The guard took a step back. "Murthwaite?" I nodded, and he reached out and shook my hand. "You're the first person to ever ask me to stop at Murthwaite. Ever."
I was left feeling a little disquieted. The first one ever? It couldn't be that bad, could it?
It was the second day of my La'al Ratty odyssey, and having polished off the top half of the map on Saturday, I now had three stations at the bottom to do. Pleasingly, they all began with the letter M: Murthwaite, Miteside, and Muncaster Mill.
Temperatures had plummeted the night before, leaving the landscape blue-tinted and icy. Cold infected every part of it. I hugged myself close in the open carriage, trying to keep the warmth going as we trundled up into the hills, pulling into the tiny Murthwaite Halt a few minutes later. As I jumped down, the guard called out to me, "First person this year to get off at Murthwaite. And probably the last!"
I'm sure he didn't mean for it to sound like a threat.
Murthwaite was no less than any of the other stops on the Ravenglass & Eskdale: a little bit of platform, a sign. Its lack of use came from its isolation: surrounded by farmland, the nearest road 3/4 of a mile away. There was, however, a bridleway that ran south from the halt, paralleling the railway, and that was my route back to Muncaster Mill.
I crossed the tracks and entered a field on the other side. There were no public footpath signs, but once again I put my trust in the Ordnance Survey, and followed a rough track over the grass. The cold had frozen the soil hard, and the unforgiving hillocks pounded at the soles of my feet. It was like walking on sharp rocks. I staggered onward, jumping the occasional frozen puddle, crossing streams by barely-there bridges. At one I spotted this:
The footpath sign, broken and lying in a ditch. I thought back to the lack of signs starting me on this path - not a coincidence, surely? A landowner trying to stop legally mandated access to his fields, I assumed, and boiled slightly. This wasn't a popular route, clearly; there's probably a dozen people a year using it. But apparently this was too many.
Soon after, I left the field through a gate and walked alongside the track itself. There was a broken down workshop for the railway, a roofless shed and a single orange plastic chair beside piles of fencing and pipes. The path ducked down between overgrown bushes - I wondered what kind of skinny horses they got in this part of the world to call this a "bridleway".
I crossed the track via a pair of wooden gates, complete with signs warning me that the railway was not a footpath. I briefly imagined a gang of happy wanderers thinking those long bits of iron were just a kooky design feature for their walk, only to be mown down by a tiny steam train. Then I was climbing upwards, onto the hillside.
It wasn't so much a path here, more of a stream. Water poured down the mountainside, then pooled in the flat of the path; when it overflowed, it formed a little rivulet of its own. Each footstep was now a splosh.
Higher and higher up the hill. The railway track below me disappeared into the trees. I was moving at a pace, hoping to reach Muncaster Mill in time for the next train; Miteside was closer but that would have been too easy.
The waterlogged path, initially stony, now gave way to mud. So much mud. Unlike the exposed fields, the frost hadn't taken hold here, so there was just a wide, thick trek through soft soil. I tried to hop round it, find the hardest paths, but then my foot would sink and I'd feel a splatter of brown up the back of my calf. My trousers, barely dried from the previous day's walking, were soon damp again.
It was tiring, and dispiriting, because it slowed me down. I began to doubt I'd make it to Muncaster Mill in time, which raised the spectre of a one and a half hour wait. Worse, the later train would probably be manned by the chirpy guard, and he'd see what a state I'd made of myself in the interim.
I was lucky, though. I'd overestimated how far there was to go, and so the sign for Muncaster Mill took me by surprise. I gingerly descended down the slope, slipping a couple of times but grabbing hold of nearby foliage to steady myself. I didn't so much walk onto the platform as stagger, a mess of arms and legs.
There's still a mill here, the building dating in parts back to the fifteenth century, and it used to house a tea room and a shop. Now it's a private residence, however, with the accompanying stern signs warning you not to wander too close. It's a lovely spot, but it's a shame that there's no longer a tourist attraction here. So few of the Ravenglass & Eskdale's intermediate stations serve a purpose beyond "there's always been a stop here"; most are simply halts in the middle of countryside. There's no real reason to do anything except than ride from one end to the other.
I used the wait for the train productively, scraping my boot at the edge of the platform and trying to kick the worst of the mud away. To the residents of the Mill, I must have looked like a demented Riverdancer.
The train was late. I found this unforgivable. It was the train's first trip of the day; it had come straight out of the depot. And yet it was late? Rude. Finally it appeared, steaming round the corner and blowing its whistle, and I boarded one of the open carriages to ride to the top.
There was still Miteside, but I was cold and it was lunchtime. I took the train all the way up to Dalegarth. The rogue sheep that had plagued the services the day before seemed to have been returned to her farmer; either that or it was mutton stew on the menu at the station cafe.
