviously - it was a noticeable landmark after all - but I couldn't believe I'd reached the station already. There it was though, tucked down a side road, apparently serving... no-one. The village of Dent is four miles away; the station seems to have been put here just because they had a couple of platforms left over and thought "why not?".
I got a shock as soon as I stepped on the platform; I'd barely closed the gate when a freight train powered through, firing off its horn as it went through. I leapt back a full three metres while the wagons clattered past, hoping there was no CCTV on the station.
Dent is the highest station in England, a fact proudly commemorated by a sign on the platform, big enough for anyone to see as they pass:
The highest point on the actual railway is Ais Gill Summit, just down the line, which is 1,168 feet above sea level; meanwhile the highest point on any railway is Corrour Summit in Scotland, which Ian and Robert visited last year. You can stay here, too, either in the main station house or in the "Snow Hut", a shed that was built to house the railway workers when they got snowed in. Both have been refurbished since, you'll be glad to hear.
There was a waiting room on the southbound platform and - blessed be! - it was dry and warm, with a heater to take the chill off my hands. There were leaflets, a phone box - you'll be surprised to hear I had no mobile signal - and benches. On the wall was a small laminated poster, welcoming you to the station, which was nice, and full of warnings, which wasn't. The poster told you what to do if you were stranded (go to the house on the corner and knock on the door - unfortunately it was undergoing building work when I visited, and seemed to be empty) and what to do if there were no trains running (phone Northern Rail and they'll send you a taxi, because there's no way rail replacement buses can get up here). There wasn't actually a sign advising you what to do if hypothermia set in, which seemed like a failing.
The Carlisle train came and went. I wandered up and down the platform, impatient to get going somewhere. The village was too far away for me to comfortably get there and back, and there was nothing else to do, so I paced.
One of the odd things about the trains on the Settle & Carlisle is they feel like proper trains. With all due respect to Northern Rail, they're mainly a very odd network of routes. They're either commuter lines into big cities or infrequent trips between country stations. People jump on, stay a half dozen stations, and jump off again.
The Settle & Carlisle trains were different. Because so many people were travelling the entire length of the line, they'd allowed themselves to relax. Coats came off. Lunchboxes came out. I saw one family playing cards. The slightly tense, slightly defeated atmosphere that normally comes with a Northern train was entirely absent. These people wanted to be travelling here, and so there was a bit of excitement about the trip. It helped that none of the trains used were accursed Pacers.
On top of that, the development company that encourages investment along the line has paid for a snack trolley, which I don't think I've ever seen before on a Northern train, and there are volunteers in bright orange tabards who can answer your questions and give little impromptu lectures. One had appeared after Dent, to tell us all about the approaching Ribblehead viaduct. "The best view is from the left hand side," he said, "facing forwards."
Would it surprise you to learn that I was, at that point, sat on the right hand side and facing backwards? It wasn't my fault. It was a very busy train and I just grabbed the first available seat.
The volunteer was having problems of his own. There was a man sat at one of the tables who'd decided he was an expert, or rather, more of an expert than the volunteer. He kept interrupting with "questions" that were actually boasts about how much he knew, questions that began "isn't it true that..." or "am I right in saying..."
This kind of behaviour drives me mad. If you're in the fortunate position of having an expert speaking about something you care about, shut up and listen. You might know stuff that he doesn't know, but he probably knows a whole lot more than you know on the topic so sit back and enjoy what he has to say. I used to work with a security guard who thought he knew more about James Bond than me, and would regularly pop up to try and best me with facts about 007. Firstly, bitch please, and secondly, if your best hope at outflanking me, trivia wise, is Raquel Welch being cast as Domino in Thunderball, you've got no hope.
The train finally pulled into Ribblehead without the volunteer giving into his instincts and beating the know-it-all to death with a rolled up line guide and I disembarked. Me, a couple of walkers, and an entire school party of excited nine year olds. They were accompanied by a couple of teachers who already looked like they wanted to find the nearest bar and dunk their head in a vat of vodka. The children were very, very, very excited about being let out of school. I don't think any of them had both feet on the ground for more than a tenth of a second. The peace and tranquillity of this remote spot was utterly ruined by a gang of pre-pubescents squealing, so I made a dash for the exit.
The real appeal of Ribblehead isn't the station, anyway, it's the viaduct. 400 metres of prime Victorian engineering, it took a thousand men four years to build the bridge over the mossy ground. It's now rightly regarded as one of the highlights of the British rail network.
Approaching it from the south - a footpath leads from the road to right under the arches - it doesn't seem that impressive at first. It's just another bridge, perhaps a little longer than others, but still, undeniably, a bridge.
The closer I got, the mightier it seemed. Not just in size, with the hillocks falling away to reveal how high those arches were, but also in stature. It was a human intervention in an uncompromising landscape. This was one piece of man's work that couldn't be swallowed by nature; it refused to be controlled. As a result it became as mighty as the mountains or the bleak moors around it. Churning grey clouds added to its drama.
