Tun­nel vi­sion in Bath

The south side of the fa­mous Ge­or­gian city is at­tract­ing keen cy­clists

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JEREMY SEAL

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

GETTY IM­AGES

A cy­clist en­ters the Combe Down tun­nel, a 1640m stretch of dis­used rail­way con­verted into a recre­ational at­trac­tion

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