Power to the people.

Nearly two billion pounds is to be spent electrifying one of Britain’s oldest railways and you can be sure the sparks will be flying when those OLE’s (overhead power cables) reach the World Heritage city of Bath!

Network Rail attended a meeting with B&NES at the Holburne Museum last week. The issue here is what effect the programme will have on Sydney Gardens and the passage of the railway through it. Brunel – the iconic Victorian engineer responsible for the Great Western line – deliberately planned the route through the pleasure gardens as a piece of theatre. This article goes into this in greater detail, but l have heard that one proposal mentioned to safeguard the newly electrified line, would be to lower the track so that people could still walk by the line but beside a higher wall with a pointed stone top so spectators will not be able to sit on it. I have not heard what other safety measures were discussed.

The Great Western line passing through Sydney Gardens.
The Great Western line passing through Sydney Gardens.

Over the next three years Network Rail will be bringing about the biggest change in how the Great Western main line is operated since the track between Bristol and London was first laid down 176 years ago. In its day it was a three million pound Victorian investment in opening up trade routes and a pioneering scheme directed by one of Britain’s greatest engineers Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s now an historic line – peppered with heritage sites, museums and Grade 1and 2 listings – and even being considered overall for World Heritage status.

Maybe he would have been the first to utilise overhead power lines – if such technology had been available to him – but Brunel is still regarded as a leading figure within an Heroic age of British engineering and on this rail enterprise was so hands-on he designed everything from bridges and railway stations to the teacups at Swindon station’s refreshment rooms.

The bit of the line that matters most to Bath – and others keen to protect Brunel’s masterpiece – is the section of track passing through Sydney Gardens. This is a park – now owned and managed by Bath and North East Somerset Council – which once formed a 12 acre Georgian pleasure garden or Vauxhall attracting over four thousand people a day – including Jane Austen.

It boasted supper boxes, a carriage ride, a labyrinth and bowling greens, a grotto, giant swings, music and fireworks. However, Britain’s growing prowess as an industrial nation was to impact on all the fun. Though the Kennet and Avon canal cutting across the gardens was seen as adding to the site’s appeal.

The Kennet and Avon through Sydney Gardens.
The Kennet and Avon through Sydney Gardens.

Thirty years later, in 1840, Isambard Kingdom Brunel believed his railway would enhance the gardens still further – although his broad-gauge line cut the pleasure grounds in two.

How Brunel pictured people in Sydney Gardens admiring his railway. Copyright Bath Record Office.
How Brunel pictured people in Sydney Gardens admiring his railway. © Bath in Time – Bath Central Library Collection.

Our exuberant engineer saw it as an opportunity to show off his achievements and make the railway a spectacular object of display. Walls were kept low and people could get really close. Brunel had even sketched the design for a pavilion to be built alongside where people could have a grandstand view of passing trains and maybe even take refreshments.

According to Professor Angus Buchanan in his publication Brunel in Bath the engineer ‘ provided what was an almost theatrical presentation of the line, against an imposing masonry back-drop, with trains emerging from the wings in both directions and traversing the stage.’

Brunel, says the Professor, seems to have been successful in this objective as there appears to have been little public objection to his railway cutting across the gardens. But that was then and this is now.

Temporary fencing beside the track.
Temporary fencing beside the track.

Setting the engineering work to come to one side for the moment, Network Rail have recently erected temporary fencing alongside the track through Sydney Gardens. There’s been much talk of increasing trespass on the line and of just how easy it is for someone to be killed.

The fencing has subsequently acted a little like a ‘red rag to the bull’ in that one of the garden’s over bridges has been subjected to a bad graffiti attack – and vandalism that is now spreading elsewhere along the line. History and heritage seem to matter little to those armed with a spray can and a need to leave their mark.

Graffiti in Sydney Gardens.
Graffiti in Sydney Gardens.

Network Rail spend three and a half million each year cleaning the stuff off around the country but the response is prioritized. I am afraid the fact the graffiti in Bath is visible to rail passengers and park users is third on the list after impacting safety and being offensive, racist or sexist.

But in returning to the main matter in hand THAT vandalism might be seen to pale into insignificance compared to what Network Rail will have to do to ensure public safety – once the power cables are strung along the newly electrified line.

I have been talking to Communications Officer Julian Burnell at Network Rail, and sounding out some of the difficulties that lie ahead. He told me the Company was engaged in implementing a much-needed upgrade and had been charged by the Government to carry out a set of requirements.

‘But we are very aware we are going through sensitive parts of the country. It is going to be quite a challenge,’ he said, ‘ probably the biggest change in how the line is run since it was first laid down. We are aware of our responsibility and proud to be custodians of an historic line.’

So aware, it seems, that Network Rail appointed heritage specialists Alan Baxter Associates to advise on sensitive design solutions for electrification. Options that would be discussed with English Heritage, local authorities and special interest groups as the project progresses.

Alan Baxter's Route Structures Gazetteer.
Alan Baxter’s Route Structures Gazetteer.

Last year Alan Baxter prepared a Great Western Main Line Route Structures Gazetteer which, according to the English Heritage website, provides ‘ a baseline description and assessment of the significance of every railway structure and building along the lines affected by the Great Western Main Line Electrification Project.’ There is a companion volume which gives the history and significance of the Great Western main line in which over 650 buildings and structures have been assessed.

When we get to the portion of the railway line cutting through Sydney Gardens Mr Baxter says, ‘The engineering of the Great Western Main Line through Sydney Gardens is a piece of deliberate railway theatre by Brunel without parallel. This utterly unique section of the line integrates line of route, landscape, retaining walls and bridges into a single engineering and design tour-de-force, in which every element responds to the picturesque Georgian planning of the Bath World Heritage Site…. It is of very high architectural and historic interest.’

