Walk the Line
In this walk we wanted to remind people of the world the railways built – through engineering, craftsmanship, aesthetics, enterprise, and the democratizing of travel. We do this by signposting some of the cultural history and politics of the railways, but also by encouraging everyone to ‘walk the line’ for themselves. Thousands of disused railway lines are now accessible as foot and cycle paths; many more rely on volunteers to reclaim them so that they can be enjoyed again.
The Linear Park in Oldfield Park is a reminder of the lost railway routes of Bath. This followed the route of the old Somerset and Dorset line, affectionately known as the ‘Slow and Dirty’ or S&D (see Walk the Line for more information about it), which was created in 1862. The coming of the railway had multiple impacts on the city: it opened up cheaper travel for the masses, and made accessible the day trip. The Duke of Wellington famously opposed the coming of the railways as he thought it would encourage the working classes to ‘wander pointlessly about.’ But the S&D also cut Twerton, one of the more deprived parts of Bath even to this day, off from the rest of the city.
The Slow and Dirty
The Somerset and Dorset Line (S&D) was affectionately known as the Slow and Dirty, and is a remarkable testament to Victorian engineering feats. The line connected Bath to Bournemouth; and during winter mainly engaged in transporting freight and commuters, in the summer being dedicated to transporting tourists for day trips and short holidays to the seaside. Created in 1862, the S&D finally closed down in 1966, a victim of the Beeching Axe.
The cost of building the railways was large in terms of loss of life, corrupt business dealings, and the irreparable impact on communities, sometimes against their will. But the politically resonant point is that the coming of the railways represented an epic era of mass investment: in the infrastructure of Britain, of confidence in engineering, and an ability to make lasting structures of utility, and sometimes quite extraordinary beauty.
Twerton was a pioneer of the cooperative movement in the South West. The Bath Co-operative Society was established by a railway goods guard called Benjamin Colbourne who came to live in Twerton in 1888. Having seen cooperatives work well in the Midlands, Benjamin set about organising in Twerton, and some 80 local people came to his first meeting at St Peter’s Institute. There was an early constitutional crisis with a proposal to call the group the ‘Bath and Twerton Co-operative Society’ – locals were outraged that Twerton got second billing, so it became Twerton only. In 1922 Bath merged with the Twerton Co-op – which had six times the number of members and ten times the capital of its grander neighbour. By 1939 half the city had joined the co-op.
Church of Our Lady and St Alphege – Oldfield road
The church was built by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1927-29) but not consecrated until 1954, and is dedicated to a Bath monk, St Alphege. According to the Pevsner Guide to Bath, the building ‘cannot fail to astonish and delight.’ It is modelled on the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome (itself a basilica of early Christian simplicity). The exterior has a three-arched loggia, and a lean-to roof with Italian tiles. The campanile is only half the height it was originally planned due to fears about the building’s stability. The interior floor was an experiment in using linoleum in the same way as marble – a testament to how craft evolves and changes over time, to embrace new materials and old techniques, and vice-versa.
The Two Tunnels
The two tunnels are one of the S&D’s most remarkable engineering features, and were re-opened by cycling charity Sustrans in 2013 as a shared path for cyclists, walkers, runners and others to enjoy.
The reinvention of the S&D line shows how we might think more imaginatively about the transport system we want in the twenty-first century. This is particularly pertinent as we face the unavoidable challenge of re-shaping the way we live and travel (and produce and transport goods) for a low-carbon future, and at a time when Government and local authorities plan to build almost 200 new roads, including 40 routes that have previously been abandoned or defeated at public inquiries on environmental grounds. Choices made now will determine whether we are locked into ecologically and socially damaging modes of transport for people and freight.
Transport campaigners argue that investments in public transport, better maintenance of our existing infrastructure, safer routes for walking and cycling, and more intelligent use of technology can deliver better results economically, environmentally and socially. So we pose a basic question: if the way we travel helps shape our culture, our environment and our economy, should we not also reflect on the kind of sustainable culture we want to create thereby?