Our coastline looks even lovelier when views from the comfort of a railway carriage. Martin Pilkington buys a return ticket I’m on the platform at Arnside station about to take what research suggests may be the most fascinating little train trip in the north, starting on the edge of Westmorland and heading into Lancashire north of the sands. Miscalculation gives me half an hour to spare before my train arrives but on a startlingly bright autumn day that’s a pleasure, not a problem. I cross the blue and white footbridge straight from a Hornby catalogue and pass the station buildings to look over Milnthorpe Sands. A heron is fishing nearby. Morning haze over the landscape clears to reveal Crag Wood, Foulshaw and Whitbarrow beyond. My reverie is cut by the realisation that for some reason the air smells of milk chocolate. In a nearly empty train my view left and right is unrestricted other than briefly by the conductor who takes my fare. I love the smell of trains; never having suffered the commute for me it brings back student travel. Just 200 yards into the journey comes a highlight, the Kent Viaduct connecting Arnside huddled into its hill with the farther shore. The wheels clank an Awdry or Auden rhythm: we’re getting across, we’re getting across. With the waters high either side there’s a strange feeling of putting to sea in a train, running on a level with boats moored near the tiny stone pier. Back on land the line curves tight to the shore. Heysham is visible in the distance, with barely a ripple in between as Morecambe Bay opens up. There can be no finer way to take in the sweep of its southern side than in the five minutes it takes to reach Holme Island on the approach to the Lancashire village of Grange-over-Sands. Genteel Grange is forever associated with my parents in their youth – they honeymooned there nearly 60 years ago. Much of it has probably changed little from those days, and none the worse for that. The elegant station where they arrived as newlyweds is surely one such â constant, its Victorian ironwork neatly painted cream and red, potted conifers unashamedly indifferent to horticultural fashion punctuate the platforms. Behind the station, salt-meadows form a wide border of vibrant green. Onwards, beside the promenade and past the long-abandoned lido to the smaller station at Kents Bank with its Beach Hut Gallery, the rails edging the sea in a route no road can match. Now the line turns sharply inland towards Flookburgh, to run past Friesian cows and the plastic-wrapped hay-bales that will feed them later in the year, giving a glimpse of St John’s Church before the halt at Cark, book-ended with little stone bridges across the line. The stretch along Capeshead Embankment has fir forests to the right, marshes and Cartmel Sands to the left, and then we put to sea again across the Leven Viaduct, that thought emphasised by white horses, more foals really, along the breakwater. Further down the carriage a fellow traveller is oblivious to all this, constantly texting. Approaching Ulverston, Sir John Barrow’s Monument is silhouetted white against a dark blue sky, not a cloud to spoil the effect. Half the passengers alight at the station, the first where any litter has been visible, though that untidiness is mitigated by the impressive Clocktower. On the Barrow side of Ulverston, neat hedge-lined fields appear and disappear as we race through a series of steep-sides cuttings, white cottages and farmhouses dotting a landscape now more rolling than hilly. Sheep bask in unseasonable sunshine. What must be St Michael’s in Pennington catches the eye for a moment before another cutting intervenes. Dalton’s station has a touch of Arts and Crafts, a contrast to its castle, the upper part of which we spy while traversing the town. The second great sight of the journey is in view to our right for just seconds between a cutting and a tunnel that will take us to the edge of Barrow: the red stones of Furness Abbey, currently it appears undergoing major remedial work, some walls covered in steelwork. The rails pass within a ballast-stone’s throw of the great building. Were it not located so peripherally, Furness would be as famous as Fountains. Scenically there is little to commend the last very urban stretch into Barrow other than the cranes at Cavendish Dock, Piel Island sadly hidden from view. But the rail companies have at least made an effort with the station, giant murals depicting the town’s heritage decorating its lobby. With 25 minutes to wile away before my return journey begins I sip a coffee in the station buffet. As the train pulls in early I quickly buy supplies there: the Krays would have blushed to extort what it charges for Wine Gums. Like a football match my trip lasts roughly 45 minutes each way, the day-return ticket costing £8.10. It’s still a bargain: the views across Morecambe Bay indeed are beyond price.
Arnside: A lovely coastal village with pubs, cafes art galleries and many scenic walks
Kents Bank: Historic point where travelled made the hazardous journey across the bay
Grange-over-Sands: Stately Edwardian seaside town with specialist shops
Flookburgh: Former fishing community with a 1686 manor house and the Romanesque St John the Baptist’s church.
Dalton in Furness: Much underrated market town with a small castle in its centre
Furness Abbey: Cistercian abbey built in the 13th century and recently restored