Brunel Trail Part 4: Bath Station to the Old Folly

(2 miles; circular walk 3.5 miles)

This walk forms part of a waymarked trail from Keynsham to Box, devised as part of the celebrations for Brunel 200. Originally published in April 2006 as an appendix to The Ringing Grooves of Change: Brunel and the Coming of the Railway to Bath, this downloadable version will enable walkers to explore all or part of the trail without having to carry the book along with them.
Maps are not included as part of the trail because the Ordnance Survey produce much better ones than we could possibly hope to. OS Explorer Maps 155 and 156 are recommended; alternatively, small sections of these maps can be downloaded for free at www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/getamap/

Starting outside the main entrance to the station, go through the tunnel on the east side and cross the footbridge over the river. In 1842 a wooden toll bridge was built here, which cost a halfpenny to cross. In 1877, when the Bath & West Show was held on Beechen Cliff, hundreds of people swarmed off an excursion train and onto the bridge, which collapsed beneath their weight, with the loss of ten lives. It was later rebuilt in metal. The accident also provoked demands for the Skew Bridge to be rebuilt on the grounds that wooden bridges were unsafe.

Turn left at the end of the bridge, take the first left and cross the canal. The site of a wharf built by Ralph Allen in the 1720s as the terminus of a tramway carrying stone from Combe Down — Bath’s first railway — is about 50 yards along the river bank. Prior Park Road now follows the course of the tramway.

The railway east of Bath did not open for almost a year after the arrival of the first train from Bristol. St James’s Bridge, which lies ahead, was one of the last works on the line to be completed. In January 1841, when work was well advanced, a flood swept the structure away, and it had to be started again. Originally in stone, it has been extensively patched with brick, but is still a magnificent structure. The consoles supporting the parapet are particularly fine. As you pass underneath, it can be clearly seen how this bridge, as well as that at the other side of the station, was built on the skew.

Go under the bridge, turn right and walk alongside Dolemeads viaduct. Take the second right under the viaduct along Broadway. Immediately after walking under the viaduct, look to your left. The building marks on the second arch are those of a school, built under the viaduct by HE Goodridge in 1856.

In October 1882, the railway viaduct provided an even more vital service to the residents of Dolemeads. Another major flood had forced occupants of nearby houses to their upper floors. As the waters continued to rise, rescuers scrambled down long ladders from the parapet of the viaduct onto the roofs of the houses. By removing the tiles and breaking through the ceilings they managed to rescue about 50 imprisoned families.

Carry on to the end of the road, turn left and cross Pulteney Road at the lights. The railway bridge here was once a structure to rival St James’s Bridge. It was replaced by the present structure in 1975. Tom Hartigan, one of the men who erected the new bridge, sealed a bottle of Guinness in one of the abutments, together with a note: “When this bottle is found, I’ll be long gone. Whoever finds it, say a prayer and have a drink for me.”

Go through the gap in the bridge abutment, follow the footpath up to the canal and turn left along the towpath. If you look carefully to your left, you will see the entrance to Bathwick Hill Tunnel through the trees.

The bridge across the canal a little further on is typical of the elegant Bath-stone structures which reach their climax in the great aqueduct at Dundas. It is a style echoed by Brunel’s railway bridges east of Bath. Gone are pointed arches of the Bristol-Bath section, gone too the ubiquitous pennant stone. The viaduct west of Bath station, where pointed arches are rendered in Bath stone, marks the transition between the two styles. From St James’s Bridge west, there are a succession of classically-proportioned bridges — like those on the Kennet & Avon Canal.

Walk up the steps at the side of the bridge, cross over, walk down the hill and turn right into Raby Place. The railway goes under the house at the top — no 18 — which was pulled down and rebuilt by Brunel. The line can be seen, between two tunnels, over the wall at the back of no 18.
When the diarist, Francis Kilvert, visited his mother at No 13 Raby Place in 1872, she was looking after a sick relative whom, he recorded, “had a bad night, disturbed continually by the passing of the trains under that row of houses.”

The building ahead of you, on the corner of Raby Mews, was a pub called the Cleveland Arms, which also sits on top of the railway. It closed as long ago as 1932 but its name can still be seen on the back wall.

At the white gate beyond the pub, turn left and walk onto the railway bridge. On your left, the line can be seen running through two short tunnels; on your right it runs through a cutting towards Sydney Road Bridge. This stretch of line is reminiscent of the North Midland Railway cutting through Belper in Derbyshire, built by George Stephenson at almost exactly the same time, and now a Grade II listed structure.

At the end of the railway bridge, turn right. Cross over at the end of the road, walk down the hill and go through the gateway into Sydney Gardens. Turn right and head towards the railway. Most other railway engineers would have hidden the railway in a cutting at this point. Not Brunel. He wanted people to see his trains, and Sydney Gardens was the ideal place to show them off to their best advantage. A plaque in memory of him can be seen on the bridge abutment to the right.
Walk under the bridge on your left, carry on under the next bridge and walk up the steps just beyond it. Cross the bridge, walk up the hill, and, just before the bridge over the canal, go through the small gate on the right, and turn left along the towpath. Note the iron bridges (which probably gave Brunel the idea for the iron bridge over the railway below) and the carving of Father Thames over the tunnel mouth. Just past the tunnel, you come to the section of canal diverted by Brunel to build the railway.

Just before the canal resumes its original course, some steps lead down to a footbridge. So many navvies worked on the line here that four out of the 14 houses in Hampton Row, on the other side of the line, were converted to beerhouses.
Later, there was a station here — Hampton Row Halt. It closed in 1917, and no photographs of it are known to exist.

Instead of crossing the footbridge, take the path to the right. After 200 yards, you will see a stream trickling down the hillside. This was the boundary of the Folly Pleasure Gardens, owned by the Great Western Railway. A brick wall and a flight of steps mark the site of the Folly Public House, hit by a stray bomb in 1942.

To continue the trail, go to the next section.

There is a choice of two routes back to Bath from here. You could turn left under the railway bridge, cross Grosvenor Footbridge, and head into town along London Road. A more scenic alternative, however, is to turn right, walk up to the canal, and walk back along the towpath to the starting point.