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A rather fantastic proposal to ram a Dual Carriageway tunnel under the Georgian heart of Bath in the mid-1960s.
In the late 1940s, Patrick Abercrombie produced details of transport issues for a number of cities for the Government. One of these cities was Bath, and the cities Abercrombie Plan highlighted a number of issues within the city, including the need for greater control of the through traffic. Fifteen or so years later, the City Council realised that the situation wasn't getting any better, and in 1963 they engaged Colin Buchanan & Partners to investigate the problem and come up with some proposals.
The only proposal that ever really came to the forefront was in 1965, and would have seen the construction of a tunnel under the historic heart of the city. A number of routes seem to have been suggested at various points, always starting in Walcot Street to the east, but emerging in Charlotte Street, New King Street or near Kingsmead Square in the west.
The tunnel would have to be bored, at a sufficient depth to protect the multi-basemented buildings on the surface, and was due to have been D2, most likely by using two tunnels. It would have taken the through traffic from both the A36 and A4 at London Road Traffic Lights and merged them together on a new dual carriageway along the river side next to Walcot Street. The Tunnel mouth would have been near the old Tramshed, with the traffic emerging again onto a new dual carriageway at the western end, although as yet the onward route of that road is not known. The scheme was finally shelved in c1980, long after the M4 had been opened and much of the through traffic removed from the city anyway.
With the announcement of the plan to demolish much of Walcot Street, property prices in the area plumetted - there are stories of old houses changing hands for less than fifty pounds in the 1970s. Indeed, at the southern end of the street, where the tunnel portal was planned, a vast chunk of property was cleared, and subsequently the Hilton Hotel built. To the east and south of the hotel, a large multi-storey underground car park was built, with the upper level intended to form the ground floor of a new Law Courts building. It was not until 1989 that The Podium shopping centre (including Waitrose and the City Library) was finally opened on this site.
Further north in the street, other properties were also cleared - mainly ramshackle semi-derelict sheds and warehouses, but fortunately the street frontages were largely preserved. Even today, thirty years after the plan was finally shelved, the little cottages at Nelson Terrace and Cleveland Cottages show signs of their once doomed future. At Chatham Row, the end three houses nearest the river were bought up and boarded up for demolition. Such was their expected life expectancy that the fire brigade were allowed to use the three houses for training and experiments, and indeed the houses were set alight to see how long it would take for an old Georgian House to collapse. The fact that these houses were restored in the 1980s proves how well built they must have been!
In many ways, we should be greatful to the tunnel plan, as it has given Bath a very eclectic 'artisan' quarter which developed when the property in the street was worth pennies. Today, this is being encouraged, and the restoration of the old Tram Shed - also once scheduled for demolition - has made this one of Bath's most fascinating corners. Even the Corn Market and neighbouring car park are now due for restoration and development.
Perhaps the most plausible western portal site is the Charlotte Street Car Park, behind Crescent Gardens at the bottom of the parkland in front of the Royal Crescent. In Georgian times, this was all part of the Royal Victoria Park, but by the mid-twentieth century it was used for allotments and minor industry. The car park has been extended to the north since the tunnel plan was first mooted, but the southern 3 aisles of parking show the width of the original car park - just about right for a tunnel portal and associated cutting.
A small number of properties on Marlborough Lane would then have needed demolition, to connect the new dual carriageway onto a widened Upper Bristol Road (A4). After that, it is not clear whether the dual would have continued west through Newbridge, necessitating wholesale demolition of property, or if traffic would have been split across the Windsor Bridge to resume the existing A4 and A36 routes.
New King Street
This is the most quoted location for the western portal, but short of total demolition of the existing street (not reported to my knowledge), it is difficult to see how the tunnel could have emerged in this area. However, the onward route would have seen the same demolitions and issues as mentioned below.
After the war, the Kingsmead district of Bath was left devestated, not so much from bomb damage, which was often repairable, but from a city council who saw an opportunity of clearing many old, small 'bad' houses and replacing them with smart modern multi-storey flats and office blocks.
The option of the tunnel emerging in the Kinsmead area must have been dismissed relatively early, as many of the blocks of buildings date from the 1960s. Indeed, some may pre-date 1965. The precise location of the tunnel portal is not certain, but traffic would have been directed along a widened James Street West, through a partially demolished Norfolk Crescent and along the river bank to the Windsor Bridge.
This would have seen the demolition of a great number of buildings, but after the crescent, few are residential. Most are mews-style industrial units, and many have been subsequently cleared to make way for new car showrooms, retail units and the council household waste centre.
As can be seen, the proposals put forward by Colin Buchanan would have changed the face of Bath forever, and as such were highly contraversial. Unfortunately, they blighted a small corner of the city for nearly 20 years, but today the recovery is almost complete, and without that blight Bath may not have the eclectic Walcot Street.
The traffic problems of Bath have never been solved, and even the extension of parking facilities in the 1970s - continuing today with the new Southgate development - nor the development of Park and Ride sites in the 1990s has solved all of the issues of congestion within the city centre.
However, today, the problem is not one of long-distance through traffic. The M4 took much of that away just as the tunnel plan was being proposed, and few people would attempt to travel right across the city today. There are sufficient rat runs known to the locals! Todays problem is the same as every other city in the country - the often narrow streets are clogged with short(ish) journey local traffic.