Kirkby your enthusiasm

*blows dust off blog*

*wipes away cobwebs*

Oh, hello. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.

When last we met, I had been merrily wandering about the Berlin U-Bahn. When I stood under the sign at Bahnhof Nollendorfplatz in September 2014, I had no idea that would be the last station I would “do” for nearly seven years.

So what happened?

First, the Open University degree that I had been studying moved on to level 2 courses and the difficulty ratcheted up a notch. My free time diminished significantly, and something had to give. It was a choice between reducing blogging activity, or never going out and seeing friends again. To the disappointment of my friends, I chose the former. This is the main reason that I decided to close down my other blog in late 2015.

I had never planned to give up the Station Master blog entirely. But then I moved into an apartment of my own and the spare cash that had been sloshing around my account for things like trips to the opposite end of the country, suddenly started having to go towards annoying things like rent and electricity bills.

In the interim, my enthusiasm for blogging largely evaporated, and even though I launched a new blog in August 2017, my previous form never really returned.

But: I’m back! For a couple of posts at least. I can’t guarantee that there will be regular posting here again, but I do have a couple of posts lined up, and I hope you find them an entertaining little diversion.

Before I get on to the main event, a catch-up seems to be in order. It has been nearly seven years since I last posted. The world of railways has moved on, so let’s look at what happened to some of the stations I previously visited:-

Oh, and then in 2020, a massive global pandemic upended everyone’s lives and resulted in drastic changes to the world and society. For much of the year, travel was simply not possible. Even when things started opening up again, people were slow to return to the rails.

During that third long lockdown in early 2021, I spent a lot of time thinking about where I would like to go once the situation was better. My hopes of going abroad in the summer (to Copenhagen for World Pride, or Berlin again) quickly faded as Europe struggled with the pandemic. I started looking at ideas closer to home.

Then I remembered reading my friend Scott’s account of his visit to Kirkby Stephen, when he stayed in the old station building which has been converted into a holiday home. I re-read his old blog, and a couple of sentences sealed the deal for me.

“It was Monday evening and the sun was casting a final rose pink glow over the hills. I wandered out onto the platform in my socks with a mug of tea in my hand just to take it all in.”

I didn’t need any more convincing. A quick check of the Settle & Carlisle Railway Trust’s website revealed that yes, the Booking Office Cottage was available for a weekend in late May. A few clicks later, and it was all booked.

Northern class 158 train in a platform at Leeds. A couple of intending passengers stand on the platform waiting. Information display indicates this is the 1318 to Carlisle

And so I found myself at Leeds on the afternoon of Friday 21st May, struggling under the weight of a backpack that had slightly too much stuff in it, waiting for the train crew of the 1318 to Carlisle to show up and unlock the train doors.

I was pleased to reacquaint myself with the Settle and Carlisle line. It never fails to amaze me every time I travel on it, with its breathtaking scenery and quaint stations, many of which seem to be in the middle of nowhere. One of the engineering marvels of the 19th century, the line’s fortunes faltered in the middle of the 20th century as British Rail tried to run it down, but fortunately wiser heads prevailed and the line is now busy once again, a magnet for tourists, an important freight route, and still a useful connection for locals.

Although I have travelled along the line multiple times, this would be my first time actually alighting at any of the intermediate stops. I was looking forward to spending some time in the area, and seeing places that you can’t fully appreciate when trundling past at 50mph.

The train seemed to be quite lightly loaded, so I plonked myself down in a table seat with a good window view, and stretched myself out. Then, minutes before we were due to depart, the carriage filled up with groups carrying lots of luggage. Some of them gave me dirty looks as they passed, having to settle for an airline seat. Oh dear.

Northern Trains get a bad reputation in many parts, so I was pleased that the train was clean and had been refurbished, with USB charging sockets – a godsend for me, as my increasingly elderly iPhone SE lasts only a few hours before the battery drains.

For the first thirty minutes, we chugged through the Leeds commuter belt, a noisy diesel amidst the whisper quiet Aire Valley electrics. After Skipton the landscape changed and we emerged into open countryside. Mile after mile of beautifully bleak landscapes was interrupted occasionally by a cluster of houses indicating a settlement and – usually – a station. We paused briefly at Ribblehead station before rumbling over the majestic viaduct (to which we will return later). The engines worked harder as the train climbed towards Dent, the highest National Rail station in England.

The weather wasn’t perfect, alas, and streaks of rain obscured the window views for some of the journey.

Station nameboard at Settle, seen through a train window partially obscured by raindrops.

A trolley service joined the train at Settle. Northern Trains does not usually go in for such luxuries, but here the service is provided by the Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company, who work to market the line, manage the Dales Railcard scheme and provide the ticket offices at Settle and Appleby stations. All proceeds from these sales activities go back towards the line, so I felt rather guilty at turning down the offer of a cup of coffee, having brought my own food and drink with me. Sorry!

Banner attached to fence at Kirkby Stephen station. "You can stay here! Self-catering at Kirkby Stephen station" with a photo of a steam train crossing a viaduct.

