Based in south west Cumbria, UK, The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, or 'La'al Ratty' as it is affectionately known in the area, is a narrow gauge railway taking passengers from Ravenglass, through west Lake District countryside to Eskdale, seven miles away: the journey takes about forty minutes. There's a stop along the way at The Muncaster Water Mill. The locomotive is either diesel, or, far more more romantically, steam. The carriages are either enclosed (looking a little like the very old inter-city ones that British Rail used to do) or open-topped ones. Needless to say, everything (as far as possible) is scaled down to match the 15" gauge of the track. It really is a beautiful journey in a beautiful mode of transport.
The station at Ravenglass, the main terminal really, has a shop and a cafe too. A little bridge connects the platforms, and there's a miniature turn-table at the end of the line to the turn the locomotives round. There are benches for picnics and places to stand and watch the trains arrive and depart. It sounds quaint, and it isn't really - it's beautiful, and comfortable, and utterly nostalgic. Every time I pass the place on the way up the coast (it's just off the main A595 road) I stop by and visit. I took a friend from university there a few years ago, and, despite the fact that he'd never been before, even he could feel the nostalgia of the place. It certainly hasn't noticeably changed in the last twenty-five years - and for this reason alone it's well worth visiting. The smell of steam is everywhere - and, even if most of us weren't around when steam trains were prevalent, I'm sure the smell of them is somewhere in our cultural subconscious. It's like being young again, but in the 40's... How nice is that?
The best times to visit? Well - going in high summer is certainly worth it - it's good to see the place operating as usual, as it's a working station. It's not in one of the most accessible places in the Lake District, so it doesn't get absolutely packed, like Windermere or Ambleside. Autumn is by far the best time to see anything in the Lake District, as the tourists are going home, and the tree foliage is turning to red and gold. Having said that, though, there are people who rely on the service that it runs - it's got a Christmas timetable, too - so going and seeing it in winter is rather fine. The Lakes' hills and mountains frame the place to the north and east; they get very white with snow around December time, and don't lose it until about February. The place is beautiful in the snow, and nothing quite beats the look of a steam train against a background of frost and ice.
Next door to the railway is the Ratty Arms, a reasonably sized public house (bar in the US), which does excellent food, and is warm and friendly too. Also nearby is the mainline railway station for Ravenglass, although the nearest main 'inter-city' stations are at Lancaster and Carlisle: not all that near.
Ravenglass itself is an old Roman town, although there's not a lot to see. It's very picturesque though, and, as it's situated on the coast, there is a beach and a coastline (St Bees is to the north). Also nearby, about three miles south, is Muncaster Castle, which is a breath-taking place to visit. The Santon Bridge Gift Shop is fairly close, as is the splendid Wast Water (which is always deserted, pretty much - as getting to it directly from the main lakes of the area involves some very hair-raising driving). Just a little drive up the coast from Ravenglass will get you to Sellafield, which spoils the view and coastline, certainly - mind you, if you're interested in industrial architecture, it's stunning in a grim sort of way. There's also a rather fine visitor's centre there that's open every day of the year (except Christmas) and is an intriguing place to visit.
('La'al' - in case you're wondering - is Cumbrian dialect for 'little'.)