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HOME AT FIRST'S

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ENGLAND


-

— PART ONE —

14 Miles of Paved Recreational Bike & Hike Path
Along a Former Railway Line through Rural England

 

THIS TWO-PART ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN JANUARY & APRIL, 2008. MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.

 
 

          Three out of four of the 60,800,000 residents of the United Kingdom live within two miles of the National Cycle Network. But during a recent visit to England the route I wanted to ride required me to ride my bike seven miles to catch a train, load the bike on the train, ride the train for 80 minutes (changing trains once en route), just to get to the trailhead. Only then did I begin my 2˝-hour bike ride. When the ride was over, my day continued with two more train rides and a final 40-minutes on the bike getting back to my cottage. Seems like a lot of trouble, when I could have easily stayed close to home and cycled local bike paths. But I had my reasons. Take the ride with me you just might agree that “Bristol to Bath by Bike” is well worth the effort.

 
 

A TALE OF TWO CITIES (& TWO RAILWAYS):
          Two remarkable towns less than twenty miles apart in southwest Britain share little in common. The 1,000-year-old city of Bristol (pop. about 400,000) has been, variously, England’s great western seaport, one of its grimy industrial engines, and — since Nazi bombs ravaged the city during World War II — now something of a renaissance city of culture and learning, with a revitalized, gleaming inner harbor.
          Just over 10 air miles to the southeast lies the 2,000-year-old small city of Bath (pop. about 80,000) founded by Romans at what may have been a Celtic religious site. Romans built a temple here around its therapeutic spa waters. During Saxon times King Arthur (if there was a

Bristol city celebrates the 200th birthday of their adopted favorite son, I.K. Brunel with fireworks over Brunel's masterwork — the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Photo courtesy britainonview - Pawel Libera.
Bristol city celebrates the 200th birthday
of their adopted favorite son, I. K. Brunel
with fireworks over Brunel's
masterwork — the Clifton
Suspension Bridge.

Photo courtesy britainonview - Pawel Libera.

Bath — The Roman Baths and Bath Abbey. The city of Bath has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Credit britainonview - David Angel.
Bath — The Roman Baths and
Bath Abbey. The city of Bath
has been designated a World
Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Credit: britainonview - David Angel.

King Arthur)may well have known the town. Certainly documented Saxon royalty, including Kings Offa, Alfred, and Edgar, knew the place well, as did the Normans — who built Bath Abbey — and the Tudors — King Henry VIII had Bath Priory torn down, but gave the magnificent Abbey a reprieve — and every royal household since. As much as any city in Britain, Bath is associated first to art, architecture and aristocracy.
          Bristol plays Chicago to Bath’s Charleston, SC, and like Chicago and Charleston, Bristol and Bath have at least one thing in common: railroads. Both cities have been important railway junction towns since the earliest days of railroading. Both are key stops on one of Britain’s busiest mainline (trunk) railway lines,
Isambard Kingdom Brunels double-tracked, 7+ foot wide Great Western Railway (GWR) which connected Bristol to London in 1841. The Bath to Bristol section of the Great Western follows the south bank of the meandering River Avon as it works its way among the convolution of hills toward its ultimate

confluence with the Severn Estuary beyond Bristol. Because it was the first railway between the two cities, the Great Western took the easiest available route. And, because Brunel was engineering a first-class line, the Great Western used cuts and tunnels to avoid the river’s many severe curves and remain as straight and level as possible.

          Twenty-eight years later, on the scenic and hilly north side of the River Avon the last spike was hammered in place on a new railway spur connecting Bath with the Midland Railway’s Bristol and Gloucester Railway (B&GR) at Mangotsfield, approximately halfway between Bristol and Bath. The new ten miles of track (the Mangotsfield & Bath Branch LineMB) made through passenger rail services possible to England’s south coast resort of Bournemouth from Bristol, Gloucester, Birmingham and points north. But, when the line opened in 1869, it also provided Bath to Bristol passenger trains serving villages and towns on the north side of the Avon. The line used the big Temple Meads Station in

Although it hasn't seen a passenger train since the late 1960s, Bath's former Green Park Station remains an elegant and useful landmark on the west side of the city. Note the narrow bike lane marked with a blue sign to the right of the station. Photo William O'Neill - Own work -- Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Although it hasn't seen a passenger
train since the late 1960s, Bath's
former Green Park Station remains
an elegant and useful landmark
on the west side of the city. Note
the narrow bike lane marked with a
blue sign to the right of the station.
 
Photo William O'Neill - Own work —
Wikipedia Creative Commons.

downtown Bristol, where it interchanged with the GWR, as its western terminus. However, its eastern terminus was at Bath’s Queen Square (later Green Park) Station, about one-half mile west of the GWR’s Bath Spa Station, and there was no interchange of passengers between the two lines in Bath. Since London passengers could not easily reach the MB’s Green Park Station, the MB missed out on a considerable source of traffic. And, because the line’s route was both rugged and roundabout, train times between Bath and Avon were slower than on the competing Great Western mainline.

