Arten Gill Viaduct

MSL’s history destination is from a folio that burns like a white-hot crucible in the heart of every decent Briton – railways.

Old Arten Gill Viaduct in Yorkshire Dales National Park, Great Britain, iStock

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 cholera-water 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!

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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 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 thought-through 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.

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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.

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