This tale is typical of folklore which has attached itself to the dramatically scenic railway between Settle Junction and Carlisle (S&C). It was "the line that refused to die" despite Machiavellian machinations and statistical manipulation and which has been vindicated.
Celebrations, including a firework display, were held this April to mark the ten years since the line was saved by a Government minister's reprieve announcement on April 11, l989. More than 22,000 people -- and a dog -- submitted objections which led to the longest public inquiry into a rail closure proposal in UK railway history.
But it is not history, but folklore, which concerns us over this 72-mile line across the backbone of Britain.
Before the S&C's reprieve, it was used as a test bed for two initiatives. The first was "closure by stealth" which had ramifications for all other "uneconomic" lines; the second had it being touted almost until the last minute as a precursor for the overall rail privatisation. The British Railways Board tried to find a private buyer to develop the line as a tourist attraction, but before it came to nothing the "Sunday Express" published an unconfirmed news story that in addition to five serious inquiries, an unnamed l5-year-old Saudi Arabian prince had entered a bid.
During the systematic rundown of the S&C, British Rail claimed the magnificent 24-arch Ribblehead viaduct was on the verge of collapse. At one stage, BR estimated that to replace this principal structure would cost between £4.5m and £7m, In the event, the bill was only £2.5m.
Battered by westerly gales racing up Chapel-le-Dales, Ribblehead viaduct became the subject of much fanciful speculation. It is said the wind could bring trains to a standstill and blow protective tarpaulins off trucks to waft them away like autumn leaves (a windfall in a literal sense to any local farmer around when they fell to earth) and the doubtless exaggerated claim that cars had been blown off wagons and smashed to the ground. (2)
Former editor of The Dalesman, W. R. Mitchell, observed that the parapets deflected the wind from railwaymen crossing it -- "they did not have to crawl as some writers have fancied," (3) Nevertheless, the wind can be awesome and the anemometer kept at Ribblehead station recorded 92mph in November, 1961.
More than once I have come across the wild claim that on one remarkable occasion a track ganger had his cap blown off, only for it to ail under an arch only to rise again and land back on his head, but the wrong way around, He is even quoted as concluding his narrative with the observation, "Thorr can't have ivverything." (2)
Some folklore has an element of the ludicrous and the notion that this Victorian cobweb of a viaduct's piers were built on wool is one. Stability, however, was established by shafts sunk to the bedrock at about 25ft and the dressed limestone which was conveyed by tramway from nearby Littledale, was placed on six feet of concrete. The wool story has also been attached to nearby Dandry Mire viaduct, near Garsdale, and I've personally heard it said implausibly of Yarm viaduct over the Tees. Yet V. R. Mitchell speculated that wool could have been used to prevent seepage of water into shafts or perhaps Ribblehead was built with money earned through wool, i.e. built on Bradford wool merchants' brass. (4)
Shortly after the viaduct is Blea Moor tunnel, length 2,629 yards, and "a 'presence' has been detected at the southern portal' claims W. R. Mitchell. (5)
Next viaduct along the line is Dent Head. Here, legend avers, an engineer killed a woman and dumped her body into one of the shafts being excavated. As at Ribblehead, the immense piers were set on a bed of concrete and once poured in all trace of the victim was lost. By the time details of the crime became known, the viaduct was almost completed. Being impracticable to seek any trace of the body in the foundations, all that could be done was to fix a commemorative plaque high on a pier. (6)
Of course, such apocrypha goes back aeons to foundation sacrifices and forwards to notions of notorious East End gangsters as "hardened criminals" holding up motorway flyovers.
At another viaduct, Ms Gill, there is a footbridge known as hangman's Bridge, supposedly after a suicide. (2)
There are other interesting names, such as Samson's Cave by the line where a man of that surname hid after killing a fellow navvy, eventually being found, tried and hanged.
We al know of local places once given far-off names because the locality was somewhat distant from a better and larger settlement --California, Quebec, Spion Kop, and so on. The navvies building the S&C bestowed upon their shantytowns such names as Belgravia, Salt Lake City, Jericho, Sebastapol and Inkerman. The latter two names were transferred from Crimean War places of siege, where doubtless the militia's privations were re-enacted in wildest Yorkshire.
