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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Back to the future: the making of Linear Park

Well, things on the construction front are at a stand - the project plan always did indicate a bit of a pause at this point, but in several ways we'd rather not have had this further opportunity to gather our thoughts - while the project itself perhaps risks a stall.

I'm checking its pulse, as there are doubtless still people who think that the clearly expressed wish by a great many for a 'Two Tunnels route' is bothersome, counts for nothing, and they might be tempted to encourage the idea to quietly drift off to sleep. If needed, the supporters group has to step in as the alarm clock. The more supporters, the louder the clock can ring, see the postscript ...

The most recent task on the Devonshire Tunnel site was to erect tidy fencing to the top of the tunnel cutting, and a temporary security fence across the cutting itself, behind which further work can take place.

Curiously though, the gate in that fence is of 'Garden gate' proportions. We'd find it encouraging to see a gate of 'Path machinery' proportions.

The first image shows the posts for the new fence in place and awaiting rails and sheets of ply. The second is courtesy of a visitor - Alexander Cunningham - it captures the atmosphere of this part of the route as well as any we've seen. Now the fence itself is blocking the view, we've requested that a viewing port be cut in it, as is common at construction sites that are of public interest - and we've provided the source for some signage as well.

Is this journey really necessary?
Our serious campaigning began in March 2006 and included some market research:

'We may think this is a good idea, but is there wide public support for this, the support to justify the time and investment?'

The answer was a resounding 'Yes' - for all sorts of reasons.

That view was reaffirmed by the public support shown for the planning application, and then for the Sustrans Connect 2 project.

After which, the King Bladud's Pigs took off in all sorts of ways, in part because of the cause for which they were fundraising. The Pigs benefitted the City - visitor numbers well up in what was a wet summer - and themselves have laid the foundations for Bath's 2010 arts project, 'Lions of Bath'. There's Elvis (above) - find him in Bath's Guildhall Market. The lions project will be a fundraiser for a number of local charities, and, like the pigs, the project will build and strengthen a network of contacts between diverse groups of people who would otherwise likely not meet - a good way to strengthen one of the cornerstones of economic activity. Do enjoy them if you can.

The photo above's the 'Two Tunnels Pig' - from the artist Sophie Howard -painted after a research visit to shade-dappled Lyncombe Vale one day in July 2008 - and given the speed at which the Two Tunnels project is progressing, the placement of the hedgehog is entirely appropriate! So is the inclusion of a person using a wheelchair - opportunities for independent exploration can be few and far between, and the route will offer a great resource if you happen to be in a wheelchair.

So, while we understand the institutional reluctance we've seen along the way, its all the more frustrating that while Sustrans and B&NES came to us very quickly and said that they'd support this, it's then taken so long to get so much as a spade into the ground - and now with the first work complete, things have now halted.

Speaking of spades, when it went into the ground, it was partly of our making - that's the Two Tunnels' ceremonial spade, fashioned in stainless steel in China - and decorated by Nigel Bryant in Bath on the morning of the 8th March. You'll see a small design at the bottom right of the blade, can you guess what it represents?

But ... back to this pause. It is in the project plan ... so we'll attempt to put to one side the fact that this small project - just six months work - could be done and dusted before the completion of Southgate, or the Holburne Museum extension ...

Let's abandon the bike for a moment and fire up the DeLorean, rolling it down that slope to the tunnel to turn the clock back to the seventies. Bath Library contains just a few documents relating to the decision taken by the then Bath City Council that rather than use the old line for piecemeal redevelopment, much would become a community resource - Linear Park.

This was an unusual and enlightened move for the time: many old lines in town and city were cannibalised at that time. A present day walk along the route could easily now find a new road between Bellotts Road and Dartmouth Avenue, patches of housing, an expanded industrial estate at Monksdale Road, and a small housing estate on the site of the infilled Devonshire Tunnel portal, ninety odd years of an historic and characterful railway reduced to a concealed manhole cover in a suburban garden.

The 'Linear Park vision' didn't actually extend to the line's tunnels: those were perceived as a hazard. While it's now more commonplace to acknowledge the benefits and bring paths through old rail tunnels where practicable, even a few years ago this was very much against accepted practice. This document does suggest retaining the first few feet of Devonshire Tunnel as a 'shelter' - something that would have been more successful in the seventies than in today's society, where through routes work, but cul-de-sacs may not.

The four page pamplet on the left has details of the original proposals to deal with what was rapidly becoming a dumping ground. Once plans were made, the council having  bought the three stretches of line from British Rail for a token sum, work started. Unfortunately, while a lot of the demolition tasks were completed, 1973 saw the price of oil abruptly quadruple, (the graph on the right's from Wikipedia, note what happens in 1973). Away went the budget, with a conseqent hit on the 'Amenity-creation' factor.

While the demolition and earth moving component of the Linear Park task was completed, much of the landscaping didn't survive the oil price shock. The resulting Linear Park was a bit of an obstacle course even on foot, and the current resource is the product (and credit) of years of piecemeal improvement work from B&NES Parks department and local residents. The Two Tunnels campaign has raised Linear Park's profile, and it is now rather more easy to negotiate than it was when the campaign started. This of course may simply be a coincidence.™

While the document intended a stretch of parkland and a small display of railway artefacts in front of a sealed Devonshire Tunnel, when the work was carried out, to the great surprise of some people, the tunnel mouth was simply buried, seven  years after it saw its last train.
This year's work at Devonshire Tunnel has, so far, part-realised the original plan - albeit with a buried telegraph post standing in for the 'Railway artefacts' and many people have noticed how pleasant a stretch this part of the route already makes - between Maple Grove bridge and the tunnel portal. There's something to be said for landscaping to this section to somewhat clear the view of the tunnel from the bridge and vice versa - so we're looking forward to further work, now that the major physical obstacle to completion of the route is out of the way.

