WALKING uphill with very little visibility – our compass-bearing leader defying the low clouds intent on getting us lost – we suddenly emerged at a remote rail crossing where a small gaggle of men with cameras were staring patiently into the “fog”.
We were of no interest at all to the waiting pack who, glancing occasionally at their watches, were silently focussed on the rail line, gradually being revealed for several hundred yards as the cloud lifted.
Fifteen minutes later, as we stood bedraggled in our “rain-proof” gear, we heard the shriek of a train whistle and into vision came a mighty steam engine pulling carriages packed with enthusiasts.
It was the first of the summer’s weekly steam train excursions on the famous Settle to Carlisle railway, 72 miles of spectacular engineering across hillsides, through tunnels and over viaducts.
The railway, created in the 1870s, provided the background to my four-night Ramblers Countrywide Holidays break in the dales of North Yorkshire.
On three consecutive days our 15-strong group caught the 9.50 am train – unfortunately always a diesel – from Settle Station, heading up the line for a short journey prior to disembarkation and the start of a ten-mile walk.
Experienced leader, Peter Beaumont, took us over hills and down valleys to explore a countryside which, apart from brief and very welcome sunny interludes, was inexorably clothed in cloud and sometimes rain. June in the Dales! Yet despite the typically “atmospheric” British weather, the hills were alive with the sound of birds, including curlews and skylarks, and with legions of wild flowers – ladies smock, king cups and all kinds of grasses and mosses.
Home base for this “railway walks” holiday was the Falcon Manor Hotel, grand in name only but offering good basic and spotlessly clean “character” accommodation and excellent food together with friendly and very efficient service.
The holiday was described as D/D+ in the Ramblers Countrywide Holidays rating system and this proved very accurate. There were a few challenging sections – up or down fairly steep slopes with soft moorland or marsh underfoot – but most of the routes were on good paths and well-trodden tracks.
On two days the walks ended at the pub near the famous Ribblehead Viaduct, one of Europe’s finest and spectacular feats of 19th century railway engineering.
On two evenings some members of the group went into the town to enjoy jazz sessions and on the other night a group of us made the short journey to a neighbouring village to take part in folk singing.
The walking group comprised people from all parts of England and, excuse the pun, from all walks of life, from retired and semi-retired people such as myself to a couple of “youngsters” in their 30s or 40s. All the walkers were extremely fit and well able to cope with the geography.