Thousands of cyclists and walkers flocked to Bath yesterday for the grand opening of the Two Tunnels Greenway. The route, which has been many years in the planning and has taken three years to build, offers a traffic-free route from central Bath out of the city to the south, through the 400m Devonshire tunnel and the 1,800m Combe Down tunnel, the longest cycling tunnel in the UK.
The route has been funded from a number of sources. The largest slice came from the Big Lottery fund which pledged £1m to the project. Sustrans, who project managed the construction of the route, also contributed to the pot, as did Bath and North East Somerset Council, and back in 2008 the King Bladud's Pigs city-wide art project raised more than £200,000 towards the cost.
The greenway follows the route of the Somerset and Dorset railway, which used the tunnels as its exit to the city. After the line was decommissioned the tunnels were bricked up and the Devonshire cutting filled in; the new route has restored them to use and also includes two new bridges further down towards the city centre to replace railway bridges that were demolished when the line closed. At the far end the Two Tunnels path links up NCN route 24 which offers a partly traffic-free route to Radstock and on to Frome via the Collier's way. In Bath the route will link up with the well-established Bristol-Bath cycle path, also a repurposed railway line.
Saturday was a day for celebration and many thousands of people came to try out the new route. At its peak the queue to enter the tunnels was an hour's wait, as the marshals and volunteers tried to space out the riders and walkers. In a country where it's often said that people don't want to cycle, it's clear that this simply isn't the case: give people somewhere safe and interesting to do it, and they'll turn up in their droves. Sustrans expect most of the traffic on the Greenway to be recreational, although it's a useful and reasonably flat route in and out of Bath for anyone that's commuting in from the south.
The tunnels themselves are fantastic. The lighting has been kept dim (LED downlighters are used) to keep the ceiling space of the tunnels, which harbour some populations of rare bats, dark through the day. It takes a short while for your eyes to adjust to the gloom but there's plenty of light to see by, you don't need lights. The tarmac surface is beautifully laid and the tunnels themselves have needed very little work, save for a clean; structurally they were fine, a testament to the engineers that built them in the nineteenth century. The longer Combe Down tunnel is the real highlight, it's a genuinely long time to be underground on the bike and it's a unique experience. A light and sound installation in the centre of the tunnel adds to the other-worldly feel. Out the far side you get a great view of Midford Castle and a run over the restored Tucking Mill viaduct before you reach the Hope and Anchor at Midford, where the new route finishes. The traffic free path continues from there to Wellow, though it's unsurfaced, or you can venture up the road-going section of NCN route 24 to Twinhoe, if you've got the legs for the climb... Dave went through again Sunday morning and took his Nilox HD camera to record the run through the tunnels.
As well as the tunnels there was a festival atmosphere to enjoy, coinciding with the first day for at least a month where it's been possible to sit outside for any length of time. There were bands, beer, burgers and the usual trimmings, as well as plenty of bike-related things to see and do. And it was a great day for many local people who remember the railway, able again to see the route being used. We talked to one chap who grew up in Lyncombe Vale, between the two tunnels, who told us that the local kids used to walk through the Combe Down tunnel in groups of twenty or more, take a hand cart from the yard at Midford and pilot it back through the tunnel. On the downhill section through the Vale the speed would be too much for the cart; the trick was to jump clear before it flew off the rails...
Dave is a founding father of road.cc and responsible for kicking the server when it breaks. In a previous life he was a graphic designer but he's also a three-time Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling world champion, and remains unbeaten through the bog. Dave rides all sorts of bikes but tends to prefer metal ones. He's getting old is why.