HOME AT FIRST'S
PART ONE —
14 Miles of Paved
Recreational Bike & Hike Path
Along a Former Railway Line through Rural England
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
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
masterwork — the Clifton
Photo courtesy britainonview - Pawel Libera.
Bath — The Roman Baths
Bath Abbey. The city
designated a World
Heritage Site by UNESCO.
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 —
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,
Brunel’s double-tracked, 7+ foot wide Great Western Railway
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
|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
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 Line—MB)
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
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.
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
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
the Avon Valley Railway.
Photo Steinsky - Own work —
Wikipedia Creative Commons.
Nevertheless, the Midland Railway (MR)
route from Bath to its junction with the
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
but not commuter trains. The line was reborn as the
which runs nostalgic steam trains on an isolated section of the
spur centered at Bitton station. Over 100,000 tourists come to ride the
annually (operations: March through December). Currently the
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.
OF A NOTION
Also in 1979, another local group calling itself
Britain’s national pro-bike (and walking and any other healthy,
environmentally friendly form of
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
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
ON Route 4
Bristol-Bath Railway Path.
credit: Nick Turner Sustrans.
The Bristol-Bath Railway
Mangotsfield Junction. Route 4 runs
from Bath (left fork as shown) to
(straight ahead). A second
diverges here (right
fork), following the
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
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
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.
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
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.