Book review: The Railway Girls by Leah Fleming

The Railway Girls by Leah Fleming
The Railway Girls by Leah Fleming

The famous Settle-Carlisle railway line, a 73-mile long route which crosses the rugged, scenic regions of the Yorkshire Dales and boasts several tunnels and the imposing Ribblehead Viaduct, has a drama-packed, 150-year history.

The line was built in the 1870s by over 6,000 navvies, mainly Irish, who worked in remote locations and endured harsh weather conditions. They were housed in large camps with many becoming complete townships but the workers were prey to both disease and accidents during the construction work.

This corner of Yorkshire is an area known well to Lancashire-born author Leah Fleming who has made her home amongst the picturesque dales and fells, and The Railway Girls, a beautiful novel about family secrets, betrayal and redemption, has its origin in the fight to save the Settle-Carlisle Railway from closure during the 1970s and 1980s.

The book, originally published in 1997 as Trouble on the Wind under the name Helene Wiggin and written to celebrate the line’s eventual reprieve in 1989, is a powerful portrait of an isolated rural community facing huge industrial change, and the hardships of both the locals and the railway’s construction workers.

Deep in the dales of the West Riding Fells in 1871 lies Scarsbeck, a remote village peopled by a close-knit community of colourful characters. Ellie Birkett of Middle Butts Farm, which seems moulded into the fellside and was once a Viking longhouse, is steadfastly resisting her mother’s attempts to marry her off to her cousin Sunter Lund.

The local vicar, the Rev Ralph Hardy, who ‘loved all women too much to settle with just one,’ is wrestling with the temptations of the flesh while Ezra Bulstrode, the village headmaster with an unhealthy dedication to the education of his young students, is struggling to get local boys through the ‘scholarship hoop.’

Meanwhile, the elderly and enigmatic peasant woman Beth Wildman, who believes she can foresee the future, knows things others can only guess at, and further down the dale is newly arrived ten-year-old navvy’s daughter Tizzy Widdup who has a radical plan to wreak revenge on a cruel local farmer.

Surrounded by wild moorland and the majestic Yorkshire peaks, time would seem to be standing still in this corner of the world but the Dales are starting to echo with fearsome noise. The railway is coming… right through Scarsbeck village. And with the arrival of the huge workforce charged with building the railway, the peaceful idyll is set to be shattered for ever…

Fleming works her storytelling magic in this gritty tale which includes incidents based on real events during the building of the railway. This is an author who knows her patch well and the characters reflect all the determination and strength that we have come to associate with Yorkshire folk.

There is both darkness and light at the heart of this isolated 19th century community as they get to grips with the upheavals of social and industrial change. There are dramas, tragedies, secrets and lies, but love and friendship will always win through.

Steeped in the history and folklore of the Dales and with a glossary to guide readers through some of the wonderful local dialect like bowdykite (a mischief-maker), ragbash (a ne’er-do-well) and bogtrotter (a tramp), there is so much to enjoy in this compelling novel from one of the North West’s favourite saga writers.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)