Putting Bath‘s three thermal springs to one side, the main water feature in this city is the river that runs through it. Once the Avon played a pivotal role in supplying the energy required for local industry and it also served as a waterway to transport materials and produce in and out of this bustling community at one end of the Cotswold Hills.
It’s a river that behaves like any other river. It tends to flood. Something that happened more frequently as the area to the west of Bath became industrialised and the Avon’s water meadows – its natural overflow system – was built over.
Unable to release its swollen waters as nature intended the river poured instead through streets, factories and houses.
One of the worst floods in living memory occurred in 1960 when swans were able to glide up Southgate Street towards the city centre. It was also the final nail in the coffin of Bath’s Old Bridge which was fatally damaged and replaced by the present Churchill Bridge.
A radical programme was also brought in to rebuild and reshape the weir by Pulteney Bridge to increase river flow and also dredge and insert sheet piling walls along much of the central river bank to increase the volume of flood water the Avon could carry within its natural course.
One more great flood was to come in 1968 and you can see to what height the river rose that year by walking or cycling along the path which runs beside the Avon and under the Halfpenny pedestrian bridge – linking Widcombe and the city centre – which is currently being refurbished.
On the bank-side wall is recorded the dates and levels of floodwater levels going way back into the 19th century and 1968 is duly recorded too.
Our attention is being turned towards the River Avon again – but this time not only to try and keep flood waters under control.
Bath is being encouraged to see the river as a social and economic asset and to embrace and regenerate all of the environment it passes through.
A picture of Pulteney Bridge and – in the hoped-for summer – its sparkling weir, has normally been the only time anyone actually looks at the Avon. It is time to look again.