Travel documentary. Michael Portillo revisits the Settle-Carlisle line, explores the Ribblehead viaduct and learns about the navvies who helped to build it.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw
and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop,
he told them where to travel, what to see and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making four long journeys
across the length and breadth of the country
to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.
I'm embarked on a railway journey
from Northern England to Lowland Scotland using a guidebook
that's 150 years old,
but today I'm making a detour along a railway line
that wasn't even built when this book was published.
The Settle to Carlisle railway
is thought to be one of the most scenic in Britain
and I feel a very strong personal connection with it.
When I last visited this part of the world
British Rail had asked permission to close the line.
I was the Minister Of Transport
and the Government had to decide whether to approve the closure.
On my journey today I'll be finding out what's happened to it
since I convinced Margaret Thatcher to save it.
You know, of all the things I did, it's the one that I can still
point at and say, "Look, that made this difference."
I'll be discovering how building the route claimed so many lives.
Of all the chapels along the line
this, sadly, has got the most number of deaths.
And I'll be getting the thrill of a lifetime.
This is a fantastic sight as the steam engine begins
to go over the Ribblehead Viaduct.
You'll never see another sight like this on a railway in Britain.
All this week
I'm travelling north from Preston to Scotland. Along the way
I'll be following Bradshaw's guide to the Lake District before
heading up to Glasgow on the first railway route to cross the border,
and then on to my final destination, Kirkcaldy.
On today's journey I'm heading inland from Morecambe Bay to Settle
to take the historic Midland railway line to Ribblehead and Garsdale.
I haven't travelled the Settle to Carlisle for 20 years.
The reason it's so special is that it is a piece
of magnificent railway architecture.
It goes through the most stunning countryside
and it has some of the most remarkable viaducts
and you don't have to be a railway enthusiast to be blown away.
Opened in 1876, it's 72 miles long
with tiny stations in some of the most rugged countryside in Britain.
And my first stop today
is at the southern gateway to the line, Settle.
Settle Station is looking magnificent.
It's great to be back
and I am back to reminisce about events 20 years ago.
This market town was the headquarters for the battle
to save the Settle to Carlisle line.
I've come to the Council Chamber to meet two very determined people.
The formidable campaign was started here by Peter Shore and Mark Rand.
Peter, good to see you again.
-How are you?
-Very well, thank you.
When did you first hear
that there was an official move to close the line?
In 1983, so we had two years to build up our membership
and start to build a case before the official announcement.
In the early 1980s, the line carried just a few trains each day.
Passenger numbers were low,
intermediate stations had closed and the route was losing money.
The line was falling apart
and British Rail argued that it would cost too much to repair.
Its request to close it caused a storm of protest.
We were very determined that one of the things that we should do,
as well as shouting from the rooftops, was to increase passengers
and thereby increase revenue which would have some effect
-in Whitehall, we hoped.
-But the really critical thing that you did
was to get more people to use the railway, and I remember the summer
I had to make the decision 300,000 people used the railway,
so then it was possible to argue that it had revived
and was going to be an economic proposition.
The campaign raged for six years
generating huge publicity for the line. As a result,
ever more people began to use it, strengthening the case for
keeping it open and it was my job to get the Prime Minister on side.
I did feel quite emotional about it because I felt emotional about
a line which is so important in our heritage and, by the way, I thought
Margaret Thatcher would understand that argument, too, you know?
Of course, she was the Iron Lady, with the handbag,
balancing the books, but she really cared about British history, too,
-so I thought I had a line in there, as well.
-Was that the case?
-One of the things that you required, you actually wrote to us
on 11 April 1989, do you remember signing that?
This was a stressful decision for me, so I remember it pretty well.
"You'll be pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is today
"announcing that he's refusing consent for British Rail
"to close the Settle to Carlisle railway line."
-They flew the flags in Settle that day.
I think I drafted this sentence myself.
"I look to the Friends Of The Settle To Carlisle Line Association
"to cooperate vigorously in supporting and promoting the line
"as you have promised."
-And I hope we can say we've kept our promise.
Since being saved, the line is being used by even larger numbers of people making it profitable again.
You mentioned a figure of 300,000 passengers.
It's now something like 750,000 a year and rising.
And, of course, that's only the start of it because the amount of freight
that uses the line is absolutely tremendous, anything up to 40 heavy freight trains 24 hours a day,
so it's an absolutely remarkable change of fortune for the line.
I read somewhere that you had said, and perhaps you were misquoted,
as saying that the saving of the Settle To Carlisle railway line
was the best thing you did in politics.