The restored Bitton Station on the Avon Valley Railway. Photo Steinsky - Own work — Wikipedia Creative Commons.
The restored Bitton Station on
the Avon Valley Railway.
 
Photo Steinsky - Own work —
Wikipedia Creative Commons.

          Nevertheless, the Midland Railway (MR) route from Bath to its junction with the B&GR at Mangotsfield operated for 100 years. In the late 1960s, the line closed, except for a short spur inside Bath city limits. Bristol and Bath grew, and suburban communities expanded outwards from both cities. In 1972 the tracks on the line were taken up. That same year a local group formed to reclaim the Bath-Bristol route for use as a possible commuter rail route and as a nostalgic steam tourist line on weekends, centered on the rural Bitton station 2/3 of the way to Bath. Before the end of the year, the

tracks began to be put back in place. By 1979 trains were again running on a portion of the MB, but not commuter trains. The line was reborn as the Avon Valley Railway (AVR), which runs nostalgic steam trains on an isolated section of the MB spur centered at Bitton station. Over 100,000 tourists come to ride the AVR annually (operations: March through December). Currently the AVR offers six-mile round-trips east (& downhill toward Bath) from Oldland Common station past Bitton station to a point just beyond the first (of six original) bridges across the Avon.

 

National Cycle Network Route 4 sign.BIRTH OF A NOTION   
          Also in 1979, another local group calling itself Sustrans, Britain’s national pro-bike (and walking and any other healthy, environmentally friendly form of SUStainable TRANSport) foundation, opened the first portion of its first major cycle route on a dedicated, paved cyclepath/walkway. The public access (& handicapped accessible) route follows or replaces the former combined B&GR + MB railway branches for the 17 traffic-free miles between Bristol and Bath. The route, completed in 1984 and called the Bristol and

Family Cycle Outing Route 4 Bristol-Bath Railway Path. Photo credit: Nick Turner Sustrans.
Family Cycle Outing ON Route 4
THE
Bristol-Bath Railway Path.
Photo credit: Nick Turner Sustrans.

The Bristol-Bath Railway Path at Mangotsfield Junction. Route 4 runs from Bath (left fork as shown) to Bristol (straight ahead). A second bike route diverges here (right fork), following the abandoned Bristol & Gloucester Railway north into Gloucestershire. Photo Steinsky - Own work — Wikipedia Creative Commons.
The Bristol-Bath Railway Path at
Mangotsfield Junction. Route 4 runs
from Bath (left fork as shown) to Bristol
(straight ahead). A second bike route
diverges here (right fork), following the
 abandoned Bristol & Gloucester Railway
north into Gloucestershire.

 
Photo Steinsky - Own work —
Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Bath Railway Path, is an extraordinary success, with heavy usage in at either end of the line within the cities and suburbs of it namesake cities. The middle section of the route is less heavily used, except around the AVR tourist railway at trains times and close to the towns of Staple Hill, Mangotsfield, and Warmley. The asphalt path is well maintained. Most of the time the route is 3 meters (about 10 feet) wide, wider than Brunel’s competing GWR, and wide enough to permit easy passing of pedestrians and other cycles. There are some bridges and crossings that are narrower, and one area where horses are also permitting on the path.

          The route attracts plenty of long-distance riders, as it is a key section of National Route 4, the marked cycle path that runs east across Britain from St. David’s in southwestern Wales to London crosses through some of Britain’s most beautiful rural landscapes, and through some of its most congested conurbations. Since 1979 the Sustrans bike path system has grown to become the National Cycle Network: 10,000+ miles of pathways marked, mapped, and maintained for cyclists, walkers, commuters, school children, and most anybody who likes

Go to Map of Bristol – Bath Railway Path.

MAP OF BRISTOL–BATH RAILWAY PATH

the out-of-doors. There are bike routes almost everywhere in Britain and Northern Ireland. For me to be in the UK with a bicycle is to be a kid in a candy store. Like a two-wheeled Edna St. Vincent Millay, there isn’t a cycle route I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going. But, this piece of Route 4 is something special the historical prototype that changed a daring notion into a nationwide reality.

 

— END OF PART ONE —
We ride the path in
Part Two.
FOR MORE EASY CYCLING IN WESTERN ENGLAND, SEE:
THE KENNET & AVON CANAL
CYCLING COUNTRY LANES FROM GLOUCESTER TO BRISTOL.

Bristol and Bath are easily reached as a day trip from
HOME AT FIRSTS lodgings throughout THE COTSWOLDS and in LONDON.

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