|Location Map ( geo)
|• A4 • A36
The Bath Tunnel was 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 city's 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 report was duly issued in 1965 and saw a modern dual carriageway connecting the A4 at Bathford with the A4 or A36 at Newbridge to the west of the city. The eastern section was eventually built, on more or less the same alignment, in the 1990s as the Batheaston Bypass, but instead of turning north across the river to meet the old road at the junction which was built, the junction would have sat at the bend, with the mainline continuing ahead, crossing the river from Bathampton Meadows to Kensington Meadows near the Grosvenor Bridge. The new road would then have ploughed through the old bus depot, now Morrisons, and passed under the northern approach to Cleveland Bridge to reach the Walcot district of Bath.
The City Council (as was) debated the proposals in the late 1960s and early 70s, often in private to prevent details leaking out to the press or public. They were finally forced to reveal information to the press in June 1971, a fortnight before they voted on the proposals. Despite vehement local opposition, the plans were passed by two votes, with some of senior councillors absent from the vote. For the next four and a half years, work progressed on the planning stages, with land and property purchased, and some demolition occurring. The proposals survived the oil crisis, and the reorganisation of local government which saw the old city council reformed as a district council within Avon County. However, in January 1976, before any substantial works had been carried out on the ground, the tunnel plan was shelved, and it was then only a matter of time before the approach roads followed suit. The Batheaston bypass remained as the only section of the overall proposal, but it still took nearly 20 years to be built.
A number of routes seem to have been suggested at various points, for the construction of a tunnel under the historic heart of the city. All of the proposals started in Walcot Street to the north east of the city centre, but various western portals were suggested, emerging either in Charlotte Street, New King Street or near Kingsmead Square in the west. A lot more therefore seems to be known about the eastern approaches than those to the west, although numerous plans have been discovered, all showing different layouts and proposals. 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 off the surface streets, and with the new approach roads at either end it would have relieved the city centre of the majority of east-west through traffic.
With the announcement of the plan to demolish much of Walcot Street, property prices in the area plummeted - there are stories of old houses changing hands for less than fifty pounds in the 1970s. Indeed, at the southern end of the street, 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, nearly fifty 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 grateful 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.
The various proposals put forward all had the same basic principles, which saw a dual carriageway approach from the north along the river bank, and pass under the western approach to Cleveland Bridge. Sliproads would then have started to diverge in the green space between the small Walcot Cemetery and the river, with the old school and terraced houses in front of it demolished to make way for a link road connecting to Walcot Street itself. Some plans show a roundabout here, others just a T junction, but it only connected to the eastbound carriageway. Sliproads to and from the westbound carriageway met Walcot Street much further south, with different plans showing different junctions between the Tramshed and Hilton Hotel, most apparently involving the partial or complete demolition of the Corn Market. The mainline of the dual carriageway, meanwhile, curved away from the river and ploughed through the site of Ladymead House to disappear into the tunnel portals below Walcot Street and so pass under The Paragon.
Most plans seem to give the same, or a very similar site for the portal at Walcot Street, and then a similar trajectory under Bath. Unfortunately, the same level of detail has not yet been found for the western end of the tunnel, but the trajectory shown generally leads to the Charlotte Street Car Park, rather than the alternative points to the south.
Perhaps the most plausible western portal site, therefore, 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, which has not been widely reported, 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. A news paper report from 1971, around the time of the council vote, states that the route would have involved demolition of properties in Crescent Gardens, and then following Little Stanhope Street and Norfolk Buildings to the Avon near Midland Bridge, with further demolition in neighbouring streets, including New King Street. Midland Bridge would presumably not have been used, but the old railway bridge (now the access to Sainsburys) would have been replaced to connect with the A36 gyratory at Pines Way. The same article also suggests that a new road would then double back from Midland Bridge across Green Park to reach the A367.
After the war, the Kingsmead district of Bath was left devastated, 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 Kingsmead 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.
To complete the story, the proposals included a new road heading west from Newbridge. As mentioned above, it is not clear if the A4 or A36 west of Windsor Bridge were ever intended to be dualled, or if traffic would simply be left to use whichever route was clearer or more appropriate. However, from Newbridge, the A4 was proposed to be diverted to a new roundabout junction straddling the old Midland Railway line, with a dual carriageway then using the railway formation to bypass Saltford and meet the Keynsham Bypass on its way to Bristol. The dualling of the A4 west of Newbridge between Bath and Corston was begun between 1967 and 1972, however, which again suggests that different plans were in place at different times.
As can be seen, the proposals put forward by Colin Buchanan, and subsequently changed several times by the council would have changed the face of Bath forever, and as such were highly controversial. 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 neither 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 centre 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.