I joined around a dozen Bath traders from the York Street area last night on a fact-finding mission – above and below ground level.
These are business people who share their location with the Roman Baths complex – one of the city’s main tourist attractions – and a valuable source of revenue for our cash-strapped local authority.
In the new year, a major project gets underway to extend the ruins visible to the public and create a World Heritage Centre and Roman Baths Learning Centre that will show people why Bath is so special and inspire them to go out and explore the archaeology and architecture that has given the city World Heritage status.
Along with Venice, we are one of only two Europeans cities to be awarded this UNESCO accolade.
It’s officially called The Archway Project – after the decorative stone bridge across York Street which was built to hide the pipes carrying spa water back and forth to the former Victorian Spa building and city laundry that will now be converted.
While this operation will be costing five million – with the help of a 3.4 million pound Heritage Lottery Fund donation – the Council is also faced with an additional expense.
Clearing the passages under York Street – to prepare for next year – revealed there was a problem with the beams supporting the road. Water – seeping through from the surface – has been eating away at the supports and many of them will need strengthening or replacing.
On top of this, the road itself will have to come up so a waterproof membrane can be laid to stop any further ingress.
All of this is going to be disruptive to neighbouring traders who – while recognising the benefits of an increased footfall in the future – will have to put up with a certain amount of construction work outside their doors for several years.
Meanwhile, the Roman Baths isn’t the only major body getting work done from next year. Neighbouring Bath Abbey will begin the task of taking up its floor – section by section – for stabilisation work and installing a new heating system and other facilities.
There’s going to be construction traffic everywhere and traders were not slow to voice their concerns and ask to be involved in the planning of the operation.
Kelvin Packer – Group Manager for Highways and Traffic – told them it would take around six weeks to do the road and that they would work with traders to minimise disruption. He assured them that they would not end up with a huge hole in York Street and that the strengthening work would be done from below.
While it was the Council’s policy to make Bath as pedestrian and cycle-friendly as possible – and limit traffic – without the repairs being carried out it was doubtful if the street could continue to support heavy vehicles like fire appliances or rubbish lorries.
Mr Packer said the Council had a duty to inspect its basements and cellars on a regular basis. As this is a city built on basements and cellars maybe everyone else should so do too. How long before a bus or coach goes through one?
While Stephen Bird – who is Head of Heritage Services – gave a preliminary introduction to the project – it was Stephen Clews – the Roman Baths and Pump Room Manager – who took us on a tour of the passageway under York Street.
Here there has been a massive emptying operation of heavy Roman masonry to clear the site. In January archaeologists will begin a three-month dig. The main contractor will then get down to business at Easter.
Bath Newseum caught up with Stephen to tell us more.
Next year’s timetable begins with three months worth of underground archaeology and then work on repairing the road beams will take place between April and August.
The above groundwork – and that includes creating the World Heritage Centre and other educational resources will being in June and run through to May 2019. The additional archaeological facilities – a Roman exercise yard and a specially heated room called a Laconicum – will be opened to the public in July 2019.
Find out more via www.romanbaths.co.uk