Canal, rail track and now a ‘ditch’ for Sydney Gardens?

The sketch of a ditch approach to safety in Sydney Gardens
The sketch of a ditch approach to safety in Sydney Gardens. Click on all visuals to enlarge.


Here – roughly sketched on a piece of paper by an engineer from Network Rail – is the first indication of how the electrification of the Great Western line from London through to Bristol is going to impact on one of Bath’s much-loved heritage sites.

It’s the way the Company are hoping to satisfy health and safety requirements necessary around the installation of a high voltage power line – without completely destroying the look of its immediate surroundings as it passes through the green heart of Bath.

It was something l was shown at this week’s public consultation session held by Network Rail at Bath’s Guildhall. There are more monthly consultations to come.

People at this week's Network Rail consultation held at Bath Guildhall.
People at this week’s Network Rail consultation held at Bath Guildhall.

I’ll explain what the sketch implies in a moment – but first some background.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel drove his railway – in a theatrical flourish – through what was left of what had been a popular Georgian pleasure park.

For him it was a mere detail in a colossal undertaking to link Bristol with London in one of the biggest engineering projects of its time.

The existing low wall.
The existing low wall.

However he was keen to ensure that Sydney Gardens was both backdrop and auditorium for his smoke and steam-belching locomotives.

It was where people came to marvel at a new mechanical device that could out-run a horse.

Speed was the new wonder of the age and it could be experienced by those who could watch at close quarters as a combination of vapours and thundering pistons passed by in a whirl.

Network Rail has already started work on the electrification of the Great Western Main Line to enable the Intercity Express Programme which will provide more reliable services, 20 per cent more seats and reduce journey times between Bristol and London by up to 22 minutes.

It’s all part of a 7.5 billion pound modernisation of this historic rail route to the West.

That’ll happen during 2016 – with a continuation to Cardiff – via Bristol Parkway – by December 2017.

Network Rail say: ‘Our services are vital for the economy -1 bn of the 1.3 bn journeys made each year nationally are business trips or commuting. We know that increasing the number and frequency of trains across the region will help economic growth through supporting job creation and investment opportunities.’

Boarded information for those who attended the public consultation.
Boarded information for those who attended the public consultation.
How our electrified train service might look.
How our electrified train service might look.

It’s visionary stuff and more frequent, spacious, cleaner, greener and faster trains is something to look forward to. However there is no gain without pain. Though NR says Bath Spa station will remain open during the electrification  work – the closure of Box Tunnel for around six weeks to lower the track to enable pylons to run through it – will disrupt services.

Passengers will be bussed around the ‘obstacle’ to their continued rail travel – meaning longer journey times and busier roads for those living alongside the Box Tunnel ‘by-pass’ route.

During that period NR will also turn their attention to the section of track passing through Sydney Gardens. It is all that is left of a Georgian pleasure garden – constructed by Charles Harcourt Masters in 1795 – which attracted up to four thousand people a day at the height of its popularity.

Visitors who came to enjoy the waterfalls, thatched pavilions, alcoves, labyrinth, grotto, swings, carriage rides, concerts and outdoor dining that the 6 hectare site offered.

sydney gardens
Youngsters waiting for a passing train in Sydney Gardens.

The Kennet and Avon Canal cut it in two in 1799 and the railway sliced through another portion in 1841. In both instances bridges were built to enhance and lessen the impact of the industrial scars on the otherwise green surface.

Today the gardens are a public park but although trains are bigger – and some might say dirtier – it has always been possible to acknowledge them passing through. Many a train driver still responds to a wave from youngsters, held up by their parents, with a blast of their onboard hooter.

Artists impression of electrified route through Sydney Gardens
Artists impression of electrified route through Sydney Gardens

However with a high-voltage power line comes responsibilities. There has to be a barrier constructed between railway line and spectators in the park.

Will it mean ending that human ‘link’ Brunel built into this section? This is where the engineer’s rough sketch comes into play.

Seems the line through Sydney Gardens will be lowered by sixteen inches but the stone balustrade which lines its route will not be touched.

The sketch of a ditch approach to safety in Sydney Gardens
The sketch of a ditch approach to safety in Sydney Gardens

Instead – on the lawn side of this barrier – a moat will be dug to effectively heighten the fence that divides speeding trains from spectators. It just means to get a view of the passing trains you will have to stand further back.

In a way its a bit like the ‘Ha Ha’ John Wood Junior constructed in front of the Royal Crescent. An obstacle that won’t be seen by those in the park. Though – hopefully – there will be some indication of its presence to stop people falling into the pit!

There are still issues to be addressed – like nearby tree roots and how deep the foundations are under Brunel’s original stone balustrade – but it does seem to be an ingenious way of offering protection without destroying the original theatrical idea of viewing the passing traffic.

One of the stone bridges crossing the line in Sydney Gardens.
One of the stone bridges crossing the line in Sydney Gardens.

Dealing with the bridges cross the railway in the park is – l am afraid – not quite so ingenious.

The decorative stonework has apparently been targeted by late-night revellers relieving themselves onto the track below. Not to be recommended with a live power line beneath you.

So screening will have to be installed. Solid up to a point and then some variety of ‘see-through’ above it. The actually ‘look’ of this safety measure remains very much in planning.

Brunel's iron bridge
Brunel’s iron bridge

Network Rail is split into various departments. For example, engineering is a different division to bridge maintenance.

Brunel’s last remaining iron bridge on the Great Western line between Bristol and London happens to cross in Sydney Gardens. It could certainly do with some restoration. It’s all down to money of course but here’s hoping something can be done.

Network Rail have more public consultations lined up at Bath’s Guildhall. There is one on Tuesday, December 2nd and another on the 8th of January next year. There will be more monthly sessions organised all the way through to when work starts in the Bath area next summer.