My Favourite Pictures (2): The Ribblehead Viaduct, North Yorkshire (1876)

On a clear sunny day the Ribblehead Viaduct can look as stunning as anything in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.  I’d visited the place three times, first when doing a recce and then twice (start and finish) when we were filming that episode of Time Team where we excavated a navvy camp at Risehill, on the Settle-Carlisle Railway.  It was the last major line to be built by navvy labour, between 1870-77.  And as railway construction projects went, it was one of the most challenging, with bogs, hills and deep valleys to be crossed on many occasions. In fact it was so expensive to build and maintain that it has never really proved profitable.

We filmed on Risehill in 2007 and it was always raining, just like in the 1870s. In fact that was the only Time Team I can recall where we actually knocked-off early on Day 3, because of the rain. It didn’t feel like ordinary rain, because we were actually inside clouds; I can remember thinking that if I looked up, I’d probably drown. So all the pictures I took in October 2007 were grim, cloudy and threatening. But that didn’t worry me at the time, because the story I wanted to tell in The Making of the British Landscape was also rather grim: how 200 navvies and members of their families died in the navvy camps out on Blea Moor Common, and elsewhere. It’s a horrible story of privation, lack of hygiene and rampant disease. Most of the people were buried in unmarked graves in the church at Chapel-le-Dale, nearby; only the railway company wouldn’t pay for stone grave markers, so they used wood, which rapidly rotted-away in the wet climate. That still makes me furious – and was one of the reasons I decided to go with the gloomy, misty pictures.

Then my publishers decided that we couldn’t have full colour throughout, or the book would be prohibitively expensive (and in fairness to them, the manuscript we eventually agreed on was 125,000 words longer than they had originally requested!). So we had to go through all the plates that were to be reproduced in monochrome. Many were fine, but the picture of Ribblehead simply didn’t work at all. It was a symphony of soft greys, with a hint of bridge arches lurking somewhere in the middle. Having said that, the colour image works very well, I think.

Ribblehead Viaduct, N. Yorkshire

The Ribblehead Viaduct on a rainy day. Note the humps and bumps left by the Blea Moor Common navvy camp, in the foreground. This is now one of a handful of legally protected (Scheduled) navvy camps in England.

Then a few weeks later, in early April, 2009, I discovered that I was to do a Radio 4 programme in the North Yorkshire Dales (I think it was an episode of Open Country, about the Settle-Carlisle railway). So I took my camera along with me, on the off-chance. Anyhow, one day God decided to take pity on me and the morning of April 5th dawned clear and cloudless and it was then that I got the sunny view of the Viaduct which appears in black-and-white on page 522 of The Making. But now you can see it, for the very first time, in full colour. And though I say so myself, it’s a pretty nice picture. Having said that (and I know I should probably keep quiet), but I still rather prefer that cloudy, moody picture. It suits the haunted soul of the place so well…

Settle-Carlisle Railway. Ribblehead Viaduct from Blea Moor.

The Ribblehead Viaduct on a sunny day, also from the Blea Moor Common navvy camp. The collapsed stonework in the foreground seems to have been part of a camp building.

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