Lights and locomotives in Sydney Gardens

sydney gardens The Virtual Museum of Bath hears Sydney Gardens might be getting public lighting at last.

Looks like they will be set in the ground and powered by the sun. Very green and sensible – bearing in mind there is no electricity in these former Georgian pleasure gardens.

Well – not yet!!

Which brings me to the main subject of this posting concerning the local implications for the transformation of the main line between London and Bristol being planned over the next three years by Network Rail. The biggest change in its operation since the track was laid down 176 years ago.P1060503

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.

It’s now a historic line – peppered with heritage sites, museums and Grade 1 and 2 listed buildings – and even being considered as a complete package for World Heritage status.

Maybe Brunel 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 a 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 served up at Swindon’s mid-line stop refreshment rooms.

How Brunel pictured people in Sydney Gardens admiring his railway. Copyright Bath Record Office.
How Brunel pictured people in Sydney Gardens admiring his railway. Copyright Bath Record Office.

But 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 maintained by Bath and North East Somerset Council – which once formed a 12 acre Georgian pleasure garden or Vauxhall which attracted 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 literally ‘cut-in’ on all the fun.

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

First came John Rennie’s Kennet and Avon Canal which was dug through the pleasure grounds in the early 1800’s and then – in 1840 – Brunel’s navvies dug another even more impressive transport route through the greenery.

According to Professor Angus Buchanan in his book Brunel in Bath the engineer ‘provided what was almost a 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 criticism to him cutting Sydney Gardens in two with his railway. But that was then and this is gardens

Setting the forthcoming engineering work to one side for the moment. Network Rail have erected temporary fencing alongside the track through Sydney Gardens. There had been much talk of increased trespass on the line and of just how easy it was for someone to be killed.

The fencing of course has acted like ‘ a red rag to a bull’ in terms of those nimble enough to show that no fencing will stop them getting to where they should not be. Then of curse you have to show you have defeated the obstacle placed in your path and the amount of graffiti on the rail bridges is evidence of that.

The graffiti grows in Sydney Gardens.
The graffiti grows in Sydney Gardens.

Network Rail spend three and a half million pounds each year cleaning the stuff off around the UK but their response is prioritized.

I am afraid the fact the graffiti in World Heritage Bath is visible to train passengers and park users only qualifies for third place on their action list. That is after ‘ does it impact on safety?’ and – at number one – is it ‘offensive, racist or sexist?’

A spokesperson for Network Rail has told me how sensitive parts of the route to be electrified were. They were aware of their responsibilities and ‘proud’ to be custodians of a historic line. I was directed towards a major survey they had commissioned of every railway structure and building along the Great Western line.

sydney gardensIt was carried out by Mr Alan Baxter who said of the Sydney Gardens stretch: ‘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 tour-de-force in which every element responds to the picturesque Georgian planning of the World Heritage site…. It is of very high architectural and historic interest.’

Not only that, says Mr Baxter, 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 surpassing delicacy for a railway structure making it an important GWR asset.’

Brunel's iron bridge
Brunel’s iron bridge

There were once 22 cast-iron bridges along the line. This last one is Grade 2 star. It is in a conservation area, in a registered park and pleasure garden and within a World Heritage site. It also happens to be on the route home for a lot of late-night male revellers who also like to leave their mark.

No aerosol paint cans just a spot of bladder emptying often aimed through the decorated stone or cast-iron  balustrades of Brunel’s two bridges.

Decorated balustrade is full of holes!

Now we have reached the heart of the matter. How to save some people from themselves. Apart from the historic values of the structures that have to be integrated into a pole and cable carrying electrical system, it is the considerable extra risk to human life that has to be considered.

Which is where l return to that rickety ‘temporary’ fencing that currently separates park users from railway track.

What will the permanent solution be to satisfy both safety and aesthetics? Just how visible is Brunel and God’s Wonderful Railway going to be after 2016?

Well – according to what l am hearing – not very. A proper barrier of sorts has to be in place and the bridges that cross the line will also have to be screened in some way to protect those using or abusing them.

I recently bumped into a group of men taking measurements around these two bridges. Seems they work for a company which may be tending for the health and safety work and will be putting barriers in place.

They were reluctant to tell me what materials would be used but did say it would be sympathetically installed.

sydney gardens
People watching for trains!

There was also talk of an amphitheatre being constructed beside the line in the area Brunel landscaped so people could wave at his trains – as people still do! (It’s always good to hear the train drivers blowing the cab’s horn in response to a child’s wave – even if it is just from an old diesel-driven 125).

With talk of that ground being lowered – it could mean the old stones from the existing Brunel-barrier being used to build a new higher viewing platform and a higher, replacement wall going beside the railway track?

Network Rail is not of course running a museum but what they want to be an efficient and profit-making transport system. However this one comes with historical strings attached – it’s a 116-mile long heritage trail.

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’s going to be quite a visual shock – one that cannot easily be hidden.

The changes coming West 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 gardens

Certainly Bath’s section of this spectacular railway – across viaducts, river bridges and through Georgian parkland – is going to be changed forever.

Locally B&NES has made clear its intention of renovating Sydney Gardens – if it can get grant aid – and there is much to be said for tying this in with the work Network Rail will have to do to its transport route through the park.

Agreeing the ‘look’ of  that safety work through this treasured landscape is going to heat-up the hottest potato in this city since Nick Grimshaw proposed a wall of glass around the new Thermae Spa.

However this isn’t a case of the old living alongside the new and novel. It is how much of  our history and heritage is going to be lost behind safety barriers and banished forever from our sight.

What do you think?