Cyclists, bridges and ‘the Bath Loop’.

Bellots Road Bridge ©Bath Heritage Watchdog

It’s good to know that much energy and money is being put into improving and providing cycle routes into and out of the city of Bath. All part of a drive to persuade more of us out of our cars and onto the saddle of a bicycle. Clearer, cleaner roads and fitter citizens – an environmentalist’s dream come true.

One of the routes being developed joint by Sustrans and Bath and North East Somerset Council involves part of the old Somerset and Dorset line in Twerton which has been utilised as a showpiece route called the Two Tunnels Greenway which provides a circular thirteen mile loop out through two amazing rail tunnels and beautiful countryside to Midford and back into town via the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath.

The two bridges over the London line with the S and D bridge closer to camera.
The two bridges over the London line with the S and D bridge closer to camera.

There is a point in Twerton where the route crosses the main line to London and this old S and D bridge is right alongside the Bellot’s Road bridge – designed like most of the structures along the Great Western Railway line – by its Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The bridge at Bellotts Road is Grade 11 listed but now – according to our guest contributor, Jim Warren – it has been damaged by work to gain access to the cycle route nearby.

Jim Warren Website Author Bath Heritage Watchdog
Jim Warren
Website Author
Bath Heritage Watchdog

Jim is a founder member of the Bath Heritage Watchdog Group – www.bathheritagewatchdog.org – which had its origins during a public meeting on November 14th 2006 where it had become clear that there was considerable support fort an organisation that would fight to preserve notable buildings and structures, and oppose inappropriate developments that might put them – or Bath’s World Heritage status – at risk. Given the encouragement from that meeting it was decided to set up a formal organisation.

The following article reflects Jim’s concern about what has happened and what might happen in future along the line Network Rail call ‘the Bath loop’ during its planned electrification.

‘Each year, the World Heritage Committee considers nominations from represented nations for new World Heritage Sites and decides whether to recognise any of them as new additions to their list. In Britain there is a similar selection process where DCMS select from a national list of potential new sites to choose the one to put forward to the World Heritage Committee.

Until 2011, Brunel’s Great Western Railway was on the potential list, placed there by English Heritage. It earned its place by meeting the World Heritage criteria of being the work of genius by one man who inspired others and by being virtually complete and unspoiled and accessible to the public. When Brunel built the railway, he chose a broad gauge, and he designed it for economical operation at speed.

This resulted in a track that had gentle gradients, gentle bends and cuttings, bridges and tunnels that had very generous clearances once the broad gauge was replaced by standard gauge, and this has allowed a modern railway to evolve without the need to alter Brunel’s original structures. English Heritage considered it world-class and for that reason it was put on the potential list.

In 2010, the Government at the time decided that the potential list had become too large, and required a completely new set of applications to be submitted for a replacement list. English Heritage did not have the resources available to meet the strict timetable announced by the Government, so Bath Heritage Watchdog stepped in to prepare and submit the documentation and to mobilise public opinion, and Brunel’s GWR was short-listed but just missed the final list.

Even today, because of the comment in the report that “the opposition of the principal owner was insuperable” speculation remains about whether this was a qualitative decision or a political one from the fear that a world heritage railway could interfere with the impending electrification programme.

Nevertheless, English Heritage reviewed the line and the listing of structures along it to ensure that items of importance would be properly protected. In Bath this resulted in a few structures with changed grades and a small number of previously unlisted structures added to the list. Meanwhile, Network Rail recognised that they were dealing with a very important heritage asset and needed a suitably sensitive electrification scheme, and changed their working methods to suit.

For previous electrification projects, they had set up teams on functional lines, with one dealing with track, one with power, one with signalling and so on. However, for the section they referred to as the Bath Loop, they had set up a multi-disciplinary team to deal with all aspects of the project.

This team visited Bath and engaged with stakeholders to understand what they had to take into account and what the local character and sensitivities were. Bath Heritage Watchdog walked the line route with them, pointing out listed structures, railway photographers’ favourite places, key views and sight-lines and the various local characteristics as the line went from Lambridge to Twerton Fork.

A subsequent stakeholder session involving English Heritage, the council’s Heritage Environment Team and various railway and heritage interest groups, dealt solely with Sydney Gardens where six possible Network Rail options were discussed and narrowed down to two which were considered broadly acceptable and could be worked up into more comprehensive proposals.

From Network Rail came the insight into electrification technology including the characteristics of third rail and overhead line schemes and why overhead line was the only viable option for the Bath Loop, and constraints they had in distances between supporting gantries, stronger measures for limiting trespass (because electric trains are quieter a trespasser has less audible warning of a train and far less time to avoid it) and removing any scope for electric shock where the overhead wire passes under bridges used by the public.

Network Rail then posed a hypothetical question to conservation architects: If Brunel had been designing the GWR as an electric railway, what style of gantry might he have designed and where would he have placed them; and how would he have ensured separation of the public from the electricity whilst still presenting the railway through Bath as a visitor attraction? This led to some innovative ideas for modifications to bridges to improve safety while still looking as stylish as Brunel’s originals.

