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Beside and beneath a great monument to Victorian engineering.
Distance 5 miles (8km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 328ft (100m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Moorland and farm paths and tracks, 2 stiles
Landscape Bleak moorland and farmland, dominated by the Ribblehead viaduct
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 2 Yorkshire Dales - Western
Start/finish SD 765792
Dog friendliness Dogs can be off lead by viaduct, but should be on leads in farmland
Parking Parking space at junction of B6255 and B6479 near Ribblehead viaduct
Public toilets None on routeWrite a review of this walk
© AA Media Limited 2013. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 From the parking place, cross the road and take the boardwalk by the sign towards the viaduct to a track. Turn right and follow the track until it turns under the viaduct; continue straight ahead.
2 Continue walking, now parallel with the railway line above you to your left. Go past a Three Peaks signboard, following the Whernside sign. Go over a gated wooden stile and continue until you reach a railway signal. Go left under the railway arch, following the public bridleway sign.
3 Go through a gate at the end of the arch and follow the track downhill towards the stream, then bear left towards farm buildings. Go through a gate between the buildings and on to a humpback bridge by a cottage.
4 Follow the lane over two cattle grids, through a wooden gate by a barn, then through a metal gate, to wind through the farm buildings. Go through another metal gate then a waymarked wooden gate.
5 Walk along a track through the fields, going over a small bridge of railway sleepers. By a sign to Scar End, bear right to a small gate. Go across three fields, through a series of gates and continue ahead through the next field, to reach farm buildings.
6 Turn left by the farm down the farm track. Where it bends right, go over the cattle grid and turn sharp left round the fence and on to a track, following the bridleway sign, to a ladder stile.
7 The obvious track winds through fields to reach a stream bed (dry in summer). Cross this, and continue along the track to meet a road near a cattle grid. Turn left and walk down the road and over a bridge.
8 Where the road divides, go right, through a gate, towards the viaduct. At the next gate go right again over a footbridge by the farm buildings. Continue through two more gates and follow the track under the viaduct, continuing towards the road and the parking place.
'Nowhere in the kingdom has nature placed such gigantic obstacles in the way of the railway engineer', observed a newspaper when the Settle-to-Carlisle railway line was complete. The railway was planned and built by the Midland Railway so it could reach Scotland without trespassing on its rivals' territory of the east or west coast routes. It cost the then enormous sum of £3,500,000 and was opened in 1876. Its construction included building 20 big viaducts and 14 tunnels. At the height of the works, 6,000 men were employed, living in shanty towns beside the line and giving the area a flavour of the Wild West. The line survived for almost 100 years, until passenger services were withdrawn in 1970. It was said that the viaducts, especially the Ribblehead, were unsafe. There was a public outcry which led to a concerted campaign to keep the line open. Since then there has been a change of heart. Ribblehead is repaired, and the line is one of the most popular - and spectacular - tourist lines in the country.
It took all of five years to build Ribblehead's huge viaduct. It is a quarter of a mile (400m) long, and is 100ft (30m) high at its maximum; the columns stretch another 25ft (7.6m) into the ground. The stone - more than 30,000 cubic yards (22,950 cubic m) of it - came from Littledale to the north, and construction progressed from north to south. The area is called Batty Moss, and was inhospitable, to say the least. There is a rumour that the columns are set on bales of wool, as the engineers could not find the bedrock. This, romantic as it is in a county whose fortunes are largely based in wool, is untrue; they are set in concrete on top of the rock below. There are 24 spans, each 45ft (13.7m) wide. Every sixth column is thicker than its neighbours so that if one column fell it would take only five others with it, and not the whole viaduct.
The walk takes you past the viaduct to the beginning of Blea Moor, and near perhaps the most exposed signal box in Britain. Beyond it is Blea Moor tunnel, another of the mighty engineering works of the Settle-to-Carlisle Railway, 2,629yds (2,400m) long and dug by miners working by candlelight. They got through £50-worth of candles each month. The advent of the miners and the huge paraphernalia of Victorian engineering must have seemed astonishing to the farmers sheltering at the foot of Whernside. With their ancient, Norse-inspired names - Winterscales, Broadrake, Gunnerfleet - their farms are an enduring testimony to the resilience of man long before he tried to tame it with such forces.
Take the road - or the train - up to Dent Station. You will pass through the Blea Moor tunnel and then over the Dent Head viaduct, with its 10 spans, and the same maximum height as Ribblehead. If you want to visit Dent itself, once in Yorkshire and now adrift in Cumbria, it's a long walk; the station is more than 4 miles (6.4km) from the village!
On a fine summer's day Ribblehead can seem a magical place, with the curlews calling, the sheep bleating and the occasional rumble as a train crosses the viaduct - if you're lucky, a steam-hauled one. But it can be one of the bleakest places in the Dales. The average rainfall in the area is 70 inches (177.8cm), but can often be half as much again. Snow frequently blocks the roads. More difficult for the trains, however, is the wind. Wind speeds of 50 knots are a normal occurrence, and gales can reach a greater speed. Crossing the viaduct then becomes a hazardous business. The wife of one signalman stationed at Blea Moor was known for walking across the viaduct to catch the train at Ribblehead Station carrying her baby - one hopes that it was calm weather when she attempted the journey.