It is one of Yorkshire’s most famous landmarks and now the building of Ribblehead viaduct has inspired a new period drama which might just replace Downton says Phil Penfold.
He’s not quite sure where the idea came from, but writer Steve Thompson knows precisely the moment when he wanted to tell the remarkable – and often tragic – story of the building of one of Britain’s most spectacular constructions.
Steve, who now lives in Cambridge, but whose mother was born and raised in Huddersfield and who “never ever lost her Yorkshire accent until the day she died” can remember travelling by train across the Ribblehead Viaduct.
“It gives me goose-bumps even remembering those journeys. I must have mentioned that in conversation to someone at ITV, and they said ‘Well, if you think that you can get a drama series out of it, let’s go and have a look at a few locations’.”
The result is a new series, Jericho, which stars Clarke Peters, Jessica Rayne and Hans Matheson. Set in the 1870s, the action centres on a shanty town, miles from any other community, in one of the valleys of the Yorkshire moors. While it’s called Culverdale, it is in fact a barely disguised Calderdale.
“Jericho may seem a rather odd name to use,” smiles Steve, “but it really did exist – the navvies who built this line called their settlements after some very eclectic things. There was Balaclava and Sebastopol – named after the battles of the Crimea in which some of them may well have fought – Batty Wife Hole, Belgravia and Jericho itself.
“A lot of people know the railway line’s bridges and tunnels were built by the navvies, but their personal stories aren’t well-documented.”
The line itself was built by the then Midland Railway Company. In Jericho, the money comes from a local business consortium, and keeping the funds buoyant is proving to be a problem. “One of the strange misconceptions is that it was a purely male environment, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Thompson. “There were men, women and children here. There were bars, and there were brothels. There were schools, and there were huts were the community could worship. It has to be said that the first two were up and running long before the second.”
At least 100 men were lost over the seven years it took to build the Ribblehead stretch, but there were also many other deaths from disease. Two hundred of them are buried in the tiny churchyard of St. Leonard’s, in Chapel-le-Dale. For others their last resting place was where they fell on the moors.
John Sydney Crossley was the man who came up with the designs for the viaduct, and, as an engineer and visionary, he would have been both astonished and delighted to see his project at its inception.
“We had a pretty decent budget, but even ITV couldn’t run to building a new and very solid viaduct. We had to cheat a little. But one day, I did have the most extraordinary experience of my entire career. Last February I walked into an empty field in Yorkshire, with the producer, director and the designer, and they turned to me and said, ‘Here it is then, where would you like us to put your town?’. They built an entire shanty town in the middle of nowhere between Huddersfield and Sheffield, in fact, it was so far from any facilities, that the cast and crew became shanty-dwellers themselves.”
At night, some of the lead actors had rented cottages nearby, others made the daily trips to Sheffield and Huddersfield.
Steve adds: “The visibility on some days was extraordinary. It was so clear that you could, in some camera shots which we really needed to use, tiny glimpses of Sheffield, two and more miles off. So they were CGI’d out. At other times, and towards the end of the shoot in October, the mists came swirling in, and they were as thick as pea-soup fogs. Great for atmospheric camera-work, but not good for the poor sound men because that sort of weather really does deaden noise totally.”
Jessica Raine, who plays Annie, chips in. “We had to have massive security around the set, but there was one occasion when some rather cheeky chappies from Sheffield found out where we were and, in the dead of night, managed to get in and to paint a massive phallic symbol on the door of the house that they thought was the brothel. It wasn’t. It was the hut where Annie and her kids live. I don’t think that she would have found it at all amusing – but I did!”
Another major location – and a secret one – is a private home in Yorkshire, an imposing Georgian building. “One of the production team knew that we were searching for something like it, and he said, ‘Well, you might like to have a look at my family home. It’s on the market at the moment, but it is empty, and it might be of use to you’. And it definitely was, to the point where we used it in many exterior shots, and all the interiors of the ‘big house’ come from there as well. All we did was to dress it with furniture, curtains and paintings of the period. It really came alive again. We are crossing our fingers that we have an agreement to keep on using it, for as long as the series continues. It’s not exactly on the scale of Downton’s Highclere Castle, but it does the job splendidly.”
In series one – Steve and ITV hope that this clear replacement for the period drama that was Downton will run for at least another four – the community begins to come together as widowed Annie and her two children try to set up a boarding house in Jericho, and two men, both with very different background and mysterious pasts, also arrive.
“We went up to Ribblehead many times, just to get more of the ‘feel’ of the place, and every time I came away sobered and in awe for what these people achieved – for appallingly low pay and terrible conditions,” adds Thompson. “They didn’t have the sophisticated building machines we see on sites today. It was all back-breaking hard labour.
“Clarke’s character is based on a real navvy, a man called Six-fingered Jack. Coates is a man running from his past, and attempting to make a new future.
“But then, that’s so true of many of the people we see in Jericho. A lot are trying to forget their backgrounds, and to find a new identity. These people have a lot of secrets and, it being a Phoenix-like place, these people made their own rules. That’s truly what happened.
“It was an extraordinary lifestyle, and death was ever present. In fact, it was part of the rhythm of their lives. One of the reason that I think that we are all so fascinated about communities like these is that the stakes were so high. It was life and death every day.”
The ‘navvy culture’ wasn’t just found in Britain, it happened all over the world where nations were right in the middle of an international industrial revolution.
“However, partly because the town like Jericho were so nomadic, there weren’t a lot of records kept. People drifted in and drifted out again, with others not knowing who they really were. There are no census records for these towns, but there are stories passed down about a very rich subculture.
“I did tons of research, but I was also allowed the pleasure of letting my imagination run riot. But when it comes down to it, Jericho is about basic working people on a frontier, and frontiers are always exciting. It’s already been called ‘The first British Western’, and since the classic Shane is one of my all-time favourite movies, I’m very flattered by that.
“I know that Ribblehead isn’t the easiest place in the world to get to, but I really do hope that Jericho will spark a bit of interest and that people will go and see it – and the memorial in the churchyard – and maybe pay these people, human beings like us, a little bit of respect.
“I know it’s not going to be Heartbeat or James Herriot country, or Downton, but a few more visitors to Yorkshire would be much appreciated. You know, when mum died, not so long ago, she made us all promise that we would bring her ashes back to her beloved Yorkshire, and scatter them in one of the places that she knew so well.
“Which we duly did. I feel as strongly about the place as she did.
“I just hope that she’d be proud of me, and what I’ve written about Yorkshire’s history and remarkable heritage.”
Jericho, ITV, Thursdays, 9pm.