Not only that but one of the foot bridges over the line in the park has extra significance. It turns out to be ‘the last remaining example of Brunel’s use of cast iron for bridges on the Great Western….. it has a surprising delicacy for a railway structure making it an exceptionally important GWR asset.’ There were once 22 cast iron bridges along the line.

The bridge is Grade 2*, it is in a conservation area, in a registered park and garden and in a World Heritage site. It is also a favourite spot for late night male revellers to relieve themselves on to the track below. Try doing that with high voltage cables somewhere out there in the dark!

Apart from the historic values of structures that have to be integrated into a pole and cable carrying electric system, it is the considerable extra risk to human life that has to be considered. Which is where l return to that rickety temporary fence that currently separates park users from the railway track.

More of that temporary fencing!
More of that temporary fencing!

What will the permanent solution be to satisfy safety and aesthetics? Just how visible is Brunel and God’s Wonderful Railway going to be. According to the information l am hearing – not very! If they lower the  track to a level considered safe – it certainly will not be so obvious. What of the view from the bridges that cross the line in the park. What screens will be necessary to protect those using or abusing them?

Alan Baxter’s History of the Great Western line document explains how significant it was as a pioneering work and how lessons learnt ‘ in design, finance and operation, were of fundamental influence on the subsequent expansion of the railway system, at home and overseas…. its historic value makes it highly significant, not just in Britain, but internationally.’

Of the pioneering – pre 1841 railways – what distinguished the Great Western ‘were the extent of control exercised by one man, its chief engineer I.K.Brunel, and the character of the line which he designed.’

In terms of survival, ‘what is remarkable is that the Great Western Main Line starts and finishes at stations substantially or in part of the Brunel era, and at Bath, Swindon and Chippenham it has stations partly or wholly of his time.’

But what is Network Rail running here. An efficient transport system or a museum? Well a museum tends to be an enclosed space in which objects of interest are stored and displayed. To be more accurate we are talking about a 116 mile heritage trail. A transport system that has been passed down to us and one which will be continually modified to maintain its efficiency.

As Julian Burnell of Network Rail reminded me. Those of us who have lived in the West Country all our lives will not have seen overhead lines on our railway. It is one of the last main rail routes to now make the change and it is going to be quite a shock. It will be making a major visual impact that cannot be hidden.

An example of what can be done, says Julian, ‘with a degree of sensitivity’ is shown by the electrification of the Wharncliffe Viaduct – the first major structure designed by Brunel, to carry the Great Western line across the Brent Valley on the outskirts of London. The visual impact of the overhead electrification has been minimised by placing supports for the power cable on the alternate centre lines of the viaduct’s columns, thus maintaining symmetry of form.

The Wharncliffe Viaduct © Wikipedia

It’s a touch ironic to remember that Isambard was quick to take up and use any new invention that he thought would benefit his projects. The viaduct was to carry the world’s first commercial electric telegraph in 1839 and in wires against the sky line!

The changes coming to our railway will be marketed in terms of the many benefits electrification will bring. Another two billion pounds will also be spent on a new fleet of trains to provide faster, longer and more frequent services for intercity journeys. A greener, cleaner, less noisy and more efficient rail network.

‘We have to find something that’s going to work for everybody,’ says Julian. There are going to be many at Monday’s meeting between Network Rail and B&NES council officials who will be keen to know more about how Bath’s section of the railway of spectacle – across viaducts and bridges and through Georgian parkland – is going to be changed forever.

Bath's Therma Spa© en.wikipedia.org
Bath’s Therma Spa
© en.wikipedia.org

Locally the Council has made clear its intention to renovate Sydney Gardens and there is something to be said for tying this in with the work Network Rail will have to do through the park. Agreeing a scheme for protecting the line is going to be the hottest potato in this city since architect Nick Grimshaw’s glass-box installation for the Thermae Spa.

English Heritage tell me they have not had talks with Network Rail about specifics – including the detail of works involved to upgrade the line through Sydney Gardens.

‘Even if we had had discussions’, a spokesperson told me, ‘ these would still be at the pre-application stage and therefore subject to some confidentiality. For these reasons it would be premature for us to discuss the proposals with you.’

The Roman Baths.
The Roman Baths. A ‘modern’ attraction?

Are we going to find the ‘preservationists’ preparing for a ‘battle-royal’ or the resignation of compromise. Can the old live with the new? Isn’t that a constant ‘battle’ in this city anyway?

Not all are so concerned about protecting history and heritage. There is much to be said about the sole concern of getting value for money as a rail passenger. In which case the coming of the power line is very welcome.

Should we care so much about protecting – where we can – the remains of Brunel’s engineering triumph which brought a mechanical newcomer to the West. The hissing, shrieking locomotives that transformed travel and the face of Britain for ever.

I can just imagine the cartoon that graces a page in The Times when emotions start to rise and Bath’s battle-lines are drawn. J.M.W.Turner’s wonderful 1844 painting entitled Rain, Steam and Speed – which most agree shows one of Brunel’s locomotives crossing the railway bridge at Maidenhead – will no doubt be featured with pylons and overhead lines superimposed upon it!

JMW Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed 1844 © Wikimedia Commons
JMW Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed 1844 © Wikimedia Commons

It is something that will now happen for real – giving Bath a taste of what is to come.

Julian says Network Rail have been pleased with the reception they have received from B&NES who are ‘keen to engage with the process.’

On this matter, l sit on the fence. Though not the one that will line the track through Sydney Gardens. I feel it may be too high to jump down from – and much too pointy!!

So what do you all think. It is time to engage!