During the Victorian era, the market town of Kirkby Stephen, in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, became a thriving railway hub, albeit on a modest scale. In 1861, an ambitious line opened across the Pennines, connecting the Durham coalfields with new iron-ore smelting plants at Barrow and ferrying holidaymakers to bustling west coast resorts. The Stainmore Line skirted the town to the east, passing over two grand stone viaducts at Merrygill and Podgill, to reach Kirkby Stephen East station. From here lines branched west to the coast and north towards Appleby-in-Westmorland.
A From new beginnings
But arriving into the town’s second station, a mile further south on the Settle to Carlisle Railway, is the most fitting way to enjoy a railway-themed day in Kirkby Stephen. This famous line passes through some stunning Dales scenery. Today, a pleasant footpath bridges the gap through open fields and brings you gently down to the southern extremity of the town. Here, the old Kirkby Stephen East station houses a heritage centre, buffet and shop (open Saturdays and Sundays, admission free).
B Impressive bridges and viaducts
A short walk away, the new Millennium
Footbridge, with its exhilarating view to the swirling River Eden below, brings you on to the disused trackbed of the Stainmore Railway. The entire section around Kirkby Stephen has been transformed into a walking- and cycle-path. For much of the way the track is overarched by trees; you may well spot a red squirrel scampering from branch to branch. Crossing the Podgill Viaduct, a magnificent view opens out, with the town on your left and the open fells to your right. A side path drops to a viewing point below the arches; you can clearly see how the bridge was doubled in width when a second track was added.
Along the way, two platelayers huts have been restored, with photographs and information panels. The pathway ends at Merrygill Viaduct and a brief walk through the pretty village of Hartley brings you to Kirkby Stephen town centre, which has plenty of cafés and pubs to stop for a refuelling session. Stroll back along the river for an alternative view from below the old railway, and of the bridges that span the valleys.
C Viaduct heaven
For those with more time to spare, the site of Belah Crossing beckons. After the summit at Stainmore, the highest in England, the railway passed high above the River Belah on a lattice iron bridge, reminiscent of those built in the American west. The structure was one of the engineer Thomas Bouch’s greatest achievements. Bouch, sadly, is better known for his Tay Bridge at Dundee, which collapsed in 1879. The Belah Viaduct, on the other hand, stood for more than 100 years, until it was dismantled in the 1960s and sold for scrap. You can visit the massive stone abutments at either end on footpaths from the village of Barras.
Three miles west of Kirkby Stephen, the railway track runs over another magnificent viaduct at Smardale Gill. A footpath follows the old line through a beautiful nature reserve managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust. Just beyond the viaduct a limestone quarry and two huge lime kilns offer a reminder of yet another industry supported by the network of 19th century railways.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take Junction 38 from the M6, and follow the A685 towards Kirkby Stephen. Trains run from Leeds and Carlisle stations.
FIND OUT MORE
The Settle to Carlisle railway
The Fat Lamb
Crossbank, Kirkby Stephen CA17 4LL
Fresh, local food lovingly prepared on site by the chefs.
The Old Croft House
Market Street, Kirkby Stephen CA17 4QW
Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse with real Cumbrian breakfasts.
Kirkby Stephen East Heritage Centre
South Road, Kirkby Stephen CA17 4LA
A small museum, buffet car and shop, run by volunteers.