THE CARRIAGES are shabby and have seen better days – and the service is sparse, with just five trains each way over its 75-mile length. Some of the stations have primitive facilities, with barely enough shelter to shield passengers from the cutting winds that blast down from the Pennine hills.
Yet I’m thinking this summer morning that there can hardly be a cheerier railway on the network. My packed 10.49 train from Lancaster to Leeds is positively buzzing , with the chatter of a party of children returning from a school trip in the Lake District and the gossip of shoppers off to market day in Skipton to buy local delicacies such as home-made parkin and Yorkshire curd tart.
The upbeat mood is set off to perfection when the Pennine sun bursts from the clouds as we pass Ingleborough – one of the many glorious sights along this most scenic of Britain’s railways. And here is another group of passengers who depend on the line daily – a group of perspiring cyclists who edge their expensive steeds delicately onto the train.
There is nobody more euphoric than my travelling companion Gerald Townson, general secretary of the local rail users group, who has just been informed officially that the service is going to improve for the first time since 1989. “You could have scraped me off the ceiling when I heard the news,” he tells me in his delightfully undiluted Yorkshire accent.
In my latest book The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways, I write about the sad loss of some of our loveliest railways. Thank goodness this one was spared the axe.
For around a century, the Morecambe-Leeds route was a busy railway full of expresses and stopping trains. In its glory days, the farming communities in the spectacular countryside along the line were within easy reach of the great cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and mill workers from the West Riding poured in their hundreds of thousands to resorts on the Lancashire coast.
Late trains on Saturday night brought revellers home from dances in Morecambe’s Central Pier ballroom and in summer Irish labourers crossed to Heysham and travelled for “hiring day” in the great sheep and cattle market at Bentham. Hikers headed for Bell Busk station, the gateway to Malhamdale, and the more energetic to Clapham, where they could hoof it up Ingleborough. Each tiny station had its own goods yard and cattle dock – all gone now, as have nearly all the little wooden signal boxes. So it is a marvel that the line is still with us – yet its charms are the most underrated in Britain.
Now the five trains a day each way between Morecambe and Leeds will increase to seven, with an extra one on Sundays. It may not seem much on the scale of the 20,000 trains that run on the national network each weekday. But for this group of remote farming towns and villages strung across the hills between north Lancashire and the Yorkshire Dales, it is a lifeline – and an affirmation of a future that has seemed precarious ever since the local railways were devastated by Beeching in the 1960s.
It also is a triumph for a group of local folk who jealously guard their railway and cherish it – arguably more than any of the various official operators who have been in charge over the years. This means not just lobbying for a better train service, but rolling up their sleeves to make the line more attractive – painting the stations, designing the posters, planting station gardens, and generally banging the drum for the line in the local area and beyond.
Luckily, there’s backing from the pro-rail Lancashire County Council which supports the line through what’s known as a community rail partnership. But in essence, keeping the railway flourishing is a matter of hard graft from local folk, including the local postmaster, the former parish vicar, a group of retired teachers – and anyone else who wants to muck in. None of the stations along the line is staffed, but you wouldn’t know it – so well groomed and cared for is their appearance.
At the heart of the line is Bentham station, which helps keep this delightful market town in the heart of sheep country on the national transport map, despite the paucity of its train service. Luckily the main station building didn’t get razed or sold off in the economies that have afflicted the line over the years, and the locals have achieved things that the railway operators would never have bothered about – or afforded.
The platform is adorned with flowers in tubs – a riot of petunias and geraniums – as well as a specially commissioned series of paintings and maps reflecting the local topography and activities. The station garden is immaculate tended by local volunteers – with planting sponsored by businesses in the town, keen to see their station flourish. It’s all protected by the CCTV system installed by Townson and volunteers. “It cost £2,000 and took just 14 hours to install, says Gerald “If we’d waited for the rail industry to install it, it would probably have cost a fortune.” Now Gerald is nominated for an award at the prestigious 2015 ceremony of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships http://www.acorp.uk.com/Community Rail Awards Main 2010.html
The labour of love in turning what was once a forlorn and semi-derelict station into a community focus for the town has paid off handsomely in that it was recently deemed fit for the cermonial arrival by train of the town’s Carnival Queen.
The local newsletter reported the event under the headline “QUEEN ARRIVES AT BENTHAM STATION” It continued: “The Queen was greeted by the mayor and crowds cheered and applauded her arrival from the platforms and bridge. The Friends of Bentham Station pop-up café appeared in the station building and on the sunny but breezy platform – and patrons were able to enjoy cakes made by the Friends, served on Hyacinth-Bucket quality paper plates and a variety of drinks befitting any such festive occasion.”
But not everything is perfect. At the book-lined home of Jack Warbrick, the membership secretary of the Lancaster and Skipton Rail Users’ Group and a former English master at the local grammar school, I join some of the committee as they shoot the breeze on the key issues affecting the town and its railway. There’s much to discuss over strong Yorkshire tea and delicious scones with jam, made by Jack’s wife Pam.
Many of the issues are common to other rural communities around Britain. One of Bentham’s banks has just closed, leaving the town with a solitary branch. Will this go, too? The choice of shops in the high street is diminishing, forcing people to travel further for their weekly essentials. David Alder, the postmaster and one of the leading lights supporting the railway, talks about some of the difficulties running a rural post office. He has just got the news that the Post Office will no longer permit the sale of Premium Bonds over the counter.
Increasingly locals are having to travel further for specialist medical care – and youngsters need to be able to get to college in Lancaster or West Yorkshire, – otherwise Bentham will become depopulated of the brightest of the next generation. All this makes the local railway an ever more essential lifeline. Would Bentham’s last big factory – making fire brigade hoses – have such an international profile in a town without a station?
But the meeting ends on a playful note, with David suggesting a promotion in the form of an acronym using the first letters of The Bentham Line, which would run: “Through Homely Encampments, Beautiful, Entrancing Natural Terrain, Hills and Moorland. Life, Industry, Nature Everywhere.” It merits a round of applause.
As I wait for my train back to Lancaster, several of the committee turn out to wave goodbye, pressing into my hand their latest enticement to use the railway – a set of specially commissioned pamphlets featuring local walks in the enchanting countryside bordering the railway.
Soon, with the new train service, we visitors will be able to spend ever longer days sampling the delights of the Bentham line. And for locals, with a new last train back from Leeds at 7.30pm, that prospect of a return to the days when you could go out for a night at the cinema in Leeds or jitterbugging in Morecambe edges just that little bit closer.
Michael Williams is author of On the Slow Train and On the Slow Train Again, published by Arrow Books. (The latter includes a chapter dedicated to the Bentham Line.) His newest book The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britian’s Railways is published by Preface, a division of Penguin Random House.