As related previously, wind can be harsh along the S&C, but the apocryphal tale of a locomotive propelled at 70mph for some time on the turntable at Garsdale is a classic, Former General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, Sid Weighell, has claimed it happened several times and the engine involved would turn for hours.
“There was no way you could stop it and no way you could get the engine off, not until the wind had died down," said Sid. "They built a shelter round it in the end." (7)
The protective shelter was actually a stockade of discarded upright sleepers though their purpose was ostensibly to keep the pit free from drifting snow,
Anthony Lambert swallowed the story and described an engine as spinning like the sails of a windmill, only to be halted when ballast was thrown into the pit. (2)
Putting a slower spin on the Garsdale story, Stanley C. Jenkins had a freak of nature taking place where "the wind took charge of it and the locomotive was turned slowly round and round on its axis until somebody shovelled stones and cinders into the turntable pit." (8)
No exact date, no real authentication, but at least a specific culprit is recorded in one account. I'll let Peter Brook tell his version: “About 1936, Kingmoor shed was receiving new motive power in the form of the Jubilee class 5XPs which unassisted were able to take loads of 350 tons over Ais Gill, Trains in excess of this loading were provided with a pilot to Garsdale, where a turntable was provided for a comfortable return trip with the engine chimney-first. Turning on Garsdale's turntable could be difficult in stormy weather in view of the absence of a windbreak, and there was a case on record when Kingmoor 2P 4-4-0 No, 40602 spun round like a windmill for three hours before the Helm Wind dropped. This even took place in 1949." (9)
One astute commentator seems to have both disproved the tale and offered a likely origin for it,
"Assuming the tender presented a greater wind resistance on one side of the pivot than the engine did on the other, it is possible that a strong wind could have taken over - but for only a limited part of a revolution. As soon as the tender side came round into the face of the gale from the other side of the pivot, the movement would have been arrested and the locomotive stabilized in a neutral position - just as with a simple weather vane," wrote E.S. Youldon. "The only way the engine could have rotated continuously was if the wind, was also rotating continuously! As with all such yarns, there must have been something to start it off, and I suggest that what happened was this: the engine was being turned, but when it neared the run-off point it became side-on to the wind. Wind force took over, and continued to pull the engine until it stopped too far around. It therefore had to be pushed back again -but the same thing happened, and perhaps went on happening until assistance arrived." (10)
Veteran railway correspondent Peter Semmens relocated the myth in Devon, featuring one of Q.V.S. Bulleid's Light Pacific locomotives. He claimed one of the class got "itself blown round for several hours on the turntable Ilfracoombe during a gale. It was impossible to hold it against the force of the wind on the air--smoothed boiler casing until someone drained the tender, which unbalanced the turntable." (11)
The trainspotting fraternity, particularly those who frantically recorded the 1ast months and rites of steam operation during l968, created their own folk customs.
At the Temperance Hotel, Kirkby Stephen, a celebrated Jam-butty eating contest was inaugurated by regular attenders. Contestants would arrive from S&C vantage points; one of who arrived from Ale Gill set the all-time record of Spreading and eating a Jam-butty in a phenomenal eight and a half seconds. (12)
Sadly, it seems the passing of regular Steam-hauled trains was the death knell for a living folklore, but luckily we still have past memories and a bright future for the S&C.
References. (1) Mitchell. WR. "Summat and Nowt" Castelberg, 1998. (2) Lambert, Anthony. "Settle to Carlisle" Siena, 1997. (3) Mitchell, W.R. "Ribblehead Remembers the Great Days" The Dalesman March 1972. (4) Mitchell, V.P. "High Arches" The Dalesman Jan., 1933. (5) Mitchell, W.R. "South of Blea Moor" The Dalesman Sept., 1983. (6) Mitchell, W.R. "Iron Road to Carlisle" Cumbria May, 1973, (7) Page, Brian, "Steam, speed and our Sid" Northern Echo Nov.24 1988. (3) Jenkins, Stanley C. The Wensleydale Branch" The Oakwood Press, 1993 (9) Brock, Peter. "Steam Finale over Ais Gill" Railway World, ?. (10) Youldon, E.S. "Garsdale turntable: an alternative theory" Steam Railway Nov., 1987.(11) Semmens, Peter, "1945: the year sanity returned to the nation’s railways” The Railway Magazine, May 1995. (12) Goss, John. “Middle 8” Railway World 1980
Back To Main Index