Ask most people for their pick of the most scenic rail journeys in the UK and chances are that the Settle – Carlisle Railway will feature high on this list.
This 72-mile line running through the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines is a story of survival against the odds.
The Beeching Report, with its recommendation to axe a third of the British rail network, failed to kill it off in the 1960s. But in the face of a sustained lack of investment and competition from electrified lines, the Settle – Carlisle Railway was served with closure notices in 1984.
However, rail enthusiasts and local authorities saved the day. A successful campaign to retain the line was launched, stations were painstakingly restored and today the line is a triumph, attracting visitors from across the globe.
From Switzerland’s Glacier Express to travelling around Provence by rail to maxing out my JR Rail Pass in Japan, I love train travel and this journey had been on my radar for some time. Here’s how to do it, what to expect and how you can spend your time in both Settle and Carlisle.
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What to Expect on the Settle – Carlisle Railway
I made this journey from Carlisle to Settle on a damp day in July. In this part of England, come prepared for all types of weather, often in one day!
The starting point is Carlisle’s magnificent Neo-Tudor, red sandstone railway station, designed by William Tite, the architect responsible for rebuilding London’s Stock Exchange in the 19th Century.
Slowly pulling out of the station, the train veers to the right and towards the Eden valley with the distant mountains of the Lake District to the west and the Pennine hills to the east. This mist-shrouded, pastoral landscape is punctuated with dusty-pink sandstone buildings, the River Eden snaking through the pastures like a silver thread.
The first station after Carlisle is Armathwaite, notable for its carefully restored maroon and canary yellow signal box. The stations along the Settle to Carlisle railway line have wonderful names: Lazonby, Langwathby, Appleby, Kirby Stephen. There are 20 stations in total along the line but only 11 of these are open.
At Langwathby, the old station house has been converted into the aptly named Brief Encounter Coffee Shop. If you’ve seen the classic movie of the same name, you’ll get my drift.
Built in the so-called Derby Gothic style, all of the open stations were designed by the architect John Holloway. With their pristine tended gardens, blooming flower pots and lovingly restored buildings, these stations make the Settle to Carlisle railway feel like a heritage line rather than part of the rail network.
At Appleby station, its name spelt out in white stones, the train starts to climb. Jagged-edged dry stone walls criss-cross the landscape, and sandstone gives way to limestone. If you look carefully, you might be able to spot one of the small lime kilns.
After Kirby Stephen station, the Settle to Carlisle train starts to climb in earnest and the landscape becomes increasingly rugged. Sheep graze alongside derelict hay barns and there is the occasional small waterfall.
As the train approaches Garsdale, there is a magnificent view across Wensleydale.
Dent, situated 1150 feet above sea level, is the highest railway station in England and from here there are magnificent views across Dentdale.
Blea Moor Tunnel is the longest of the 14 tunnels on the line. Emerging from the tunnel, there are views of Ribbledale, Whernsdale and Pen-Y-Ghent, not to mention a brief glimpse of the iconic Ribblehead viaduct.
Leaving Ribblehead station, the train starts its gentle descent through the valley, passing through Horton-in-Ribblesdale before reaching Settle.
Grade II-listed Settle railway station is one of the largest on the line. Its signal box has been restored by volunteers from The Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Line and the station is also home to the sole surviving water tower on the line.
What Is the Train Like on the Settle to Carlisle Railway?
Riding the Settle Carlisle railway is all about the views.
Don’t expect a tourist train with table service and panoramic windows. This is a standard, two-carriage Northern rail service with slightly grimy windows and no on-board catering.
How Much Does the Carlisle Settle Railway Cost?
An off-peak single ticket between Settle and Carlisle costs around £23, available online from Northern Railway. If you are able to buy your ticket in advance, this takes the ticket price down to just over £9.
What is the Journey Time Between Settle and Carlisle?
It takes around 100 minutes to travel by train from Settle to Carlisle.
Which is the Best Side of the Train to Sit on the Settle-Carlisle Line?
There’s not a lot in it but, on balance, if you are travelling from Carlisle to Settle, sit on the left-hand side of the train for the best views. However, if you sit on the right-hand side of the train you will get those sensational views over Wensleydale.
Is There a Tourist Train Running Along the Carlisle-Settle Line?
Launched in 2020, a private 90-minute service, especially for tourists, runs along a section of the Settle to Carlisle line from Appleby to Skipton. Return tickets start at £38.
