There was a time when I knew the ins and outs of the Highland Lines pretty well. If, for example, you base yourself at Fort William, you can take the Mallaig line and alighting at Glenfinnan construct a cross-country stravaig through Glen Dessary to Inverie. En route and by staying at bothies such as Sourlies and Glenpean you are within relatively easy reach of half a dozen or so Munros, at least as many Corbetts and even the odd Graham or two. The Kyle/Inverness line offers similar possibilities. Based somewhere around Achnashellach, it is easy enough to shuttle up and down the line, picking off not only the low-lying fruit such as Sgorr Ruadh and Fionn Bheinn but also the more remote hills surrounding Loch Morar. As a bonus, when matters get too tiring, you can always find solace in the various recuperative facilities that conveniently adjoin the various stations.
England ‘s rail system, despite its greater coverage does not offer the same possibilities or, rather, possibilities on a similar scale. The line from Settle to Carlisle opens the door, particularly when it passes through the Yorkshire Dales and the line running from Shrewsbury to Gloucester has its moments if you alight at Church Stretton. There are, of course, other opportunities – a tramp from one of the Pennine lines that snake onto the moors to another similarly placed will certainly get your boots muddy but nowhere south of Hadrian’s wall will you find the scope and splendour offered by Scotrail. There is, however a miniature version that might appeal and that is a combination of Muncaster Fell and the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway.
The original incarnation of Owd Ratty, as it was affectionately called, was in 1875 first to facilitate the transportation of iron ore to the coast then later slabs of granite from the nearby quarries. Its reincarnation, La’al Ratty, produced the present narrow-gauge line that shuttles tourists along the seven-mile valley from Ravenglass to Dalegarth. It is this shuttle that allows us to undertake the expedition described.
Although built on a scale that reflects the line that runs below it, Muncaster Fell is one of the many fine hills that lie beyond the honeypots served by Keswick and Ambleside. The idea of the walk is to gain the ridge, follow it from one high point to another before descending to catch the train back to your starting point. All you have to decide is which way round you want to do it. West/East seems the preferred option. You have the prevailing weather at your back and as the Marilyn is your first port of call, you can, if climatic conditions dictate, do a quick up and down for your tick. But the real advantage of this direction of travel is the unfolding views of Upper Eskdale and the Scafell range. From here you get the sense of what the Lakes must have been like before the arrival of motorways and “outdoor adventure”.
Most people will want to start at the car park on the A595 so must continue on the road towards Muncaster Castle and at the sharp right hand bend continue straight ahead up Fell Lane. This turns into a track that passes the delightful Muncaster Tarn before breaking out of the trees onto the moor above. The summit, Hooker Crag is a little off the main path that traverses the ridge but is easily reached before crossing the intermediate bumps of Ross’s Camp, complete with dining table, and Silver Knott. From the latter it is a quick and easy descent to the bridleway leading to Irton Station, where La’al Ratty can be boarded for the return journey. The alternative is to follow footpaths that will take you further up the valley to the station at The Green where refreshment may be found if you have time on your hands. As you travel coastwards you can appreciate the day’s effort at your leisure, before alighting at Muncaster Mill to follow the wooded right of way that lands you back on the A595. Those with a conscience can, of course, leave the car at home and take the public rail service to Ravenglass and start the proceedings from there. For some a much better idea, as you will be free to indulge in your refreshment of choice.