Tunnel vision in Bath
The south side of the famous Georgian city is attracting keen cyclists
IT is Bath, but not as we know it. An English city famous for its Georgian architecture and spa culture has lately been busy dusting down its Victorian engineering heritage by adapting a 7km stretch of abandoned railway for recreational use.
On this spring morning I’m not the only one to forgo Bath’s genteel crescents for the gritty cuttings that carry this newly opened ‘‘greenway’’ through the little-visited suburbs and pretty woodlands on the city’s south side.
Bath’s latest attraction has drawn a healthy crowd of hikers and cyclists, some from Germany, but also local dog walkers, buggy-pushing parents and joggers, and groups of railway enthusiasts. Britain’s numerous decommissioned railway lines have long played a central role in the country’s expanding network of cycling and walking routes.
What’s special about this stretch of the Somerset and Dorset Railway — or the Slow and Doubtful, as it was fondly known until its closure in the 1960s — are the two tunnels that pass beneath the limestone heights just outside the city. The one at Combe Down measures 1640m in length, which makes it the country’s longest cycling and walking tunnel.
The opening in April this year of the $6 million Two Tunnels Greenway, a community-inspired project that took seven years to complete, provides a family-friendly path linking Bath with beautiful valley villages such as Midford and Monkton Combe. It also completes a scenic and highly varied 20km loop that returns cyclists and walkers to the city along the towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal.
In suburban Twerton, a world away from Bath’s elegant centre, the path makes an admittedly nondescript start before crossing two new road bridges to plunge into woods on the approach to the first of its headline acts, the 400m Devonshire Tunnel. A sign advises me to ‘ ‘ Keep Left. Keep Moving. Keep Slow’’. Soft LED lights sufficiently illuminate users without disturbing the resident bats.
Emerging beyond the city, I’m among the famed folds of Lyncombe Vale where bucolic fields, woods and cottages lead to the looming portal of Combe Down Tunnel. At the entrance a group of train buffs are chewing on sandwiches. I listen in as these knowledgeable obsessives swap horror stories about this poorly ventilated tunnel, which regularly left the engine drivers gasping for breath, and in some cases led to fatal accidents.
Oxygen levels in the tunnel are now fine even if the walk between the arched walls of bare limestone buttressed by occasional brick sections takes 25 minutes. The atmospheric silence that descends is broken by the whir of passing bikes and the violin pieces that play from hi-tech speakers recessed into the walls. Back in the sunlight, I walk on past the castellated facade of Midford Castle, where actor Nicholas Cage recently lived.
At Tucking Mill, one-time home of William Smith, the revered ‘‘father of English geology’’, a huge viaduct carries the former line over the valley lake. Reaching the end of the path at the ghostly platform of the former Midford Station, I pick up a series of signposted lanes that take me through quintessential English landscapes of streams and cricket pitches to the canal.
Beyond the historic Dundas Aqueduct, which carries the canal across a river and an existing railway line, I catch up with the German cyclists dozing by the towpath.
They tell me how much they’ve enjoyed this fresh, free take on Bath. ‘‘Makes a lovely change from all those squares and crescents,’’ says one.
It’s clear that this imaginative new path has further added to Bath’s formidable pulling power. twotunnels.org.uk visitbath.co.uk bathbycycle.com
A cyclist enters the Combe Down tunnel, a 1640m stretch of disused railway converted into a recreational attraction