This aptly-named Staycation Express uses reconditioned InterCity 125s which feature reclining seats and large windows. A catering trolley on-board sells refreshments.
Is There a Steam Train on the Settle-Carlisle line?
Like many others, I love the romance of a steam train. Sadly, there is no regular steam-hauled service along the line.
However, in the summer months, specialist operators run steam excursions along the Settle-Carlisle line. But as these trains start their journey in other parts of the country, you won’t be able to board or disembark along the line.
Best Things to Do in Carlisle
Carlisle has a rich historical heritage from its origins as a Roman settlement associated with Hadrian’s Wall and a turbulent past, due to its position on the England-Scotland border.
The city is also on the doorstep of one of the most beautiful regions in England, The Lake District.
1. Visit Carlisle Castle
Looming over the northern end of town, Carlisle Castle has been the scene of carnage over the centuries.
Once the unwelcome home of Mary Queen of Scots and built with stones pilfered from nearby Hadrian’s Wall, it is the city’s main attraction. Founded in the 11th Century around a Celtic and Roman stronghold, the castle was also the site of a notorious eight-month siege during the English Civil War.
2. Visit Carlisle Cathedral
Built from the same red sandstone as Carlisle Castle and founded in 1122, Carlisle’s Gothic cathedral is the second-smallest in England.
During the English Civil War, most of the nave was torn down to bolster the city’s walls and castle. The mesmerising East Window contains stained glass from the 14th century.
3. Visit Tullie House Museum
Housed in a Grade-I listed Jacobean mansion, Carlisle’s flagship museum covers 2000 years of the city’s past. The top-floor Lookout Rotunda offers panoramic views of the city.
4. Take a Day Trip to The Lake District
Carlisle is the urban hub of Cumbria and you can reach the northern lakes within 30 minutes.
5. Take a Day Trip to Hadrian’s’ Wall
Carlisle is also close to the western end of Hadrian’s Wall.
In the 2nd century AD, Emperor Hadrian built this 73-mile wall as a border defence to keep out the ancient British tribes threatening the northern edge of the Roman Empire. Today, you can explore all or parts of the wall’s remnants and its forts which are scattered across the countryside.
Where to Stay in Carlisle
I stayed in the charming Warwick Lodge, a guest house that is a ten-minute walk from Carlisle train station. Caron, the owner, is so hospitable and the breakfast was amazing! Recommended.
Best things to do in Settle
The small, stone-built town of Settle, set alongside the River Ribble, is a perfect base to explore the epic scenery of the Yorkshire Dales. But the town itself has a handful of attractions to tempt you to linger a little longer.
1. A self-guided day walk in the Yorkshire Dales
If you have a day in Settle, this is my top pick of things to do.
This easy-moderate 6-mile circular walk from Settle follows marked footpaths or trails in the countryside or quiet roads in town. Although I recommend taking walking shoes or boots, I managed the walk wearing trainers.
2. Visit The Museum of North Craven Life at The Folly
Settle’s grandest building is now home to the Museum of North Craven Life, a regional museum that displays its considerable wares through a series of temporary exhibitions.
3. Visit Settle Victoria Hall
Opening its doors in 1853, Settle Victoria Hall is the world’s oldest Music Hall.
Today, it’s used for different shows and events and is an important community hub. Tea and cake are served in its Refreshment Gardens.
4. Stop by the Quaker Meeting House
Opposite Settle Victoria Hall is another important meeting place: the Quaker Meeting House.
Where to Stay in Settle
Settle is a small town and the choice of accommodation limited and relatively expensive. I spent two nights at The Golden Lion.
Comfortable rooms, good and plentiful breakfast. Service was kind and friendly.
Why You Should Travel on the Settle to Carlisle Railway
The super scenic Settle to Carlisle railway deserves all of the plaudits that have been thrown at it. It takes you through some of England’s most epic scenery for the price of a cheap meal in London. In my experience, the only UK scenic train rides that can equal it are in Scotland: The Jacobite steam train from Fort William and Mallaig and the West Highlands Line which is served by the iconic Caledonian Sleeper.
Why not travel the line as part of a short break, as I did? I started my 10-day break in Newcastle, taking in the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, before arriving in Carlisle. After leaving Settle, I made my way further down the line to Leeds.
But whichever way you do it, enjoy the ride.