March 2000


The year progresses and we pass various mileposts. Twelfth Night, Plough Monday (back to work in medieval times), Burns Night, Candlemas, St Valentine’s Day, St David’s Day, the Spring equinox, Lady Day (the first quarter day). These dates are fixed, unlike Easter and those days associated with it – Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Mothering Sunday and Holy Week. Easter this year is just about as late as it can possibly be and coincides with St George’s Day.

The Synod of Whitby met at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast in the autumn of 663. It had been called to decide whether England would date Easter according to the Roman model (the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring equinox) or in the manner of the Celtic churches. The Roman method was adopted.



Ribblehead Viaduct

One can well imagine the difficulties in getting to Whitby in 663. Not many scheduled flights. Still a large number of celebrities of the time made it – Wilfred, King Oswui, Bishop Agilbert of Wessex joined the abbess Hilda. The result of their deliberations is that Easter can fall at any time between the vernal equinox and late April. No doubt before too long the European Commission will take steps to standardise the date for the convenience of diary makers and Easter egg manufacturers.  

At the beginning of March I had to go to Carlisle for a business meeting. I took the opportunity to go by train from Leeds. This involves travelling on what is generally known as the Settle-Carlisle railway, recognised as one of the most spectacular and scenic routes in the country.  


Its 72 miles were built in six years by 6000 navvies before it was opened in 1876. When today one sees the twenty major viaducts, fourteen tunnels, miles of cuttings and embankments it is staggering to think that this was constructed by men using picks and shovels. There was virtually no mechanical power used. Blea Moor tunnel is 2629 yards long. Dent is the highest station on an English main line. The entire railway cost £3.5 million, about the price of a town house in Kensington now.

Cottage at Dent Town

From Leeds we followed the Aire, the Leeds-Liverpool canal and the A65 to Skipton, after which the show really begins. It was a day of torrential rain which, of course, obscured the views - Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent were out there somewhere - but at the same time it was exciting to see the Ribble and the Eden swollen to the point of overflowing and water poured from the fells and tumbled down the hills into the sodden valleys below.

North of Horton-in-Ribblesdale is the Ribblehead viaduct that has twenty-four arches spanning Batty Moss over a hundred feet below. It is built on marshland, which represented something of a challenge to those Victorian engineers. Thousands of tree trunks were drilled into the marsh to support the viaduct. On top of the tree trunks were placed thousands of sheepskins. In reality this enormous viaduct is essentially floating on its boggy foundation.

Some years ago it was proposed to close this line. For the present it has been reprieved. One can only hope that it is used sufficiently to justify its continued existence. The railway architecture is itself worth seeing; the stations and other buildings along the line are all built to the same design using different local materials.

I also went to Birmingham last week. It’s still awful.  

David Brearley.