On the way I passed the relics of the navvies' camp, though "camp" is an inadequate work for what sprung up here during construction. A whole town appeared during construction, as the men and their families worked, lived and slept together to bring John Sydney Crossley's landmark construction project to life. They're just stone shells now - a monument to the grim circumstances they must have lived in. Imagine being in one of those tiny shelters on a bitter January night.
As I approached the arches, each one seemed to form a picture frame for the landscape behind, chopping up the wild vistas into manageable human chunks - another way that it was beating the land around it.
Beneath the limestone spans, it was hard not to feel insignificant. The highest point of the viaduct is 32 metres above the ground, and I was just an ant at its base. The wind whipped across the moorland and rattled the drainpipes along the side, a little tinny percussion underneath my jaw-dropping.
It was impossible for me to imagine how they even began to build it, in the days before computer aided plans and cranes and health and safety. A hundred men died during its construction; the little graveyard at Chapel-le-Dale carries a memorial to them, as well as to their family members who also perished during those four years and are buried there. The desperate circumstances that must have driven men to clamber up on high scaffolding during the harsh winters. It was humbling and quite boggling.
I walked on, but not too far, just enough to gain a new view of the viaduct.
I couldn't stop staring at it. I started this blog because I had a vague interest in railway architecture, and I liked railway stations. Over the years I've become interested in more than that, but it's principally the buildings and structures that fascinate me. The Ribblehead Viaduct underlined the Victorian pride in the railways, and how they saw them as the future. This represented a colossal investment of time and money just to get a train to Scotland. It was stunning.
I struck my way back towards the station. There was a little pub at the foot of the viaduct, the Station Inn, which must do a roaring trade in summer. On a chilly March day, less so; there was only me and a couple of old ladies inside. It smelt of chip fat and they were showing the snooker on a tv in the corner. A sign on the wall advertised a mixed grill with a bafflingly long list of ingredients, and challenged you to try it.
I sat down with my beer and slowly, quietly, slipped into a morass of self-analysis. I was aching from the walking, and I was tired. I started thinking, you're getting old. You're pushing 40 - a couple of years away, but still - and you're trying to gallavant all over the hills like a young person. You're in the middle of nowhere so you can look at a viaduct. What have you become?
A younger barman, probably the son of the doughy landlady who'd served me, came out and barely spotted me in the corner. Another train nerd to him, I thought. They must get a stream of them, over and over, people like me: alone, a bit sweaty, glasses, thick jumper under their anorak. A rucksack by their muddy boots. I'd kind of kidded myself that I defied the trainspotter stereotype - I have never noted train numbers in my life. I'm fun! I'm interesting! I thought. I'm not a loner rubbing himself on the platform as he watches a signal arm click into place.
Except, that's exactly what I am. I thought back to the chat with the guard that morning, and his look of shock when I said I was visiting the stations. "All of them?!" I'd said no, when I should have said yes. I'm exactly that kind of train nerd. I always have been, and I couldn't really admit it to myself. I am a massive geek. I went on holiday on my own just so I could visit some train stations. I'm a trainspotter - perhaps not purebreed, a pedigree trainspotter, but I'm certainly a mongrel hanging around the back of the station concourse, just as excitable as that man with his signal arm. I went out of body, and looked at myself through the barman's eyes. I could not look any more like a geek if I tried, I thought. Weirdly, it was a comforting thought. It's good to take on board exactly who you are, now and then.
With the beer sloshing around in my stomach I returned to the station. The kids were gone so I was free to have a good poke around. There was a visitor's centre - which was closed for the winter; it reopened that following Saturday - and all the heritage frills I'd come to expect from the line. The two platforms were offset from one another, with the northbound some distance along from the southbound, but still with the same red and cream colouring.
I positioned myself at the end of the platform with my camera in hand. My train would be coming over the viaduct to the station and I just had to get a picture of it. Ok, it would be a purple diesel, not the Hogwarts Express billowing steam, but it would still make a good snap. After standing in the exposed wind for so long my fingers began to cramp up - remember, it's at the top of that viaduct - I finally managed to get a half-decent shot of the train approaching.
The driver tooted the horn as he approached, and I was suddenly swept up in the romance of the railways all over again. I felt very Jenny Agutter all of a sudden; I considered whipping off the red Aussiebums I was wearing and waving them as it approached, but I would probably have ended up leaving the station in a police car rather than a comfy train.
Horton-in-Ribblesdale is one of those "crossover" spots; the northbound train comes in about fifteen minutes after the southbound one. That might sound like a bit of a wait but here in the land of a train every two hours that's practically Tube frequencies.
I should have gone down into the village for a bit of exploring. But I was tired, and full of beer, and all that self-examination had tired me out and made me lazy. I just crossed over to the other platform for the next train.
It was an appalling dereliction of duty: reader, I'm sorry. Actually I'm not. I got the train back to Kirkby Stephen and I had a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. It was great.
As I said: I am getting old.