The outcome of all this consultation was confirmation that all the listed structures in Bath would remain in situ and the minimum changes consistent with health and safety would be proposed. In the case of locally important structures (such as the Somerset & Dorset Railway bridge over the GWR line at Bellotts Road) some minor modifications to the brickwork (which was possible because the track bed was carried on a steel frame and the brickwork is merely decorative not load-bearing) would ensure its survival too.

Network Rail and the heritage stakeholders had a mutual understanding that electrification through Bath was possible in a manner that was not damaging, and yet affordable. Network Rail would work up their plans on that basis.

bellots bridge jim warren
Photo taken by Jim Warren
bellotts bridge jim warren
Photo taken by Jim Warren

All that came sharply under the spotlight when it was noticed that behind the fencing erected by Hydrock beside the Grade II listed Bellotts Bridge, a section of the extending Grade II listed wall had been demolished, a criminal offence without prior listed building consent.

Not only that, but the section removed was in the worst possible place abutting the engineering brick of the Bellotts Road parapet and leaving the 175-years old bridge structure now vulnerable to weather damage.

An inspection of the broken end of the bridge shows that the missing section of wall had been an integral part of the bridge parapet though not obviously so because to make the bridge look like a bridge, Brunel had clad it with engineering brick either side.

bellotts bridge jim warren
Damaged end of Bellotts Road bridge. Photo taken by Jim Warren

It is probable that the extension of the wall beyond the parapet had a buttressing effect on the bridge, and it will now be necessary for Network Rail to conduct a safety inspection to decide either that the damage is no risk, or else that it poses a safety hazard and either the road or the railway or both must be closed until the bridge is made safe.

It looks as though a gap has been knocked through to allow contractor’s plant to get through, despite the fact that access could have been achieved via Burnham Road without affecting any listed structure.

Further investigation to find out why anyone would be stupid enough to demolish such an important section of wall revealed that it was to allow plant on site to prepare the old Somerset & Dorset Railway bridge as a cycleway. It seems an odd set of priorities that makes the creation of a cycle path potentially more important than the operation of a mainline railway.bellots bridge jim warren

It also shows a lack of planning, because in conjunction with Network Rail’s Engineering Group, arrangements will need to be made to restore the wall quickly.  In its original state it was designed to ensure that rain was deflected away from the bridge, but now that it has an exposed end with an irregular surface, rain will penetrate and remain inside the structure, and it is only a matter of time before frosts freeze the rain that penetrated, bringing the risk that bricks from it might be prized out and fall onto the railway.

It is to expose such drawbacks that listed building consent is designed for, and the reason why ignoring the requirement for listed building consent is a criminal offence (a serious one; the maximum penalty is a term of imprisonment for both the person who arranged for it to happen and the person who actually did it). That is somebody in the council because a Cabinet paper –  http://democracy.bathnes.gov.uk/documents/s26531/E2483%20Two%20Tunnels%20Update.pdf – states that “The access arrangements on Council land through Linear Park and extent of the Works on Linear Park are to be agreed with the Council.”

Further reading of the paper reveals that Sustrans would “re-open the disused Somerset and Dorset Railway bridge for pedestrians and cyclists on a temporary basis until the bridge is replaced as part of the mainline rail electrification works planned from 2015 onwards” and that there are plans for “a new replacement foot/cycle bridge provided by Network Rail as part of the mainline rail electrification works.”

Bellots Road Bridge ©Bath Heritage Watchdog
Bellots Road Bridge
©Bath Heritage Watchdog

This is not what Network Rail had agreed with the heritage stakeholders, so who in the council took it upon themselves to either make unresearched assumptions or even worse came to a cosy arrangement behind closed doors in the hope that they wouldn’t be found out until it was too late? There are very few locations anywhere in the country where one railway company opted to cross the line owned by another, and the World Heritage Site of Bath happens to have the one where both bridges, the Somerset and Dorset bridge and the GWR Bellotts Road bridge are next to and parallel with each other, and both are substantially as originally constructed.

Now it looks as though both are under threat, one being considered disposable when it very clearly isn’t, and the other put at long-term risk by illegal works. A prison sentence is probably excessive, but there are good reasons why heads should roll.’

What can The Virtual Museum add to that? Well a spokesperson for Sustrans told me the demolished wall was not part of the listed structure – however the wall was in need or repair and was taken down for access. This work was being done hand in hand with B&NES and there was a good likelihood the wall would be re-instated.

Slightly different point of view coming from B&NES where a spokesperson told me: ‘I don’t want to complicate this uses – but boiling it down, access was needed that required the wall to be taken down. This exposed what was clearly a long-term structural problem with the wall and this will need to be rectified before the wall is restored. So demolition has nothing to do with causing the problem – it exposed it and now it can be repaired.

I should add though, the bridge is Network Rail. The contractors aren’t the Councils and are working for a private developer – – in effect and they have assumed Network Rail’s permitted development rights. So in essence l guess l am saying that this is more an issue for their organisations than us.’

The issue still seems to be that the end of the Bellots Road bridge has been damaged and left exposed. Also that Sustrans told me their work was being done ‘hand in hand’ with B&NES.

I  have also just received the following reply from the Press Office at Network Rail:

‘ With respect to the Grade II listed bridge at Bellots Road, Bath, I can confirm that our Asset Protection Engineers have now spoken to Sustrans contractors as they did not have our permission to take out the section of wall that you reference;  we have dealt with this issue directly with them on site.’