Oh, yeah. No, I did say that.
Somebody said, "What's your greatest achievement in politics?"
And I said, "Saving the Settle to Carlisle railway."
Of course, the interviewer said, "What? Never even heard of that!"
But it is because, you know, of all the things I did it's the one that
I can still point at and say, "Look, that made this difference."
I'm heading off on the next part of my journey,
ten miles along the line to Ribblehead.
I'm so pleased to see the route thriving.
It's thronged with tourists
who help to generate the income that pays for the line.
So, the Settle to Carlisle railway, have you worked on it long?
-About 18 months.
-How do you enjoy it?
It's very good. It's lovely. It's a lovely place to be.
Do you still take in the scenery or is it all nothing to you now?
-Oh, yeah. It's always breathtaking.
-Are you pleased the line was saved?
Yes, yes. Well, aren't we all?
A really, really important bit of railway heritage.
Definitely, yeah, definitely.
I mean, such a lot of people rely on it as well, you know?
So it would have been a terrible shame. So, yeah, there's a lot...
A lot of nice things to see. It's always a pleasure.
And everybody just loves it.
-I've always been a big fan of yours when you were a Minister
-when we were trying to save this line.
-Oh, thank you.
My father worked on this line.
It's an amazing engineering achievement, this line, isn't it?
-Absolutely so, yes.
-I'm very, very pleased it got saved.
-Thank you very much for what you said.
This railway is valued, both for what it is today
and for the ambition of those Victorian engineers.
When you look out at this terrain, you have to wonder how they
could have ever dreamt of building a railway line through it
and particularly because, apart from steam engines,
they had very little machinery so the boring of the tunnels,
the building of the viaduct had to be done by vast numbers of navvies
working in very difficult conditions with a very heavy death toll.
It must have seemed madness to build a railway straight across
the weather-beaten Yorkshire Dales, but the Midland Railway Company
wanted a high-speed link to Scotland to compete with its rivals
and desperate needs generate heroic solutions.
6,000 men built 14 tunnels and no fewer than 20 viaducts,
including one of the longest in Britain at Ribblehead.
An unusual station, Ribblehead,
because the two platforms are separated by quite a distance,
but just beyond that platform
is just the top of the Ribblehead Viaduct.
You get no impression from here of how very tall it is.
You can just see the tops of the arches on this very glowering day.
It took four years and a third of the workforce to build the viaduct.
It's one of the Victorians' greatest achievements.
As I come round this last brow
I get my first full view
of the Ribblehead Viaduct for 20 years.
24 magnificent arches spanning the valley. And even from here
it's difficult to get the sense of scale
because the highest of these arches, I know, is 100 feet tall
and even though I'm almost, it seems, within touching distance of it,
it's difficult to appreciate the vastness of this
and to think that just hundreds of men, hundreds of men had to pile
these immense blocks on top of each other
to create that incredible, beautiful structure.
By the 1980s,
this Victorian feat of engineering was in danger of falling down.
The thing completely dwarfs him! He looks... He looks like a speck.
Long time no see!
20 years, nearly.
Tony Feschini was the man sent to inspect it.
Now, when I met you, you were a British Rail engineer.
-And we were being told that this viaduct needed
seven or nine million pounds spending on it, in those days,
but you had a different view, didn't you?
Well, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to do a trial repair here
which allowed me to understand fully the important parts of the structure.
And what did you find?
I found that it would cost between 2.75 and 3.25 million.
-And we achieved it in the end.
With the cost of repair revised down to a third of previous estimates,
the case for closure weakened and rebuilding began.
So, as you began to research it,
were you impressed by what the Victorians had done?
Absolutely. The first thing that catches you here is the weather
and we're pretty well clad today even though it's...
it's...we're getting wet,
and I could imagine people living on this moor throughout the year -
in winter it will be pretty daunting.
It's bad enough living here in summer.
What kind of difficulty would it have been building this?
Oh, tremendous difficulty. If you can imagine the site
in the 1870s, the whole of the area would be wild countryside.
To come here and set up a site, to build a structure of this size
and magnitude in an area like this
would have been a formidable task in any age.
Many of the navvies who built the viaduct
came here with their families.
Shantytowns appeared all along the route to house thousands of people
working through the gales and snow to build the line by hand
for years on end.
It was backbreaking work.
They're pretty big blocks of stone, aren't they?
Extremely big blocks, sort of two cubic metres. They're massive.
It's built in groups of six arches for safety.
Every sixth pier is a wider pier.
That gives stability to the structure.
If you lost one arch you could lose six, but no more.
-But no more.
-It would be better than 24.
