Holidays Travel

Discover the joys of one of Britain’s best-loved railways – once controversially set for closure

Hellifield station is a gateway to the much-loved Settle-Carlisle railway route (Alamy/PA)
Hellifield station is a gateway to the much-loved Settle-Carlisle railway route (Alamy/PA) Hellifield station is a gateway to the much-loved Settle-Carlisle railway route (Alamy/PA)

Take a right turn off the truck-rumbling A65 trunk road between Yorkshire and the Lake District and you are soon at a very special place.

Hellifield station is a grand Victorian building, its ornate ironwork and glass roof standing over well-trodden platform flagstones.

It’s the gateway station to one of Britain’s best-loved rail links, the 75-mile Settle-Carlisle route through the Pennines, which was saved from closure more than 30 years ago.

Now this glorious story of survival has a new chapter with the arrival of The Yorkshire Sleeper, a delightful on-station apartment for adventure-hungry travellers.

Hellifield railway station
Hellifield railway station Hellifield railway station (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

Hellifield houses a busy café and a museum which pays homage to the area’s railway glory days of yesteryear, and has a new addition with the opening of smart holiday accommodation in converted first-floor station rooms.

The Hellifield operation is run by Gayle and Stuart Dean, who popped in for a cuppa one day and found the café was soon due to close.

Two frantic weeks later and they were in charge of an operation with big potential – loved by locals, travellers and rail enthusiasts alike.

They looked to the past to inspire their future.

From the late 19th century, this small village (population 1,426) and its station became an important part of Britain’s network.

The Midland Railway built the current structure in 1880 and it thrived as an important junction station, where Lancashire lines met those from Yorkshire.

Hellifield had its own loco shed, turntable, and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of people and porters on the platforms.

Through two world wars, trains travelled west into north Lancashire, including Morecambe, and east towards Yorkshire towns and cities such as Skipton, Bradford and Leeds.

And expresses thundered north and south on the third major rail link between England and Scotland, including the Settle-Carlisle section.

Decline came in the 1960s, an era when lines were shut with regularity by the now notorious Dr Richard Beeching, British Rail chairman.

Soon it was the Settle-Carlisle line, and its famous Thames-Clyde Express, to fall under the spotlight. Hellfield and the 10 stations on the way to Carlisle were threatened.

Then, 34 years ago, a secret nighttime mission started at London’s Euston station 240 miles away. A senior politician clambered on board the night sleeper and was soon heading along the West Coast main line.

Our important passenger alighted at Carlisle Citadel station – ready for a second rail journey that morning. He joined a southbound service on the Settle-Carlisle railway, including a stop at Hellifield at the southern gateway.

The traveller was Michael Portillo, Transport Minister, who soon realised the secrecy of his mission had been compromised.

Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo Michael Portillo is a well-known railway enthusiast (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

This was a fact-finding journey on a line travelling through some of England’s finest scenery, but as it began he saw press photographers and placard-waving campaigners on the platforms.

At stations such as Appleby, Dent, Ribblehead and Settle he was impressed by the dedication of those fighting to save the line and its iconic 24-arch Ribblehead viaduct.

Enthusiasts and the hill communities of Cumbria and Yorkshire were showing their mettle for the iron road they had come to love so much.

Later, in the House of Commons, cheers rang out as Portillo, quoting cheaper upkeep costs than had been feared, lifted the threat. The news was received joyfully around the country.

The Flying Scotsman passes over the Ribblehead viaduct
The Flying Scotsman passes over the Ribblehead viaduct The Flying Scotsman passes over the Ribblehead viaduct (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

He later described his reprieve as the greatest achievement of his political career.

Today hundreds of thousands of tourists, many of them ramblers and cyclists, use the line and its pocket-sized stations every year.

Pennine communities are connected and freight trains travel the route daily, carrying stone and timber. Hourly Northern Rail trains go north and south.

The link has become a vital alternative when bad weather hits the two principle routes or when engineering work takes place on them.

Steam locos and their carriages add an extra layer of interest when they stop at Hellifield to top up their water tanks.

Today Stuart and Gayle, aided by station dog Benji and supported by Carnforth-based heritage group West Coast Railway Company, run the café and the new accommodation, having named it The Yorkshire Sleeper.

This smart, self-catering apartment means travellers can sleep above the rails running either side – and travel to many destinations, including along the Settle-Carlisle line.

It’s a dream come true for rail buffs – and the innovation has provided another reason to smile for Portillo, now president of the Friends of Settle-Carlisle Railway.

From despair in the early 1980s to joy and success onwards from 1989, this is a great British railway story to match any of those featured in the popular TV series Portillo went on to host.

How to plan your trip

The Yorkshire Sleeper sleeps four people – 2023 prices start at £695 a week with short breaks possible off-peak. Visit shed24h.co.uk.