The cheery voice of the automatic announcer confirmed that we were arriving at Kirkby Stephen. Alighting at the station, I lingered on the platform for a couple of minutes to allow the train to depart, and get a proper look at my home for the weekend on the opposite (Leeds-bound) platform.

Externally the buildings are immaculate, a credit to the Settle & Carlisle Railway Trust who maintain the holiday cottage. The station is in the colours of the old Midland Railway, and with old style lamps (sensitively updated with LED bulbs) and semaphore signals controlling the trains, it is a real time capsule.

Kirkby Stephen station buildings

The modern touch-screen ticket machine and LED customer information display seemed almost out of place, but it must be remembered that this is a working railway station, not a museum, and 21st century facilities must be provided too.

One thing Kirkby Stephen station does not have is a proper totem sign at the entrance. There is a big brown tourist sign on the main road, pointing to the “Settle & Carlisle Railway”, but it doesn’t actually show the name of the station. I had to make do with a platform sign.

Robert standing in front of platform sign at Kirkby Stephen

The eagle-eyed among you will probably have realised by now that the blog’s original remit, to visit the UK’s “Parliamentary” stations, has been stretched. Kirkby Stephen is not a rarely used or limited service station. Quite the opposite, in fact – it is a thriving station on a busy line. But I think it is a special enough place that it deserves highlighting here. Also, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I like with it, so there.

Kirkby Stephen station is some distance from the town itself. It’s about a mile and a half to the town centre, a leisurely 30-minute stroll. The walk is along a busy road with no pavement, but luckily there is also a footpath which emerges from the back of the station and crosses adjacent farmland. Pedestrians and cyclists are advised to use this and avoid the risk of getting mown down by a Land Rover.

Apparently there was a competition to name the walk to the station. This was the winning entry, and I would be fascinated to see the runners-up.

Sign fixed to a gate post: "Station Walk. Named by Joss Warren, Kodi Elliot"

Returning to the cottage, and the entrance to it is actually on the platform itself. This again produced unreasonable waves of excitement in me – the sheer notion of having a special door just for me in a railway station was worth the price of admission all by itself. I eagerly unlocked the door and stepped inside.

Red door entrance to Booking Office Cottage from the platform at Kirkby Stephen station

The central heating had been left on, and it instantly felt cosy. The fridge had been stocked with milk, and there was a supply of tea and coffee in the kitchen. The living room had a coal fire, carefully prepared with coal and kindling already in place. The dining table was positioned to give a view out onto the platform. Upstairs, two comfortable bedrooms and a bathroom were provided.

I made myself a cup of tea. I did not follow Scott’s footsteps by stepping out onto the platform in socked feet, but instead slumped into one of the comfy armchairs in the living room. I could happily have parked myself here and not moved out of the cottage for the entire weekend.

First though, I have to do my “check everything is working routine”. Wifi? Check. Kettle? Check. Toilet? Check. While I was pottering about, a Leeds-bound train arrived and discharged a stream of passengers onto the platform. They walked past the living room window and then around the back of the station, passing the kitchen as they left through the car park. They had a clear view into the house, and I made a mental note to keep my trousers on at all times while the curtains were open.

The cottage website advised that ASDA would deliver here, and I had duly ordered a pile of food to arrive that evening. The supermarket driver was bemused to be delivering a crate full of shopping to a railway station, but when I showed him around, he was just as enchanted by the cottage as I was.

The shopping packed away, I pulled out my phone and checked the essential trainspotter site, RealTimeTrains. It told me that a freight train was due – a regular working from Clitheroe to Carlisle, and I stepped back out onto the platform to watch it pass. I couldn’t stifle my feeling of sheer glee.

I contented myself with pottering around the cottage for the rest of the evening. There was a collection of books and DVDs provided, lest the thrill of passing trains not be satisfying enough. The last train went, and at 10pm the platform lights switched off. I locked the front door, closed all the curtains and sealed myself off from the outside world, listening to rain beating down against the skylight in the bedroom. I was in heaven.

Cottage living room in the evening. A roaring fire in the fireplace. TV is showing the Eurovision song contest. On the table is a bottle of wine with a glass next to it, and a bag of Doritos with dip.

The next night was the Eurovision grand final, and I watched it in possibly the best surroundings possible without actually going to Rotterdam itself. I lit the fire, even though it wasn’t really cold enough to need it, and settled down with a glass of wine. A feeling washed over me, one that I hadn’t experienced for a long time. I started to relax. After the stresses and strains of the previous year, it was exactly what I needed.

Getting up during one of the slower songs to replenish my snack supply, I noticed the view from the kitchen window. The hills were bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun, and I started to understand why the local council is called Eden.

View of the countryside from the rear of Kirkby Stephen station. The hills are bathed in a golden glow from the setting sun. The station's "way out" sign is visible in the bottom-left corner.

Booking Office Cottage is one of several properties available for rent by the Settle and Carlisle Railway Trust. For more details visit https://settlecarlisletrust.org.uk/stay-at-a-station/

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