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Through England's mountains to the Scottish border

7 January 2013
Keighley Worth Valley Railway

Great Rail Journeys' Stewart Creasey ventures along the Settle to Carlisle railway line through northern England to the Scottish border.

Across the world, there is a wide array of everyday passenger services running along commuter routes and inter-city main lines, which most passengers use to get 'from A to B'. Whilst many of these are perfectly pleasant, they are of no particular note to the thousands of people that use them. But some of these journeys are - despite being made on ordinary trains - truly exceptional, thanks to the outstanding scenery through which they pass. The route from Leeds to Carlisle along the Settle-Carlisle Line is just one example of these extraordinary journeys.

It's a sunny September afternoon, and our group of 35 are using the route to reach Carlisle and the attractive countryside around Hadrian's Wall. We have already heard a considerable amount about the beauty of the line from Tour Manager Keith Patterson, who has travelled on the line a few times before. So when our decidedly normal-looking train arrives at the platform, we are slightly surprised; the train is perfectly fine - and really comfortable once we've settled in alongside the indifferent, regular passengers - but it just seems very 'everyday' when compared to the incredible views that will soon be available from the windows.

As we leave Leeds we travel through the pretty Aire Valley, passing the "model Victorian village" of Saltaire. From the train we can see the tidy rows of immaculate workers' residences and the imposing Salt's Mill - once the largest mill in the world. Before long we call at Keighley, where we are greeted by the sight of a steam engine coupling up to its heritage train for a run along the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.

Settle station

On leaving Keighley the landscape begins to open out into a greener, more dramatic valley. The classic scenes of the Yorkshire Dales, such as the neat lines of dry stone walls and groups of docile sheep, are soon apparent through the window. As we start to climb into the mountains, everyone has forgotten the apparent ordinariness of the train, and is instead marvelling over the extraordinary panorama.

In fact, it's only when the PA system cuts in, heralding our arrival in Settle, that this journey even slightly resembles any of its ordinary main line counterparts. The guard then comes round to check our tickets as we start off on the official beginning of the Settle-Carlisle Line route. It is incredible to think that some commuters get to see these outstanding views on a daily basis.

We continue our ascent through the graceful, curving dale, the lush green hillsides tinged with a golden glow from the scorching sunshine. Shortly afterwards we reach the Three Peaks of Yorkshire, and our train takes a direct route right between these lofty summits. If the gasps, the smiles and the rush for their cameras are anything to go by, then the rest of the group is clearly as impressed as I am.

But even amongst this array of striking natural landmarks, there are also fantastic manmade structures that are also grabbing people's attention. When we reach the monumental Ribblehead Viaduct, every camera is snapping away at this masterpiece of engineering - truly a sight to behold, carrying the railway across the sprawling valley, 104ft above ground level.

The train then continues across Blea Moor, an exposed area of rugged beauty, and through the mile-and-a-half-long tunnel of the same name. After just over a minute in total darkness we emerge on a mountainside, overlooking the spellbinding Dentdale below, lined with windswept trees and rustic stone farm buildings. I've almost forgotten I'm even on a train, let alone a regular stopping service. But sure enough, as we climb around the mountainside the lady on the PA system cheerfully announces our arrival at Dent station. Situated approximately four miles from the village of the same name, Dent is the highest mainline station in England - apparently built to serve miles of breathtaking but seemingly uninhabited landscape.

Yorkshire Dales

As the train sets off again, the on-board staff walk through the carriage with the refreshments trolley - and again we're reminded that this is an everyday mainline service. The trolley is stacked with the standard drinks and snacks; in fact the souvenirs of the railway line are the only items slightly out of the ordinary - but then, so is the tremendous mountainous landscape outside the window.

Our journey continues into Cumbria, where the wild landscape is just as alluring as it has been along the line so far. The moss-lined Mallerstang Edge is an arresting sight; I'm told it looks even more dramatic in winter, but it's absolutely perfect bathed in its warm summer glow. We then begin to descend into the Eden Valley, and the scenery continues to enthral the group. Whilst our immediate surroundings have flattened out a bit, the pastoral, rural vista is clearly very popular with those on board. The cameras are all still out, only now they're capturing the heather-filled fields and grassy knolls sloping down to the riverside. It is not difficult to see why this valley got its name - it looks like many people's vision of heaven on earth.

After passing through idyllic villages of authentic farming cottages we arrive in Appleby-in-Westmoreland. Generally best known for its horse fair, here a man is riding a horse down the town's main street. It's a view that could be from decades ago, and it jars with our modern day diesel train service passing by overhead.

We continue through Cumbria through the charming countryside of the Eden Valley, with views out to the eastern peaks of the Lake District. I am still struggling to believe with the scenery being arguably England's answer to the Glacier Express, that this is only a standard main line trunk route. This type of train can be seen serving lines all over the UK, but the journey itself is truly one of a kind, ranking as one of the world's best railway journeys.

We arrive in Carlisle's busy terminus station seemingly all too soon, and - having completed this spectacular journey 'from A to B' - the visibly impressed group continues onward for their holiday on England's northern border. Yet also leaving the train is a number of disinterested commuters, who didn't even look up for most of their time on board. Several of these people already have their car keys in hand ready to speed up their homeward journey. For them this journey is an everyday occurrence, and they have little interest in the sights. But the thousands of visitors to the area using this line each year rightly see this normal rail service as anything but ordinary.

Discover the Settle-Carlisle Line for yourself on our Yorkshire & Northumberland tour