Brunel in Bath

06 February 2024

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06 February 2024

Blog

Tim Bryan, Director of the Brunel Institute takes a stroll around Bath’s surviving railway heritage and discovers some Brunel engineering treasures.

Tim Bryan, Director of the Brunel Institute takes a stroll around Bath’s surviving railway heritage and discovers some Brunel engineering treasures. 

Bath is most famous for its Roman and Georgian heritage but it contains some striking railway architecture that includes a number of important listed structures and highlights how Isambard Kingdom Brunel engineered the passage of his pioneering Great Western Railway through the heart of this most historic of cities.  

When the railway was being promoted in the 1830’s Brunel had worked hard to persuade wealthy landowners like Lord Manvers to support the Act of Parliament needed to build the GWR from Bristol to London and was anxious to make sure that its design matched the architectural pretensions of the city.  

There is still plenty to see of Brunel’s railway in Bath, most easily walkable from the city centre.

The crenellated towers of Brunel’s viaduct are similar to those on his Temple Meads station in Bristol.

Starting to the west of the station, the passage of trains into Bath can be seen via a gothic crenellated viaduct that carries the railway in from Bristol and crosses the Avon before running into Bath station. It is now bisected by a very busy road junction, so take care as it is difficult to get a good view of what must have been an impressive structure when it was built. Bath Station was renamed Bath Spa to avoid confusion with the city’s other main station at Green Park in 1949.  

Like Brunel’s Temple Meads the station was set on a viaduct with platforms at first floor level; it also had an overall wooden roof like Bristol, but this was removed between 1895 and 1897. The 18th century style frontage that faces Manvers Street has a slightly strange asymmetrical design but was designed to impress, unlike the Booking Office on the south side facing Widcombe hill, out of sight for most travellers and residents and much plainer in design. 

Hidden from view, the south ticket office of Bath Station is plain in comparison with the entrance facing Manvers Street

Walking across the footbridge behind the station you can then follow the path of the River Avon east, and cross the Kennet & Avon Canal. Continue until you reach St James Bridge, close to Bath Cricket ground – this fine single arch Italianate structure takes the railway back across the river and was illustrated in J C Bourne’s 1846 survey of the GWR. Sadly it has been patched with a pretty unsympathetic selection of brick over the years, but it still retains some of Brunel’s stone decoration on the adjacent arch carrying the footpath 

The St James Bridge

The railway then runs out of the city on a long multi-arched viaduct through a housing estate before running parallel to the canal again. Crossing the busy Pulteney Road it’s possible to walk up the hill and rejoin the quieter canal towpath and follow the canal into Sydney Gardens, where the railway emerges from a short tunnel into what was a Regency and then Victorian pleasure park.  

The Kennet & Avon Canal as it enters Sydney Gardens

Opened in 1795, Sydney Gardens was the haunt of fashionable residents and visitors to Bath including Jane Austen who lived nearby for some years and also it also included a grand hotel, now occupied by the Holbourne Museum. The gentility of the gardens had been shattered in 1809 when the canal was driven through it, but where the canal was quietly hidden at the top of the park, the arrival of Brunel’s Great Western Railway was more dramatic.  

The railway running through Sydney Gardens

To construct the line various structures such as a grotto and maze had to be demolished (although the Trustees of the Park were rewarded by compensation from the GWR for their trouble) and Brunel took the opportunity to showcase his new railway as much as possible with a colonnaded wall built along the track side, and elegant footbridges linking the two sides of the gardens that had been sliced in two by the new line, all dominated by a massive retaining wall on the south side, beyond which the canal runs.  

One of Brunel’s sketchbooks held in the Brunel Institute records an intriguing structure – a pavilion set next to the track, that might have served as a refreshment room where visitors to the gardens could watch the trains go by! This pavilion was never built, although when Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Helena visited Bath in 1889, she alighted at a special platform in Sydney Gardens, built largely because Brunel’s Bath station was thought to be too smoky and dirty for a royal personage! 

 

Brunel’s design for a pavilion in Sydney Gardens, never constructed*. 

The railway continues to follow the path of the canal and runs close to the River Avon before heading west towards Box and Chippenham, the subject of a future blog! 

MORE INFORMATION

More information about listed Brunel structures can be found at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/ and the fascinating history of Sydney Gardens can be discovered at: https://beta.bathnes.gov.uk/visit-sydney-gardens  

The Brunel Institute houses the National Brunel Collection and is a collaboration between the SS Great Britain Trust ansd the University of Bristol. To see more about the Institute see: https://www.ssgreatbritain.org/collections-and-research/ 

All images from the Brunel Institute collection except *Courtesy of the Brunel Institute – a collaboration of the SS Great Britain Trust and University of Bristol. 

Iron Stone & Steam: Brunel’s Railway Empire

Learn more about Brunel’s Railway Empire with Tim Bryan’s fascinating book, available from our online shop.
BUY HERE

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