A sad tale of doggedness

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A steam train pulling into Garsdale Station on the Settle-Carlisle railway line. Picture by Karen Bergdahl. 
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Graham Nuttall’s faithful companion Ruswarp, who would not leave his master’s side, even after he died. Picture by Karen Bergdahl.

Like my dad before me, I am an animal lover, and one of the things I enjoy is looking after dogs when their owners are working or away on holiday. Many breeds have crossed my threshold, and it’s no surprise that the one I find most intelligent and loyal is the good old Border Collie, a dog that for obvious reasons is favoured by people working in rural parts of North Yorkshire.

This week, a tale about such a hound was brought to my attention, and it moved me to tears. It’s one I’d not come across, although I have no doubt that some readers will be familiar with it if they have ever travelled along the Settle to Carlisle railway line. A friend alerted me to it, having discovered it while on a break in the Yorkshire Dales.

The story starts with a chap called Graham Nuttall, a rail enthusiast who often used smaller cross-country routes to travel and to go walking with his trusty companion, a Border Collie named Ruswarp (as an aside, in all the articles I’ve found during my research for this column, the dog’s name is always followed by the instruction ‘pronounced ‘Russup’’. It never occurred to me to pronounce it any other way, descending as I do from a line of moorland folk who are all very familiar with the village near Whitby with same name and same pronunciation! Does anyone out there pronounce the ‘W’?).

When Graham got wind that one of the most beautiful train routes in Britain was threatened with closure, he decided to do something about it and helped found the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line, a group that was dedicated to campaigning against the closure. They spent many years fighting and proving that the line was worth saving and raised a petition, collecting signatures from more than 32,000 people – and one dog. Ruswarp, being a fee-paying passenger, was allowed to add his paw print to the petition. On 11th April 1989, they got the news they’d been hoping for, with the announcement that the treasured route had been reprieved.

Sadly, Graham, aged 41, did not live long enough to continue enjoying the train journey he’d battled so hard to save. Just nine months later, on 20th January 1990, he and Ruswarp left their home in Burnley, Lancashire, and purchased a day-return rail ticket to Llandrindod to go walking in the Welsh mountains. But they did not return. An extensive search and rescue effort failed to find them and it wasn’t until three months later, on 7th April, that another walker found Graham lying dead by a mountain stream.

Remarkably, however, Ruswarp was still alive, although obviously exhausted and emaciated. For 11 long, cold and wintry weeks, the faithful dog had not left his master’s side. He was too weak to walk and had to be carried down the mountain. A local vet nursed him back to health, and he was well enough to attend his master’s funeral. According to an eye witness, he sat quietly at the front, until Graham’s coffin began to move behind the crematorium curtains, and only then did Ruswarp let out a low, mournful howl.

Ruswarp was awarded the RSPCA’s Medallion and Collar for Vigilance and Animal Plaque for Intelligence and Courage. Sadly though, those traumatic months had taken their toll on the poor dog, who was already 14 years old, and he died not long after.

The story does not end there, though, and in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the reprieve, a bronze statue of Ruswarp was unveiled at Garsdale Station, which lies on the line a few miles east of Sedburgh. It was Graham’s favourite stop along the route, and it’s easy to see why, as it commands beautiful views across to the west Pennines. The statue of Ruswarp is on the southbound platform, and he gazes across to the opposite platform towards a bench dedicated to his master.

The success of the 72-mile route today is a real credit to Graham and his colleagues who fought tooth and nail to preserve this heritage line. It has 14 tunnels and over 20 viaducts, and Ribblehead Station, once neglected and derelict, is now an award-winning visitor centre. What a wonderful lasting legacy, thanks to the man and his faithful dog who helped to make it happen.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th and the Gazette & Herald on  18th August 2021