A postscript - while the document touches on the Lyncombe Vale stretch of the route "... which is already extremely attractive and on which only the minimum treatment will be necessary" the proposal misses the fact that to this day, while it's an open space, public access is limited to the reasonably fit and agile. The Two Tunnels project will address this, at least by opening up the subterranean approaches!

In the event, the only treatment meted out to Lyncombe Vale appears to have been the sealing of Devonshire's south portal - and even this may have been done by its owners British Rail, it is they who have maintained the tunnel to the present day. The builders of the small steel grill replacement bridge close to Devonshire Tunnel are a mystery - though perhaps a reader knows more.

The report also recommended the sealing of Combe Down "Which will also be sealed within twelve or fifteen feet of its entrance" - they were fond of that approach.

As it happened, Combe Down wasn't sealed for a decade, and a walk through Combe Down Tunnel became part of a regular outing for very many years - when it closed its historic national collection of crisp packets and the odd beer can were encapsulated in the darkness.

The last paragraph of the article is unsettling, suggesting as it does the completion of Linear Park as a series of linked project over a time period of five or six years. Bearing in mind that the engineer who would later complete the Severn Rail Tunnel organised the entire S&D new line into being in less than two - using 3000 men with hand tools ... perhaps in the 21st century we could aspire to something better, given that the Two Tunnels route is a small fraction of the length, and minimal construction is involved?

You are invited to join us in regarding the clock as having started ticking in early March 2006.

It might be that once again we'll need the supporters to speak out in favour of the route - we've a great many, but you're not all signed up to our mailing list - it's always somehow easier to build up big numbers campaigning against something rather than for it. If you know someone who'd be keen to support the Two Tunnels route, now would be a good time to talk them round to joining either our mailing list or the 400+ people on our Facebook group.


Matthew Holbrook said...

Thanks for the update Mark. Hopefully the hiatus won't seen the energy dissipating. The route walk this month and the Combe Down tunnel opening next month are both newsworthy events. Both will bring in new people, some of which will take photos and further publicise the cause.

raven said...

Great update.
What is going on??
Is it the council or is it Sustrans that are holding things up?
This project need to succeed, it has my full support.
Cant wait for the route ride/walk on Saturday.
Keep up the good work you Two Tunnellers!!

John Yeo said...

Thank you for the informative update, Mark. You're right, this project needs to have the momentum behind it maintained. Who should one contact in officialdom to ask what the hold-up is? Is it worth writing to the Bath Chronicle? I went down to Devonshire cutting yesterday morning and four separate people asked me what the hold-up was and why progress had stalled. Obviously I couldn't answer them. As you mention in your piece, I was also asked why there were no viewing holes cut into the fence.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, with 6 billion pounds worth of spending cuts on their way unless all of the funding is in the bank I should imagine the entire project is seriously at risk.

Somebody please tell me I am wrong

Mark A said...

Thanks for the comments. We appear to need some good publicity that B&NES/Sustrans has the work underway. Letters to the papers perhaps ...

Initial problems appear to be being resolved - the task did start with several bumps to say the least - but much of that seems to have been down to communication issues - and steps are being taken by everyone to improve things. The next task on the project plan will be set back a little, but the slippage can be addressed later on in the work.

Council work's often a thankless task, and B&NES being instrumental in the Two Tunnels route construction, it will be good to see the organisation accept its share of the credit when this much-anticipated route opens.

We're hoping that the council and its officers can take more pleasure in the construction phase too. Any organisation that helps this on its way will benefit from the goodwill their action will generate. The Two Tunnels route is of international interest: visitors to this blog arrive from every continent save Antarctica.

@Anonymous: most of the funding is in place. The local authority contribution is £400,000 committed over several years. (Some context, the B&NES capital spending budget for the single year 2008/9 was £61 million). This commitment has helped secure the Connect2 lottery grant. The council, prompted by this community group, has prudently fetched £1.8 million investment at a cost of £400,000 while being exposed to no further risk.

Inclusive of a contingency, the project has a small funding gap, and Sustrans (and ourselves) are actively working to close that gap.

The route itself increases economic activity both during its construction and when it is completed.

John Yeo said...

Mark, I'm full of admiration for what you chaps in the steering group have done and what you are continuing to achieve. Come the Revolution, if you ever stand for President, I will vote for you . . .

Matthew Holbrook said...


If a lot of people do their own small things, the overall result can be surprising. I'm still giving out Two Tunnels leaflets at work. I photograph all the Two Tunnels events I attend and my reports will be online for many years to come. I Tweet new links and these become my Facebook status. The links then get posted in appropriate groups. The perhaps not-very-exciting photos from the 22 April volunteer meeting got 179 visitors in the week that followed. Interest in the project is certainly being maintained.

Anonymous said...

You make mention of the project plan. Are you able to post this onto the website as a pdf, together with the GANTT chart?

I'm keen to know about the various activities yet to be completed and how long I must wait before I can enjoy a flatter ride to work.

Rob said...

I'm confused. Who is it that should be doing something that they're not?