The area around Kirkby Stephen offers some fine walks along old railway lines, with some truly impressive viaducts to cross, reflecting the fact that the town was something of a transport hub in the Victorian era. Kirkby Stephen sat at the centre of an ambitious line that crossed the Pennines, connecting the coal fields of Durham with industry on the west coast. Many holiday makers also passed through on their way to and from the Lancashire seaside resorts.
The disused trackbed of the Stainmore Railway that skirts Kirkby Stephen and has two magnificent stone viaducts at Merrygill and Podgill, has been transformed into a walking and cycle path by the Northern Viaduct Trust. You can join the route from Stenkrith, where there is a car park and the new Millennium footbridge over the River Eden swirling below, or at the village of Hartley, itself easily reached by footpath from Kirkby Stephen. The path is accessible by wheelchair.
Along the pathway two of the platelayers huts have been restored, with photographs and information panels telling the fascinating story of the line, which once went over the highest pass on an English railway.
You can find out more about the history of the line and look at old locomotives and rolling stock at the old Kirkby Stephen East station, at the southern tip of the town, which houses a heritage centre, buffet and shop (open Saturdays and Sundays, admission free). At Podgill Viaduct a short path takes you down to a viewing area, allowing you to see the viaduct from below (you can see how it was doubled in width to take an extra track).
It is possible to walk another section of this line on a permitted path through land managed by the John Strutt Foundation. This walk is the subject of a booklet published by Kirkby Stephen & District Walkers are Welcome, available from the Visitor Centre and elsewhere.
One of the lines branching out from Kirkby Stephen East went towards the west coast. Three miles west of Kirkby Stephen this track runs over another great viaduct at Smardale Gill, also rescued by the Northern Viaduct Trust. A footpath follows the old trackbed through a stunning nature reserve managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust. Just beyond the viaduct you can see a limestone quarry and two huge lime kilns. The valley has been settled from prehistoric times. There is a free car park in Beck Lane (NY741082).
Railway enthusiasts may want to make a special visit to the site of the famous Belah crossing (NY840105). After the summit at Stainmore the railway passed high above the River Belah on a lattice iron bridge very similar to those seen in American Westerns. The structure was one of the Victorian railway engineer Thomas Bouch’s greatest achievements. Bouch, rather unfortunately, is better known today for his Tay Bridge at Dundee, which collapsed in a winter storm in 1879 with the loss of 75 lives. His reputation never recovered and, to make matters worse, the event is retold in typically appalling verse by the Scottish writer of doggerel, William McGonagall. The Belah viaduct, on the other hand, stood for over 100 years, until it was dismantled in the 1960s and sold for scrap. The massive stone abutments at either end can be visited on footpaths from the village of Barras.
Don’t forget that you can arrive at Kirkby Stephen on the renowned Settle to Carlisle line. This railway has a station further out of the town than Kirkby Stephen East; there is a footpath which brings you the mile or so into the town. There are regular guided walks taking place from stations all along the line, organised by the Friends of Settle to Carlisle Railway.