I'd felt bad about going all the way to the end of the line and not visiting the nearby village of Boot, so this time I turned left out of the station. I say village: Boot has a population in the low double figures, and is merely a few houses strung along a tiny road.
Oh, and a pub.
I'd managed to arrive not long after twelve, so the pub was still fairly empty. I ordered a burger and chips - forgoing the Sunday Roast - and chomped my way through it. Halfway through the barmaid appeared and asked if I was enjoying it, then told me I had someone else's order and I was eating onion rings that didn't belong to me. I ate them anyway, then ordered a second pint and leaned back in my chair.
The truth was, I wasn't really enjoying myself. I'd been anticipating this trip for a while. It had been something to look forward to amidst the winter gloom. A weekend of walking and stations in the beautiful countryside.
It had ended up being a disappointment. The distance between stations was too small for me to get a decent walk going; when I did arrive, it was at a barely there halt. La'al Ratty's appeal was very much train based and, as someone not really interested in engines, it had left me cold. It didn't help that every request for a stop was a little anxiety bomb inside my head.
It hadn't captured me. I should have just visited Dalegarth. The ends of the line were easily the highlights: Boot's pretty pub and the Stanley Ghyll, Ravenglass' beautiful estuary and stunning views. Between had been mostly mud and too little to engage me.
I walked back down towards the station, but ended up in Boot's other pub, trying to drink my way out of my funk. This pub was rougher round the edges, more of a locals' pub than a gastro-destination, with a stuffed fox wearing a hat perched on the roof of the bar. I drank another pint, and mulled the unbelievable: skipping Miteside altogether.
My misery had infected me to the extent that I no longer cared. I didn't care about Miteside, or La'al Ratty any more. I wanted to go home. Not back to the B&B, where I still had another night ahead of me, but real home, back where it was warm and comfortable. I didn't want to ride the tiny trains of the Ravenglass & Eskdale any more. I wanted a trip on a proper, purple, Northern train.
I headed to the platform and decided to leave it to the fates. If the guard asked me where I wanted to stop, I'd say Miteside. If he didn't ask me, I'd go back to Ravenglass and pack my bags. I took up a seat in one of the carriages and waited for the Gods to decide.
The guard appeared - not my mate from that morning, a different one, one who I'd seen on a couple of other trips over the weekend. "Oh, it's you," he said. "Where do you want us to stop this time?"
My fate was sealed. "Miteside, please."
I waved goodbye to the train for the last time. For decades, Miteside Halt had an upturned boat as a shelter; a rough solution to a the Lakes' violent weather. The shelter had been revamped, but they'd kept with the principle, delightfully:
It was a pleasing note to end my station trips; a happy tick through the last one on the line.
Now there was just the walk back to Ravenglass and, more importantly, Ravenglass' pubs.
It was another halt isolated from civilisation in general, so I happily began talking to myself. I had imaginary arguments with people who really deserved it - you'll be unsurprised to hear my forceful rhetoric always won them over - then, as I turned onto a bare farm road, I planned my Oscars speech. It was the Academy Awards that night, and I considered what I would say when - not if - I won both Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor at the same ceremony. (I may be deluded, but I'm not deluded enough to believe I am leading man material).
I was mulling what political cause to gracelessly insert into the proceedings when I reached the main road. Ravenglass was to the left, but I was enjoying the walk, so I decided to take a more circuitous route. I turned right, uphill, then took a shortcut down another bridleway.
More mud. More hidden puddles. By the time I emerged at the other end, I was panting from the effort of leaping around the path like a demented leprechaun. I did another little dance on the tarmac to shake off the worst, then continued on my way.
This road was silent. It lead only to Saltcoats, a hamlet by the sea, and soon I was walking in the centre of the way. Tiny white snowdrops winked from the verge as I passed. Up ahead, a level crossing loomed. The crossing man's house was now a private residence, with the man from the railways exiled to a hut on the far side. I wondered what he did all day, in between moving the gates across the road every hour or so. Does he have other jobs? Is he given loads of paperwork? Or is he just left to read his book, watch the telly, text his mates? If it's the latter, sign me up.
Saltcoats was determinedly unglamorous. One home was pumping something out of the house and into the drains; it had a SOLD board outside, and I wondered if the new owners knew that they'd need a lot of extendable hosing for their new dream life? There was a caravan park, and a farm that smelt like a farm, only more so. But then I reached the estuary.
The low afternoon sun shimmered across the landscape, touching each part of it with magic. I stood and took in the stillness, the unforced elegance of it all.
With the sun behind me, I headed towards Ravenglass. The rays illuminated the tiny houses, perched on the bay. It was like the village at the end of the rainbow.
I crossed the bridge over the Esk, a footpath hunkered under the railway line. That was the ending I needed. That was the proper way to finish off La'al Ratty.