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Ribblehead Viaduct - the fascinating story behind this Yorkshire icon

One of the most iconic sights in Yorkshire has to be the huge viaduct stretching 400 metres across the Ribble Valley which forms part of the Settle to Carlisle railway. Earlier this year I walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Penyghent, the walk passing the impressive structure and making for a great photo opportunity.

The Ribblehead Viaduct or Batty Moss Viaduct can be found on the B6255 between Ingleton and Hawes. But what we see now cannot begin to tell the story of how it came into existence and the huge engineering feat to construct.

As one of my favourite locations in the Yorkshire Dales, I will try and tell some of the story of its history. ITV did launch a TV series called Jericho, a drama about the construction starring Jessica Raine, Clarke Peters and Hans Matheson, but after the first season it was axed so never really had the impact on tourism for the Dales it was hoped.

Photo courtesy of National Railway Archives - BM Gray Collection

Construction of the viaduct started in 1869, with the last stone being laid in 1874, but why was it built?

Back in the 1860’s The Midland Railway proposed building the Settle to Carlisle Railway as a way of improving trade between England and Scotland. To compete with other lines, its route would take a short cut across the Yorkshire Dales. Along its 72 miles, 22 viaducts and 14 tunnels were required to get the line across bogs, rivers and crags.

This new line would need to cross some other difficult terrain, the most challenging section being the wide Ribble Valley at Batty Moss, near Ribblehead. The Chief Engineer, John Sydney Crossley surveyed the line and proposed a viaduct to span the valley to ensure the rail line could maintain a more constant level.

Crossley along with his General Manager, James Allport designed the viaduct and were responsible to managing the huge construction project. The construction project was carried out by the Midland Railway overseen by William Ashwell.

The project required a huge labour force and over 2,300 men were recruited as Navvies (from the word Navigator), not just from the locality but all over England and even the US. A temporary town was set up at Ribblehead which housed the workforce and their families in camps called Batty Wife Hole, Sebastopol and Belgravia. Lodgings could be rented by workers, and shops, bars and other services were available at the site.

The work was dangerous with the use of dynamite, steam powered cranes and pick & shovel. Sadly records show over 200 people lost their lives during construction from accidents and a small pox outbreak. With many buried just down the road in the small St.Leonard's

church at Chapel le Dale which now contains a memorial to the lost workers.

This hard work, led to a hard drinking culture amongst the Navvies. The Manchester Guardian reporting “The men…earn good wages and they might do well but for drink. Drink meets them at every step and they appear to be powerless to resist the British workman’s greatest foe”. The living conditions and life of those in the camps was often described at the time as living in “the Wild West”.

The viaduct, as well as stretching over 400 metres consists of 24 arches each of which is approx. 14 meters wide. At its highest point the Ribblehead Viaduct is 32 meters above the valley floor, but each pillar of the arch has a foundation below ground of nearly 8 meters. As part of the construction every 6th pillar is 50% thicker so that they could still support the line should a pillar collapse.

The viaduct used over 1.5 million bricks for the arches and then huge blocks of limestone for the bases. With some of the blocks weighing 8 tons, it was an engineering miracle to get some of these stones into place with the technologies of the day back in the 1800’s.

When work was completed a single trackway was laid on top and the first locomotive pulled carriages across in 1874, before it was opened for freight traffic in 1875.

By 1980, the viaduct need major repairs and British Rail proposed closing the line. The Friends of the Settle to Carlisle Railway was formed and campaigned against its closure. Apparently Tory MP Michael Portillo took the decision to keep the line open based in estimated increased rail passenger numbers expected and repairs were carried out at a cost of over £100,000.

The Ribblehead Viaduct was given Grade II Listed status in 1988. Further restoration took places in the 1990’s with more recent work taking place in 2020.

Nowadays the Shanty towns are no longer, but you can just make out the lumps and bumps of these old navvies camps around the area, which have been given Scheduled Monument status.

So next time you pass this stunning piece of Victorian engineering or travel over the viaduct by train, spare a thought for the workers who toiled in dangerous conditions and those who never got to see the results of their labours.

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Nov 28, 2022

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