Few people have had as great an impact on Bath as Brunel. He changed the face of the city and brought the coaching trade — the bedrock of its prosperity for almost two centuries — to an abrupt end. Far from opening up the city to mass tourism, the arrival of the railway accelerated Bath’s decline as a fashionable resort. West of the city, at Twerton, the effects were even more devastating: the village was cut in two by a high viaduct, and its weaving industry was decimated by an influx of cheap material from the North of England. In the east of the city, Brunel drove his line through Sydney Gardens, transforming a refined retreat for the upper classes into the most scenic railway cutting in the country.
The Ringing Grooves of Change tells the story of Bath’s invasion by an army of navvies, drinking, whoring and fighting in shanty towns on the edge of the city, while armed Chartists massed in the streets and local elections descended into drunkenness and anarchy. It was against this turbulent background that Brunel brought the railway to Bath.
With a section devoted to the building of Box Tunnel and a new Brunel Trail from Keynsham to Box, The Ringing Grooves of Change tells the gripping story of how a great man changed a great city for ever.
A good story, told with all the attention to detail and painstaking research that defines local author Andrew Swift’s work, and illustrated with numerous engravings, photographs, posters and other ephemera that create a real sense of the importance of this stage in Bath’s rich history — a fitting tribute to Brunel and the GWR in the great engineer’s bicentennial year.
2006 has seen many books published on Brunel’s achievements, but in The Ringing Grooves of Change we have something different. The extremely readable text is enlivened with newspaper reports, sections from Brunel’s diary and quotes from the literature of the time. It paints a fascinating picture of Bath , both before and after the arrival of the railway. Not only is Bath covered but so is the enigmatic Box Tunnel with all its Brunel mystique and later rumours of secret tunnels. Again, contemporary reports of its construction are weaved into the text, some giving alarming reports of accidents during the construction period. Well worth a read.
This book covers the decade that brought the Great Western Railway through Bath in the 1830s on its way to Bristol, describing in great detail the evolution, planning, design, construction and operation of the line between Bristol to beyond Box Tunnel. Naturally the figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel towers over the project, and initially one wonders if there is enough room for yet another book with Brunel as the central character; but although the book contains quotes from his diary, letters, and his journal as well as reports to the GWR board, much of the book uses material from contemporary sources – local and national newspaper reports, eye witness accounts, and court and enquiry hearings. Often in historical accounts an author can appear aloof, remote from the action rather as a present-day commentator sitting high in the stand merely interpreting the happenings on the pitch. Not so here, as one has a sense of being brought down to be amongst the characters performing this great task which transformed travel and sharing their triumphs and tragedies. Not only do we get an account of the building of the railway, we also sense the atmosphere of unrest in the City and beyond amongst the disenfranchised poor, misery that was present before the railway, but was made worse by its arrival as it sliced through some of the poorest districts.
We are taken with the aid of maps, contemporary drawings and diagrams along the line from Bristol to Bath to witness its construction and opening in 1840, then on out through familiar territory in Bathwick to meet the line coming westwards from Reading. The last great obstacle, the hill at Box and the tunnel through it, deserves and gets a separate section of thirty-five pages. At that time the longest tunnel in the world, inclined yet straight as a die, its story is beautifully told.
Finally the Author has included seven walks to enable you to trace the line from Keynsham to Box. I completed two (three if you include Bath Station) and found them both interesting and easy to follow. The final Walk 7, up and over Box Tunnel was superb, full of interest with fabulous views on the way, and further enhanced by a diversion to the Quarrymans Arms for lunch before descending.
Altogether an excellent read, which I recommend even if you think you believe that you already know enough about the subject.
Read an extract from The Ringing Grooves of Change