History Boy recommends: ARTEN GILL VIADUCT
This month’s history destination is from a folio that burns like a white-hot crucible in the heart of every decent Briton – railways. As a youngster, I’m aware that my generation is pre-disposed towards train sets. I hate being dragged to church every Sunday (that Father Leslie Carter keeps looking at me) but I would gladly walk across broken glass and swim upstream in shark-infested cholerawater to worship at the altar of Hornby. Yes readers, let us clasp our hands in prayer and give thanks for the joyous miracle that is the Settle to Carlisle Railway!
Many of you grown-ups, I know, with licences and motorbikes may have already parked for a moment of quiet awe before the veritable temple-cum-shrine that is Ribblehead viaduct. But readers, I must respectfully submit that this is old news. The true believers, the most ardent apostles, pass through the confluence of the B6255 and the B6479 and then head seven miles north, up into Dentdale to stand in hushed wonder before the epic Arten Gill Viaduct.
Arten Gill is the inexplicably under-recognised jewel in the Settle to Carlisle Crown. Ribblehead, the over-visited over-valued Kim Kardashian to Arten Gill’s far more stylish (and actually MORE beautiful), Julie Christie. I have a Czech pen pal who lives under the Soviet yoke in a place called Bratislava. My dad says there’s talk that he might get to come over on an exchange programme through the Scouts. If he does, and I had one chance to show him why the British are the superior species on this planet, I would whisk him up the M6 to Arten Gill!
What makes it special? Well, if it wasn’t the clean, tapering columns of its lofty piers I would have to plump for sheer remoteness. I put it to you, O readers of MSL that Ribblehead is a charlatan, 24 piers of a pretty much even 105ft. At Arten Gill we have no two piers the same height and like the mighty iceberg, so much of each pier is hidden from view. Even in these limestone rich Yorkshire Dales, the engineers were not over-run with solid bedrock and had to dig deep to be assured a firm footing.
So what’s the story? In the mid 1800s Victorian railway-mania was in full swing. I am obsessed with trains, but model trains. It’s hard to imagine a society fixated on actual REAL railways! It’s worth pointing out that the railway building boom witnessed in Britain (by far the most prolific explosion of its kind in any country of the world, ever) wasn’t driven by a philanthropic desire for infrastructure, it was driven by profit and yup, if you want, greed. Every single
Same intro as last time please – we will tweak on screen, thanks.
railway, however much you love Thomas the Tank Engine and train sets (which I do), was built, first and foremost, as a commercial enterprise. Loads of one-off ‘local’ lines came into being purely through cynical speculation much as the dot.com boom that we witnessed a decade ago. All those forgotten search engines, Zoot, Ask Jeeves etc. existed as money making ventures and as you know, they withered on the vine. Back in the 1850s and 60s, if an ill thoughtthrough private venture railway got into financial trouble, it could either close, or, if it was lucky, be bought for a song by a neighbouring or competing railway company. This was happening at a fairly ferocious scale in the middle of England and by 1865, a consortium calling itself the Midland Railway was sitting on a fairly substantial tangle of lines that we would nowadays call a very healthy portfolio.
In Derby, Manchester, Nottingham, Manchester and Leicester, the Midland was king and it took little railway business acumen for it to carve its own route from its beating heart of the Northern Powerhouse down to London. In 1865 the Midland arrived in tow,n much like the northern Beatles would do 98 years later, and everybody sat up and took notice.
The Midland’s gothic behemoth of St Pancras was the wonder of the age. Seriously, imagine that today, a railway station being a tourist attraction in its own right, and for railway commentators it was clear that the Midland was no ‘new kid on the block’ – it was here to stay. Apart from just one small problem, the Midland Railway’s Achilles Heel: Scotland.
As well as scooping up and homogenising companies in the centre of England, the company’s directors had been doing the same north of the border. Even an imbecile could see the problem, like Alaska and the ‘lower 48’, these two empires needed to connect. In isolation they were weak cousins, united, they would be unstoppable brothers! At one level though, they DID have a connection: a licensing agreement existed between the Midland and the London North Western Railway (LNWR). When Midland trains, starting out from say, Leeds, headed for Glasgow, they ran on their own rails, if you like, ‘for free’ and then simply paid a toll to run on LNWR steel up to Carlisle whereupon they were able to diverge and move back onto their ‘own’ network. Get the map out chum but the gap, a Darien Gap, if you will, in the Midland’s empire was barely 40 miles in span and it stretched between present day Ingleton and Tebay where the connection with the LNWR ‘west coast mainline’ proper took the trains on up to Carlisle.
Maybe irked by pride, maybe simply tired of playing second fiddle, the Midland’s board of directors resolved to build their own route across the Yorkshire Dales thus, finally, connecting their two empires together. What makes this so important and, I put it to you, interesting, is a civil engineering project on a par with the Chunnel, or HS2 being conceived out of pride rather than clear-headed transport planning. In a modern, centralised rational world, the Settle to Carlisle railway would not only never have been built, nobody would even have thought of it. ’Twas a ridiculous idea,
If you talk to a Siberian, or an American railroad engineer, and you tell them that about 150 books have been written about one particular English railway. That is only 72 miles long, the highest point of which (yes, the highest) is only
1200ft above sea level and not one inch of it even transits a mountain range, they would burst out laughing and then gob into your beer. But they’d be wrong. Mitchell and Mussett’s definitive 1976 history of the S&C is, for a reason, entitled: Seven Years Hard. These Yorkshire Dales are a capricious meteorological mistress. Snow in July, deep driven snow in March and rain, rain, rain. This was a horrible place to have a 72 mile long building site.
Get up to Arten Gill, park the bike and walk up to the actual granite edifice itself. It’s about 500 yards from the tarmac but the trail is a byway so maybe it’s time to join the TRF? Get right up to that central pier. If it’s your wont, have a burn, or a muesli bar but I bet you don’t leave without whispering “My God, how did they do this…”.
has hired a trainspotting schoolboy to give us some destination ideas for this year’s roadtrips. Wise beyond his years, Alfred won the History Prize at St Cuthbert’s-inthe-Marsh in both the fifth year and the lower fourths, so his expertise is to be...
readers who have taken heed of his recommendations of biking destinations. You can reach him at msleditor@mortons. co.uk