Railway to the Lake District – Is This the Best Journey in the UK?

On a picturesque journey to the Lake District, Pete May enjoys views of Morecambe Bay and Carnforth before heading to Kendal and Windermere

For me it’s the best train journey in the UK. London Euston to Oxenholme or Penrith is the gateway to the magnificent Lake District, the finest region of England. The journey to the Lakes takes around three hours. It’s a time to sip a coffee and study my ordnance survey maps and Alfred Wainwright Lakeland guides. Soon I’ll be walking the fells, sitting by a Lakeland tarn or crag hopping to a lofty summit. 

Once the train travels beyond the northern industrial towns of Wigan, Warrington and Preston the scenery changes to a vista of fields where the grass is suddenly bright green because of the higher rainfall. The now bucolic stretch of the Lancaster canal comes into view, followed by the green dome of the Ashton Memorial overlooking Lancaster and the wide meanders of the River Lune. From Lancaster there’s a local train to Barrow and one of the stops is Ulverston, where the Cumbria Way starts and takes the trekker up the delightful Duddon Valley.

As you can see, the scenery is magnificent…

Back on the mainline train the sea soon comes into view as the carriages sweep past Morecambe Bay. The train hugs the contours of the bay, coming close to windswept lonely houses on the shore and trees made lopsided by the wind. The bay has a vast tidal range and a series of lethal quicksands, though it can be walked across with the aid of a guide.

Next come the gently curving platforms of Carnforth station, famous for being where Brief Encounter was filmed. Around the station is also the graveyard of a vast area of decaying rolling stock, a sort of unofficial railway museum. 

Then comes the Lake District proper. Dry stone walls climb up fierce slopes, barns and farms dot the landscape, sheep are in the fields, streams sparkle at the bottom of steep valleys and great rounded mountains climb up to the clouds. 

Oxenholme station is billed as the “gateway to the Lakes”. The station overlooks the town of Kendal, but is in a strangely isolated location. From here a three-carriage local train takes the visitor to Kendal, Burneside, Staveley (a good base for the Kentmere fells) and then Windermere. Windermere station isn’t actually on the shore of the lake of Windermere because in 1847 William Wordsworth and friends objected to a host of tourists disturbing their wanderings. But it’s only a short walk into the pretty town of Windermere and there’s a giant Booth’s supermarket and a fish and chip shop (with proper northern mushy peas) close by, plus regular buses to the tourist hot spots of Ambleside and Grasmere.

lake district

If you’re visiting the northern Lakes then it pays to stay on the train and travel beyond Oxenholme to the next stop of Penrith. The line travels alongside the M6 and offers fine views of the Shap fells. Penrith station has an imposing castle by its entrance, a pleasing ruin of giant red sandstone. From here the visitor can take a bus to the major town of Keswick and sample the peaks of Skiddaw, Blencathra and the Borrowdale fells. 

Once there was a railway line from Penrith to Keswick but in an act of monumental folly it was axed after the Beeching report of 1963. Today it is a lovely cycleway and pedestrian path to Threlkeld, though several bridges are now being rebuilt after the ravages of Storm Desmond. Do check out the old Railway Hotel in Keswick, a magnificent piece of Victorian architecture by the former station.

Another alternative is to explore the coastal regions of Cumbria by continuing beyond Penrith to Carlisle station. From here the line to Barrow travels down the coast and takes in the old industrial towns of Maryport and Whitehaven, built on the profits of mining and sea trade. Whitehaven has grand Georgian houses and a fine harbour and is described by Lakeland resident and writer Hunter Davies as his favourite place in the world.  

This side of Cumbria is cut off from the rest of England by the considerable bulk of the Lakeland fells, but in its grand isolation has become something of a haven for wind power generation. You can view the outlines of white turbines dotted across the sea, as well as numerous turbines inland. There’s also some more radioactive charms at the rusting Sellafield station, which is surprisingly close to the sea, and serves the workers of the Sellafield power station.

The charming Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway

St Bees is the stop where anyone planning to start Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk gets off, and the walk begins on top of towering cliffs by the Atlantic. While Ravenglass station has the fantastic Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. This narrow-gauge railway was originally built in 1873 to take iron ore from Boot to Ravenglass and in the 1960s re-opened as a tourist attraction. 

It’s a tiny open train with a delightful Harry Potter-esque quality to the journey. The slower you travel the more enjoyable it is. Eventually the tiny train reaches Dalegarth station, near Boot at the foot of the fells. Here there are two fine pubs and an ancient wooden mill. One of my favourite memories is walking from Dalegarth station for five miles over the mountains to stay at the superb Wasdale Head Inn close to Wastwater lake and screes, often cited as Britain’s favourite view.

The Lake District isn’t particularly associated with trains, but I’ve been traveling there by rail for 40 years. The trains skim the edges of Cumbria and bring you close enough to get your boots out and move from tracks to treks. Never mind Umbria, us Brits have Cumbria.

Pete May is author of Man About Tarn: How a Londoner Learned to Love the Lake District

What to pack for a trip to the Lake District

lake district: what to pack

Barbour Lifestyle Women’s Jacket Lunan Waterproof Jacket Blue, £134.97,

lake district: what to pack

Karrimor Mens’ Skiddaw Walking Boots Breathable Waterproof, £49.99,

NIKON Travelite EX 8 x 25 mm Binoculars, £99,

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