The ancient city of Bath Spa was a particularly difficult conquest for Brunel, as he attempted to unfurl his railway between Bristol and London. While the merchants and ship-owners of Bristol were desperate to be connected to the metropolis, Bath had no interest in making itself more accessible. After all, the wealthy had been seeking out its restorative waters since Roman times and now it boasted some of the finest shops outside London. In the Georgian era it became a perfect architectural jewel. Famed throughout Europe, it attracted the highest echelons of society, both those wishing to enjoy the city’s many balls and entertainments and those convalescing from illness; (a character in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett described it as a ‘national hospital’ to which ‘none but lunatics are admitted’). The last thing it needed was a dirty, noisy railway cutting through its centre.
I leave the station by the rear exit and cross the river, picking up a footpath along the canal. It is a bright December day, below freezing, the sky cloudless and blue. The Great Western Railway took over control of running the canals in this part of the country, as they needed them to deliver coal and plant. I am standing on the canal bank, attempting to take a photograph of a small ironwork footbridge when I become aware of a man at my side. Tall, in his 60s, he is wearing walking boots and is accompanied by a retired greyhound.
‘It looks good, doesn’t it’, he says, nodding towards the bridge. ‘We just restored that’.
The brightness of the sun makes it impossible to take a reasonable photograph, and in any case I can sense this man is ready for a conversation, so I put my camera away and turn to him.
‘It was made by George Stothert’, he continues. ‘Back in the 1970s, when I lived in Bath, the firm Stothert and Pitt was still based here. The ironworks employed three thousand people then, making cranes mostly’. He looks over my shoulder as I scribble in my notebook. ‘You’ve got an architect’s writing’, he says. I am no architect, I tell him. I explain, as best I can, my activities as Writer on the Train for First Great Western and that I am researching the route from London to Bristol, so the architecture of the canal and of the railway in Bath interests me. ‘Then you should see the notice at the previous bridge’ he says. ‘It was put up by the Great Western Railway. I restored it myself.’
We walk back along the towpath, together with the greyhound, whose name, appropriately for an animal rescued from the fate of all those too old for the track, is Grace. The notice is a striking black rhomboid shape, it’s lettering picked out in vivid white paint. ‘It took ages’, he admits, ‘but once you start… ‘
The notice cites the Motor Car Acts of 1896 and 1903: it seems extraordinary such legislation existed so early. It is a response to the clash between new technologies and the existing infrastructure that characterised the period; the original bridge collapsed under the weight of a farmer’s steam traction-engine, which ended up in the canal below our feet.
So I have told you about myself, I say to the man, how about you? What is your connection to the city?
‘Forty years ago I was Chief Executive of Bath Council’, he says, ‘then I went to work for the National Trust in London and ended up running five of the Queen’s Palaces. When I retired I came back here. (A quick Google search reveals he is currently Chairman of the Bath World Heritage Site Steering Group – I couldn’t really have chanced upon anyone more knowledgeable about the route I am walking). ‘My wife works in Bath’.
Right on cue, a woman joins us; I get the impression she is quite used to getting left some distance behind when they take walks together. ‘Hello’, he greets her, ‘this man has the best gig in the world – he’s the writer on the train for First Great Western’.
Do you use the train, I ask her? I am looking for people’s stories about their journeys.
‘Well, I’ve got one for you’, she says instantly. ‘Yesterday morning I caught the 8.55 train from Bath to London. The train stopped outside the city, just before Box Tunnel’. (Box Tunnel, of course, was at the time of its completion, the longest tunnel in the world, its construction costing the lives of at least 100 men).
‘After a few minutes an announcement was made about why we had stopped: a drunk was wandering the track outside the tunnel and both the driver and the guard were going to have to get off the train and apprehend him. As it turned out this wasn’t simple. It took them half an hour to get him on board; eventually he was persuaded to ride in the guards van. When we got to Chippenham he was put down and looked after there by staff until the police arrived’.
An intoxicated man totters at the entrance to the tunnel, a place that at the time of its construction, when no one had travelled such a long distance underground, was portrayed by those campaigning against it as the very mouth of hell. A chase ensues, he is rescued, against his wishes but for his own good, by the heroic staff of the railway. It is nothing short of a Victorian melodrama. These events take place right at the beginning of the journey for hundreds of passengers from the West Country. Such things are not extraordinary for those who commute each day; by the time they join their co-workers, who are still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, they may have braved floods, snow, breakdowns, or been involved at least peripherally in a perilous story such as this one.
I thank her and turn to take leave of her husband, but he is already a quarter of a mile distant along the frosty towpath, as unstoppable as a mechanical hare, the greyhound in its red coat trotting at his heels.