Even with modern machinery,
Tony still faced a huge challenge to restore the viaduct.
So, tell me this, if you've got to take a block of stone out
and replace it, how on Earth do you do that?
We used like a mining technique. What you have to do is,
a man will start to nibble away the stone bit by bit,
but you work in and prop it, prop the ones above from the one below
and carefully work your way in, so you don't disturb the ones above you.
One thing I didn't want to be was
the man who demolished Ribblehead Viaduct while I was working here!
Are you still inspired by it?
I am. It's a super structure, really.
It is truly magnificent.
Remarkably, it's still possible to find descendants
of those hard-working navvies.
James Rickson's family helped to build the line 140 years ago.
I'm taking the seven-twenty, so I've got quite a long time, yet.
-Can I buy you a drink?
-That's fine, thank you.
-What will you have?
-I'll have half a bitter, please, Michael.
Two halves of bitter, please.
Thank you very much.
They tell me you're the great-grandson
of one of the people who built the viaduct?
My great-great-grandfather was Robert Rickson
and he was the manager of what was called the Sebastopol Brickworks.
We've checked the censuses for 1871 and, believe it or not,
there were 14 members of his family up here working on the railway
in various jobs, ranging from adults working as pure navvies,
to being in a managerial position and just children.
Out of all the family members who worked here, did they all survive?
No, they didn't all survive.
There was a severe smallpox outbreak in the hutments, in the encampments,
in 1871 and three of the five children that had come up with the family
died in that epidemic within the space of six weeks.
-Yes, it was not good news for the family,
and those children were all buried in the little chapel
down the road at Chapel-le-Dale.
The railway work camps were plagued by repeated outbreaks of smallpox,
starvation and violence, leading to many deaths.
You can get an idea of the dreadful toll
at the chapel closest to the viaduct.
And this is a lovely little church.
It's the parish church of St Leonard's, Chapel-le-Dale,
very historic, dates back to the 15th century,
and it helps to tell the very terrible story of the building
of the Settle to Carlisle railway.
-Gerald, good morning.
'Historian Gerald Tyler has pieced together what happened all those years ago.'
The importance of the chapel is that of all the chapels along the line
this, unfortunately, sadly, has got the most number of deaths.
There were something like,
between 1870 and 1875, 201 deaths.
Now, some of those were, in fact, obviously the navvies themselves
who suffered the most appalling accidents.
And, of course, because there were so many families
then there was a shantytown settlement.
I mean, there's one report of the health doctor coming round and being
appalled by what he saw, that there were overcrowding in the huts.
There were three rooms in these standard huts and you might have
a family with, say, half a dozen children and then they take in
lodgers for another eight single men.
-That must mean there was disease rampant.
-There was indeed.
Of the 200 or so that died in that particular period,
110 of those were children under the age of 13.
So many people lost their lives here
that the railway company paid for the graveyard to be extended.
But even that wasn't enough.
Down there, there are dozens of bodies of people who lie in unmarked graves.
-Under all this bracken?
-Yeah, that's right.
And there appears to be one particular mound that suggests
there may have been a mass grave.
-It's very moving actually, isn't it? Very moving.
-It is. It is indeed.
With that dark history playing on my mind,
my emotional attachment to this railway is strengthened further
as I move on to Dent.
Even when the railway was completed, the job still continued
because in some of the worst weather conditions in Britain
the line had to be kept open, a particular problem
as we approach Dent, the highest railway station in England.
Maintaining the line proved almost as difficult as building it.
15 men lived up here in the most isolated conditions all winter
to keep the line free of snow.
That's where I'm staying.
Workers were packed like sardines into these small snow huts
for six weeks at a time.
The weather at the moment is grim.
I just have to imagine
how much worse it would be if instead of rain this was snow.
Now, I'm going to live for one night
as a railway worker would have lived at the end of the 19th century
ready to go out and clear the snow from the railway line.
I don't think so! It's been beautifully, luxuriously converted.
And it's warm!
The snow huts and nearby station house have been turned
into luxury accommodation for tourists by owner, Robin Hughes.
It's just one of the businesses springing up
as a result of the railway.
every detail of the station has been beautifully preserved...
..but Robin's made it into a house.
-Michael, good morning.
Wow! What a beautiful place!
After all the publicity in the 1980s, tourists started to flood in.
There were more frequent trains
and the smaller stations reopened, including Dent.
Although you've bought this building the station is still functioning
-and has a waiting room?
-It's still an operational railway station.
Being the highest mainline station in England, it's quite appealing.
