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Friday, 19 February 2016

Backdrop to Jericho

Ribblehead Viaduct, snow, North Yorkshire.

Ribblehead Viaduct is one of the wonders of Victorian construction.  It also provides the inspiration for the drama Jericho, which premiered on UK TV in January 2016.

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 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; but there is something deeply powerful about Ribblehead Viaduct.  It is a magnificent statement of our ancestors’ endeavours striking out across the bleakness of Yorkshire’s Batty Moor, but not 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, they can both be fairly ugly.

Jericho, Ribblehead Viaduct

In any event, the Viaduct is a landmark when heading between Ingleton and Hawes, or when walking this part of the Dales.  It sits, conveniently, between two of Yorkshire’s peaks, the glowering knob of Ingleborough and Whernside’s whale-back hump.  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, puffing its carriages across; magnificent.

Ingleborough, Ribblehead, Whernside

I suppose 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 fenced area containing a few Portacabins providing site offices and messing facilities, with one sign apologising for any inconvenience and another listing the low number of accidents.  Workers would drive to site, or catch a ‘bus.  In the 1870s, shanty towns grew up around the more remote building sites.  The settlement at Ribblehead was called Batty Wife Hole.  Closer to the Viaduct was an engineering camp called Sebastopol, which had a suburb, Belgravia – no doubt intended for the better-off workers.  In the 1871 census, 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.

Ingleborough, Carlisle, Settle, railway

Perhaps some were buried on the moor, victims of horrendous accidents – or murder.  Which brings me on to the TV drama, Jericho, the name for the fictitious settlement gathered about the equally fictitious Culverdale Viaduct.  Starring a big-bustled Jessica Raine (Jenny Lee in Call the Midwife), it comes across as a kind of hammy British Western, but without the fun provided by Red Indians or the 7th Cavalry.  It is, of course, a period drama, with all the essential ingredients these seem to demand; a rom without necessarily the com.  A cynic might point out the clichés of kind-hearted prostitutes, slightly mysterious brooding 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 ask whether historical accuracy has been 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.  Further, I can’t help thinking that the actors in general seem to be rather well-dressed and altogether too clean.

Ribblehead Viaduct, Whernside, Batty Wife, Jericho.

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: it was tough back in them days (though not just in the north), Clarke Peters said in an interview that African-Americans travelled back and forth across the Atlantic prior to the American Civil War (so that's alright then - plus, we know that Batty Wife Hole was more cosmopolitan than many places are today) and I am advised that the kind-hearted prostitute isn’t a cliché.  Thank you, Dolores.

Ribblehead up close

Whatever, Jericho deserves enormous credit for shining a spotlight on a portion of our history that most of us probably know very little about.  It captures aspects of Ribblehead’s construction that the layman can 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, 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, are quite breathtaking.

Batty Wife Hole, Ribblehead.

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 inadequate sanitation and a population larger than anywhere else nearby.  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've been there; the Viaduct could have been built by invisible giants.


So, what next with Jericho?  At the time of writing, there’s still plenty of opportunity for something to go wrong with the blossoming romances, the narky navvies and the construction itself.  Me, I hope boy gets girl and that everyone finds happiness, like in all the best reality stories.  Most importantly, let’s hope they finish building the wretched thing before ITV commissions Series Two.

PS - Alas, the viaduct was not finished; Jericho may run to a second series..!

31 comments:

  1. I've not watched Jericho but I heard an interview with Clarke Peters when it first started and he reckoned the idea of a black site agent wasn't quite as far fetched as it first seems. He'd done some research and it's possible that a person of colour could reach that level back then (though he added lots of provisos) I guess he'd know if anyone did.

    I've seen Ribblehead but never gone across it. You'd get a good view of the scenery, but you'd sort of miss the structure if it was below you. I think a view from the side is probably better!

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  2. I have not been watching Jericho but have read a book, albeit fiction but based on the building of the Ribblehead viaduct. I have also seen Ribblehead for myself and the mind boggles about how they even began to build this creation yet alone lived in the appalling conditions of the shanty settlement. Unfortunately I have never been across it on a steam train, we got close at one time several years back now when we booked tickets on the Settle and Carlisle but British Rail decided to strike so that was the end of that! I live in hopes that one day we might just be in that part of the country and can try again.

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  3. Beautiful country there. I haven't heard of that series. Maybe it hasn't made it across the Pond yet to public TV here. I did enjoy Call the Midwife though stopped watching once the Jenny Lee character left to series. Slowly watching Doc Martin. Enjoying that scenery and would love to visit Cornwall one day.

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  4. Enjoyed. I need to include a kind-hearted prostitute in my novels, perhaps. I love cliche side characters the reader can 'see' immediately. :)

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  5. What a wonderful sight that is!

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  6. Spectacular scenery! Enjoy your weekend Mike.

