Introducing Will…

Known affectionately as La’al Ratty meaning ‘little railway’ in olde Cumbrian dialect, The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway has captured the hearts of many over the years and brings so much delight to those that travel on this much loved heritage steam railway.

Behind the scenes are a group of very special people who have the important job of not only driving the steam engines, but also keeping them in tip-top condition.

Recently, we caught up with driver Will who very kindly gave us an insight into what it’s like to work at this hugely popular visitor attraction. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you locally grown, a city escapee?

I was born in Preston and spent most of my life growing up around Chorley. I went away to university in Bristol where I studied microbiology and after graduation went back to find a job. I moved to Ravenglass in 2014 and have been here ever since.

How long have you worked for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway? Did you go straight into the role of a driver?

My first role at the railway was as a volunteer guard in 2008. I continued to guard all the way through university and eventually got my first paid role in Ravenglass booking office in 2013.

It was 2015 when I became a permanent member of staff, first as a diesel driver then a steam driver in December 2015. Having volunteered for a number of years I had grown very attached to the place and knew it was the sort of business I could get my teeth into. I wanted a job that was flexible and wasn’t stuck inside a building all the time doing the same thing every day.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did a railway driver ever cross your mind?

I’ve always wanted to help people. Initially, I wanted to be a paramedic and for a long time I wanted to be a doctor. In all honestly, I never really thought I would be a steam engine driver!

What does a typical day look like?

No day is typical! In my role, I can be in any department from control, to driving, to guarding, assessing, and engineering. Each comes with its own pressures, start times and end times. Typically, we’re all on site by 8.30. Drivers have to be in to light fires and clean brass, while controllers have to prepare the train graph for the next day and all appropriate paperwork for running the railway. Engineers have to do carriage inspections and check all is ok with the engines in the morning. Winter days tend to be over by 5pm but we can be in until gone 7pm in the summer. Every day is different and that’s one of the things I love about the job.

It’s a coveted job that many people of all ages would love to do. You must feel a great sense of pride working for such a special little railway.

Yes. Although it is a very unusual and coveted job, it has the same pressures and challenges as any other, and some days when the rain is hammering down and your coat is back in your locker you can wish to be in a nice warm office!

What does it take to drive these fabulous little steam engines? What training, skills, qualifications are required?

All training is provided on site but there are very few prerequisites. You need to pass a medical and have some interest in railways. Some experience in the railway industry is helpful but is certainly not required. Our drivers have degrees in everything from zoology to history!

How long does it take to prepare the engines for a day on the tracks?

If an engine is ‘cold’ (it hasn’t been used for a few days), we give them longer to warm up so that the boilers aren’t put under too much stress. It can take 3-4 hours to bring them around gently. If they’re out day after day and are warm, it can take around 2 hours. During this time, all of the brass and paintwork is cleaned, and any steelwork is polished and protected. We also check the locomotive is in working order and all pins, springs and clips are in the right place.

From the low lying estuaries to England’s highest mountains, the views are spectacular. Do you ever get bored going up and down the track, day after day?

Like the job itself, the view changes every day with the weather. One day you reach the foot of a mountain with a cloudless sky, the next you arrive into a misty moor with nary a fell in sight.

The steam engines all have fascinating histories, especially River Irt, who was built in 1894 and is the oldest working 15 inch gauge locomotive in the world. Do you have a favourite?

Not that we can say this in the engine shed (because of course the locomotives can hear us talking), but I would be remiss if I did not say that Whillan Beck was my favourite locomotive. Being her regular driver, I am familiar with all of her quirks and foibles. She has a lovely smooth ride and a whistle I can’t help but echo around the valley.

Will and Whillan Beck

As we all know, it rains a lot in the Lake District, often days at a time, and the weather can be very unpredictable. When it’s cold, wet, grey, and the views have disappeared, how do you keep motivated?

We don’t need a clear sky to have a good day. Some of my favourite journeys have actually been in the dark or in the mist – Eskdale can become an ethereal wonderland in the right weather.

The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway is one of the oldest and longest narrow gauge railways in England. What’s your favourite part of the track/favourite view?

My favourite part of the track would be at Rock Point in the winter when the ferns have died back, sweeping round a sharp curve above a steep drop. You can see right down to the River Mite and, if you know where you’re looking, to the old fulling mill.

There are lovely little cafes at both Ravenglass and Dalegarth for Boot Stations. Do you get free cakes and sausage rolls at either end of the line? Any perks of the job?

Nothing is wasted at the R&ER. When things are no longer fit for sale, somebody will always find a space for it. I do try not to take too many unsold pies, otherwise I will become one!

Each year, the railway welcomes over 100,000 passengers. What advice, tips, suggestions, would you give visitors?

Make the most of our online booking system to get the best possible seats. Semi-open coaches are a safe bet, but all die-hard Ratty enthusiasts should be sat in an open coach no matter the weather. Who needs a roof when a stout Macintosh will do!

There are many walking options at either end of the line. Do you have a favourite walk?

Harter Fell is a good day’s walk, with spectacular views of Eskdale, the Scafells, and surrounding areas. For something much easier, a walk to Stanley Ghyll Falls never fails.

Do you have any funny railway stories you can share with us?

Children are always enthralled by the magic of the railway. Recently, while I was turning the engine at Dalegarth, I was sworn to give many ‘woo-woos’ on my way back down the valley. One young lady, however, requested one last whistle before I left. I told her to watch the large crowd that had amassed and see how many jumped at the noise. She did, and so successful was the whistle that one young lady nearly dropped her mobile phone, only just catching it as she launched it into the air!

What makes the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway so special?

Personally, I think it is the combination of fantastic scenery, unique engines, and passionate staff and volunteers that make the Ratty what it is.

The landscape is constantly changing. Which season do you think offers the most dramatic views?

Probably autumn. The colour change of the trees around Miteside and the surrounding fells are beautiful.

What is people’s reaction when you tell them what you do for a living?

Most people are amazed. Some people are very enthusiastic because the Ratty has been such a huge part of their childhoods and the time they have spent with their families.

When the steam engines visit other railways do the drivers go with them?

Usually they do, assuming they are free. When Whillan Beck went down to Romney in 2019 I accompanied it and drove, with their staff acting as pilot-men. We might know our engines, but we cannot drive unaccompanied on another railway, so someone always needs to ride with us.

You probably see lots of wildlife as you travel back and forth. What should visitors look for? Have you seen any rare species?

Visitors should definitely look for red squirrels at the bottom of Mill bank. We sometimes see roe deer in the woods anywhere from Muncaster Mill to Irton Road. The most I’ve seen in a round trip is thirteen! Also, keep your eyes open for heron from Ravenglass to Muncaster Mill, along with oyster catchers, and buzzards anywhere along the line – generally swooping in front of the engine!

All railway drivers need a brake, let off some steam, how do you unwind after a long day on the tracks?

We all like to support the local businesses, most of which happen to be pubs! It’s nice to unwind by going up a fell (or eight) with the dog or making the most of the good weather in the garden.

(Photo credit: Mark Fielding)

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