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It’s not hard to be impressed by Ribblehead. Not just because it’s quite big – it is a quarter of a mile long – but also because it seems so remote. Not that it is, really – not these days, anyway – and, sure, there are bigger and more spectacular bridges and the like in the world, and more off the beaten track ones too. But there is something deeply powerful about Ribblehead Viaduct. It is a singular statement of our ancestors’ endeavours – striking out across the bleakness of Yorkshire’s Batty Moor, but not quite conquering it. Perhaps it’s the contrast between man and nature; sweet and sour; beauty and the beast – though I couldn’t tell you which was which. And, frankly, on a bad day, both can be fairly ugly.
Ribblehead Viaduct sits, conveniently as it were, between two of Yorkshire’s famous three peaks, the glowering trapezoid of Ingleborough and Whernside’s whale-back hump, and there are terrific views of it from the tops of both. Actually, on a clear day, you can even spot it from Pen-y-Ghent. In any event, the Viaduct is a landmark when heading in either direction between Ingleton and Hawes, or when walking this part of the Dales. Turn a corner or crest a rise and it comes into view. “Oh,” you think – or say out loud – “There’s the Viaduct.” As if its presence reassures us that all is well. And, if you’re lucky or have done your homework, you’ll spot a steam loco of the Carlisle-Settle Railway, steadily puffing its carriages high overhead, across the dale; magnificent.
There is a certain comfort in continuity from the Victorian era, which shaped so much of modern Britain. But it is the human story that adds so much to the Viaduct’s aura. These days, a construction project like the Ribblehead Viaduct would demand a securely fenced compound, containing neat Portacabins providing site offices and messing facilities; one sign would apologise for any inconvenience and another would list the low number of accidents. Workers would drive to site, or catch a ‘bus, and go home to the welcoming bosoms of their families every night. It wasn’t like that in the 1870s, when shanty towns grew up around the more remote building sites for the itinerant workers. The settlement at Ribblehead was called Batty Wife Hole. (“A good name for our house,” remarked a friend.) Closer to the Viaduct was an engineering camp they called Sebastopol, which had a suburb, Belgravia – maybe intended for the better-off workers, or maybe simply ironic. In the 1871 census, an astonishing 74 buildings with 342 residents from 34 different countries are shown for what we might call the Ribblehead Complex. Different sources suggest there were anything from 1,000 to 2,000 workers engaged at peak times – and there they lived, drank, fought, worked, were born – and died. Many of them are buried in nearby Chapel-le-Dale, in unmarked graves.
Perhaps some were buried on the moor, victims of horrendous accidents – or murder. Which brings me on to the TV drama, Jericho – nothing to do with one of the oldest settlements in the world on the occupied West Bank, but the name dreamt up for the fictitious settlement clustered around the construction of the equally fictitious Culverdale Viaduct – allegedly based on Ribblehead. Starring a big-bustled Jessica Raine (Jenny Lee in Call the Midwife, as well as on the small screen in Wolfe Hall, The Last Post and Baptiste), Jericho came across as a kind of hammy British Western, without the amusement provided by Red Indians or the 7th Cavalry. It was, of course, a period drama, with all the essential ingredients these seem to demand; a rom without necessarily the com. A cynic might have observed the clichés of kind-hearted prostitutes, slightly mysterious hero with a chest (Hans Matheson), boring class warfare and a general air of, “Eee, but it’s grim oop north”. A cynic may also have enquired whether historical accuracy was sacrificed on the altar of diversity and overseas sales by having an African-American site agent, Ralph Coates, played by the excellent Clarke Peters. It would be wonderful to believe that Britain, which had founded an Empire partly on the proceeds of black slavery, was that socially advanced 150 years ago, despite its lead in abolishing slavery and other liberal credentials. Quite bluntly, I would have thought that most folk back then were inherently bigoted and that a chap like Ralph Coates wouldn’t last long, even if he got there in the first place. Wriggling in my seat a little in front of the box, I also couldn’t help thinking that the actors in general seemed to be rather well-dressed and altogether far too clean.
I guess, at the end of the day, a TV drama does not need to be 100% accurate and, to some extent, disbelief should be suspended. In any event, my observations might be unfair: of course it was tough back in them days, Clarke Peters said in an interview that African-Americans travelled back and forth across the Atlantic prior to the American Civil War, we know that Batty Wife Hole was more cosmopolitan than many places in Britain are even today – and the enlightened Norfolk town of Thetford elected Britain’s first black mayor, Allan Glaisyer Minns, in 1904 – so what do I know? Finally, I am advised that the kind-hearted prostitute isn’t a cliché. Thank you, Dolores.
Whatever, Jericho deserved credit for shining a spotlight on a part of Britain’s story that most of us probably know very little about. It captured aspects of Ribblehead’s construction that the layman could only guess at. The foundations of the 24 arches are 25 feet deep; the arches would have been surrounded with wooden scaffolding as the construction crept upward; men would have been swarming over the structure like ants, without a hi-vis or hard-hat in sight, pulleys and ropes swinging dangerously, cries and instructions whipped away in the wind. Though not filmed at Ribblehead (apparently the main external location was Rockingstones Quarry, near Huddersfield), the sweeping vistas shown in the series, taking in the viaduct in progress against a background that resembles Ingleborough and the surrounding hills, were quite breathtaking. Clever CGI, I guess.
Apparently, Jericho did local business no harm at all – which is good to hear. Regrettably, I was unable to finish watching it, being called away urgently to watch paint dry, leaving the construction unfinished. ITV decided not to commission a second series and it is a matter of profound regret that we’ll never know what happened to the narky navvies and the rollicking romances. I like it when girl gets boy (or vice versa), don’t you?
You can’t help but wonder what they would have made of the TV show, those long-gone Victorian engineers, navvies, their women and children, camped in a temporary settlement with a population larger than anywhere else in the vicinity, inadequate sanitation, scant regard for safety or well-being and few basic comforts. How can a TV drama portray the reality of that heartbreaking existence in one of the richest nations on earth? When they were finished, after five years, they moved on, leaving their dead and little else behind. Many of the buildings were taken down, to be re-used elsewhere. Now, hardly a trace remains and you need the benefit of an expert eye to see that they were there at all; the Viaduct could have been built by invisible giants.