    Madelief

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  7. That will be the name of my next house... Batty Wife Hole... I love it! I have been watching Jericho and enjoying it. My hubby, a retired fire fighter, was really impressed with the scene in episode one with the gunpowder and how the chain reaction then caused the explosion, not usually seen. Right, off to get a house name plate made :)

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  8. I can't believe that it's only 11 miles SW of Hawes! Although I'd only watch Call the Midwife at gunpoint, the scenery in Jericho and maybe even the story would appeal to me. I was sure I saw a show Jericho listed on Acorn. Unfortunately, it turns out that it was Netflix, not Acorn, and it has to do with a town in Kansas, not Yorkshire. :-( Guess I'll be waiting a while. I am putting the Ribblehead Viaduct on my short list. Besides, I need to stop in at the Wensleydale Creamery for a cheese refill. Great post, Mike! Thanks.

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  9. The viaduct is impressive, and the landscape is beautiful!

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  10. Outstanding article, as usual. We have never seen Jericho, but my wife and I became big fans of Clarke Peters when he played Lester Freamon in HBO's The Wire. If you have never seen The Wire, I highly recommend it. For it provides a fascinating (and I think fairly accurate) account of both sides to the war on drugs in Baltimore, Maryland. 'Tis an acquired taste, though.

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  11. You might find this interesting:
    http://www.victorianweb.org/history/work/sullivan/13.html
    Thetford had a black mayor in 1904 so I guess anything's possible.

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  12. I can't help but think of Roman aqueducts which must have inspired this structure. It does fit into the environment nicely.

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  13. We are fed up with Jericho, it is too repetative and the storyline we find weak. However, having watched the early episodes we feel compelled to see it through!!! On the other hand the viaduct is a fantastic Victorian construction.

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  14. That second photo, especially, is amazing!

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  15. Haven't watched the series but having seen the viaduct I cannot imagine for one moment how they managed to build it!

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  16. Fascinating story! The building of the railroads was such a big part of ontario's history in the late 19th century - but no viaducts like that!

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  17. Now I must look out for Jericho in Australia - it looks so interesting, if only to see the vistas and the amazing viaduct. It is strange to think of the town which rose and then disappeared, never to be replaced.

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  18. Ribblehead Viaduct is one icon of Yorkshire landscape I have yet to see for myself. Thank you for explaining about it!
    I've not heard of the "Jericho" series. It sounds like it could make for some cosy hours in front of the telly on wet and windy Sunday afternoons.

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  19. It is certainly quite a sight. You can't help but wonder how they built it. I haven't watched Jericho but perhaps it will entice more people to visit to see it for themselves.

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  20. Hi Mike - stunning photos - I've never seen the aqueduct - but would love to see it from below and above and travel the train ...

    I don't watch Jericho .. but was interested to read about Clarke Peters for Ralph Coates as the Afro-American site manager ... interesting snippet of history.

    I'd heard about the navvy site and huts etc ... but knew little else ...

    Cheers Hilary

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  21. Certainly a spectacular sight, and I think I'd enjoy the train trip across it. A wonderful feat of engineering and superb countryside. Thanks, Mike!

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  22. Stunning photographs! The viaduct is very cool but so are those mountains! I live where it is flat farmland for hundreds of miles, so any sight of a mountain is incredible!

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  23. Thank you for the background information about the construction of the Viaduct. I passed the viaduct when it was partially shrouded in mist. It was quite awe inspiring :-)

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  24. Amazing, I have only seen photos of the viaduct but have read about the settlements that grew round places like that. The Elan Reservoir for one where only the dam from the reservoir they used remains. If you look at the blog I posted here in the first photo you can see the type of the scaffolding they may have used. http://forgottenfairmile.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-boilerhouse.html

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  25. Why do they call it Batty Moor? Very impressive viaduct! Not being British, some words don't equate. One of my ancestors lived in Ingleton before they moved to York City.

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    1. It could be a personal name. I did read that a Mrs Batty drowned in a hole (cave) - hence Batty wife Hole. Dunno!

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  26. My mum was a Yorkshire lass and we used to visit her family regularly. It was on one of these visits as a young girl when I first saw a viaduct, I was very impressed. I saw the trailers for Jericho but then forgot all about it!!... senior moment strikes again.

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  27. Sorry I haven't seen the TV series but visited it several times. I remember back in 1983 there was talk about closing the S&C line because of the upkeep cost of the viaduct and I thought it was time to do the rail trip, the train was packed. Thankfully the money to repair the work was secured and the railway / viaduct has become an attraction ever since. On another occasion I was travelling to Lancashire with friends for a weekend away. We left early on the friday to do a walk up Whernside but unfortunately there was heavy rain and ended up in a coffee shop in Hawes. One of the group wanted to just do it and suggested that we move on. I replied " If we can see the mountain behind Ribblehead viaduct from the road, we'll stop and do it". When we arrived at the roadside parking, we couldn't even see the viaduct !!. We ended up doing the Waterfalls walk at Ingleton.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.