It's in the middle of nowhere, but you can get here,
there are five trains that go from here each day to Leeds or Carlisle,
so it's quite operational.
I imagine the railway line is pretty important for the local economy.
Yeah, very much so. Dent village is four miles from this station,
but this morning at about 10.15 both platforms were fairly busy
with people going either north or south for a day's shopping
or exploring the area and, yes, it is, it's a very important link
for the community here and for communities up and down the line.
Because it's a real issue, isn't it, how very remote villages survive?
But here you seem to have found the answer.
Yeah, we try and engage a range of local people to run the station.
I've got a cleaner, housekeeper, we provide Dent ale for people who come,
a food hamper, as well. So, yeah, there is a lot of enterprise in
the Dale and we try and use as much of that in our offering as we can.
The line has kept the nearby village of Dent on the map.
There are companies hiring bikes to day trippers,
a brewery and a busy blacksmith.
Lucy Sands Clark's skills were used in the conversion of the station
and she's kept in business by thousands of summer visitors to Dent.
And how is village life now?
Is it vibrant, do you see it having a future?
I really hope it will. I think this is a lovely village
in that it still retains a lot of its traditional ways and a lot of
the farming families have been here for generations.
At times of the year it's still very busy and we've just had
the Dent Dale Show. Lots of people come to that and over the summer
we get a lot of campers and there are always walkers through here
because it's on the Dales Way, but it is really hard to afford
property here because obviously when somewhere is very picturesque
property prices are driven up by people wanting second homes.
Without the railway,
specialist workshops like Lucy's would be cut off from passing trade.
The line sustains the village's heritage.
You think this smithy is how old?
Well, I think from what I understand, it's certainly on the deeds in 1640
as being a blacksmith shop on this spot.
It's time for me to leave Dent,
but before I continue north to Scotland
there's an opportunity that I cannot pass up.
Now I'm going to retrace my steps down the Settle to Carlisle railway
again to Ribblehead because I've got the opportunity
of crossing the viaduct on a steam train.
Every week during the summer
a steam train called The Fellsman powers over the Yorkshire Moors.
I'll catch the 11.20 to ride just one stop to Garsdale.
Just now I think I've heard for the first time
the sound of the engine approaching.
The sound just is drifting occasionally on the wind,
but I think it is unmistakably the sound of an engine pulling
the train up this very steep incline into Ribblehead Station.
It reminds me of the Thomas The Tank Engine books
where the train goes up the hill.
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."
The locomotive burns around 80 pounds of coal per mile
along the route up to Ribblehead.
It's like stepping back to the Victorian era.
Now it's thundering towards us.
The landscape has now been obliterated
by the smoke of the engine.
And now, at last, here comes the locomotive itself.
Masses of black and grey smoke billowing out of it.
It's a fantastic sight! And now steam appearing at the level
of the wheels as the train begins to brake coming into our station.
Feel the heat of the engine as it goes past!
Lovely to see you. Good morning. Good morning.
-Jump on here and then just go to the left.
This is a fantastic sight
as the steam engine begins to go over the Ribblehead Viaduct.
You'll never see another sight like this on a railway in Britain.
This is magical.
The valleys are full of people waving at the train,
photographing the train.
You know, it's really exciting for me, having participated
in that decision to save this railway, to see now steam trains,
to see tourists, to see people enjoying it,
to see it becoming a great success.
It's very, very exciting. I'd say moving.
The journey to Garsdale lasts just 20 minutes
doing an average speed of 55 miles an hour.
All along the 72-mile line, the historic sight
of steam locomotive hauling maroon carriages is a joy to behold.
Brilliant. Thank you.
We're off to see the driver.
We're almost out of the station!
That was one of the great thrills of my life.
-Thank you very much indeed.
On my next journey, I'll be discovering why Victorian tourists
flocked to Windermere's famous lake.
Roger, what a lovely spread, and this is the height of elegance.
I'll be learning a thing or two about Kendal.
Kendal Mint Cake, please.
We don't stock Kendal Mint Cake. It isn't actually a cake.
-Well, that has thrown me.
-Oh, I'm so sorry!
And I'll be finding out how the railways changed farming life.
You would bring all that abundance of food to the population to sell
and I think railways have changed farming considerably.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. In a series of four epic journeys, he travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.
Michael's second epic journey takes him north, from Preston to Scotland, on one of the first railways to cross the border. On this second leg, he returns to the historic Settle-Carlisle line to find out what has happened to it since he helped save it in the 1980s. Along the way, he explores the magnificent Ribblehead viaduct, finds out about the navvies who helped to build it and catches a steam train along the line.