Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Ribblehead: The Story if the Great Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle Line by W.R.Mitchell. Kingfisher. £18
The roads and tracks squiggle across the patchwork landscape. The drystone walls trace a thin line to the horizon, but the Ribblehead Viaduct strides across the moors in a majestic curve.
A quarter of a mile in length, its twenty four arches, the official Bridge No 66 crossing the windswept Batty Moss on the Settle Carlisle Railway was originally referred to as the Batty Wife Viaduct. Graceful and slender from a distance, the massive masonry of the piers is doubled for every sixth king pier. The intention was that if one pier collapsed, it would only bring four others down with it. The Victorian engineers knew they were building a structure to defy the elements.
The viaduct acquired "an almost indefinable magic - a cocktail mix of fact and folklore".
30,000 cubic yards of black limestone were quarried, cut into five ton blocks, dressed and taken on specially constructed tramways to the construction site. The chief engineer, Mr Crossley, began with the thirteenth pier. A vast structure of timber was used as scaffolding to form the arches. Steam-operated cranes raised the stone to the tops of the piers.
By 1870 a shanty town of forty or more huts for the navvies and their families developed beneath the growing arches. Eventually two thousand navvies were living in the four towns of Batty Green, Inkerman, Sebastopol and the aspirational Belgravia. They were served by a shop, a hospital, a post office and a school and Sunday School. They were communities which thrived in one of the most exposed landscapes in England.
The masons boasted that when the timber supports were removed the arches settled by less than half an inch. However, no matter how robust the stone or secure the craftsmanship, over the years the weather took its toll. The rains penetrated the masonry and the frost cracked the stone open. The stone-faced voussoir was forced away from the brickwork. Lattices of old rails were clamped around the piers to provide emergency stability.
In 1989, hoping to close the Settle-Carlisle line, British Rail estimated it would cost six million pounds to repair the viaduct alone. It was done for a fraction of that cost. Ballast was removed and a weather-proof membrane was laid beneath the track. The piers acquired an exoskeleton of scaffolding and, stone by stone, brick by brick, the viaduct was restored to robust health. One visitor during the repairs was the then Minister of Transport, Michael Portillo.
Today the Ribblehead Viaduct stands as proudly as it did when it was first built. On a wintry evening its dark silhouette frames the yellow sunset sky which cowers beneath the heavy purple clouds of a stormy evening. In winter, against the fells covered in snow, the line of the viaduct runs clean across the landscape, the lines of its arches beautifully shaded by a low sun in a cold blue sky.
During the restoration, arc-lights blazed from above each arch transforming the viaduct into a glorious display of white and orange against the black sky.
Too often railway photographs picture the trains, the steaming, billowing locomotives.
It is good to have a book, which in words and magnificent photographs, reveals one of the great masterpieces of Victorian engineering.
That great railway photographer, the Rev. Eric Treacy, claimed that the three greatest wonders of the North Country were York Minster, Hadrian's Wall and the Settle- Carlisle railway. Bill Mitchell proves that he was right about at least one of those wonders.