Andrew Swift: The Bridges of Bath

This month’s walk by Andrew Swift follows the river through Bath and includes a celebratory stroll across the city’s newest bridge. En route, he looks at the stories behind some of Bath’s other bridges, recalls the city’s largely forgotten role as an inland port and pays tribute to Stothert & Pitt (S&P), once the city’s biggest employer.

Start this walk by heading down Bridge Street and crossing the most famous bridge of all – Pulteney Bridge, designed by Robert Adam and opened in 1774 to provide access to the Bathwick estate which William Pulteney was keen to develop. Go down steps on the right at the end and follow the path alongside the river. After 200m, as you pass the second flight of steps leading down to the river – guarded by a locked gate – look down to see a plaque commemorating the first cargo to arrive in Bath by boat on 16 December 1727. This was achieved by constructing locks to bypass a series of weirs downstream and marked the city’s birth as an inland port. Very few boats made it this far upstream, however – we will see where they did dock shortly.

Ahead lies North Parade Bridge, built in 1836 of cast iron, and clad in stone when it was strengthened in the 1930s. Next comes St James’s Bridge, carrying the railway, and still monumental despite its Bath stone being patched with brick. In January 1841, as it was nearing completion, floodwaters swept away the scaffolding holding the masonry in place. It collapsed and work had to start all over again.

Carry on under the bridge, and after 100m you pass a litter bin. This marks the approximate point where a tramway carrying stone from Ralph Allen’s quarries at Combe Down terminated at a wharf, from which it was shipped out to Bristol and beyond. The river has since been reprofiled and no trace of the wharf survives.

After crossing a bridge over the entrance to the Kennet & Avon Canal, turn right along the riverside path. This leads under a metal footbridge, built to replace a wooden bridge which collapsed, killing ten people, when a crowd surged onto it in 1877. It cost a halfpenny to cross the original bridge; its replacement was toll free but is still known as Halfpenny Bridge. The flood markings under the bridge give an idea how often the city was inundated before flood prevention measures were adopted in 1972.

Above: North Parade Bridge, 1836

Next comes Skew Bridge, carrying the railway back over the river at an oblique angle. This too was originally built of wood, but rebuilt in iron after the collapse of Halfpenny Bridge. At the end, turn right across Southgate Footbridge, and on the other side stop just before the bike stands. Bath’s first bridge – the only way across the river until Pulteney Bridge opened – crossed the river here. Known as the Old Bridge, it was in line with Southgate Street, and once had a chapel halfway across. It was demolished in 1964 and replaced by Southgate Footbridge and Churchill Bridge, to your right, which was named in honour of Sir Winston, who died in 1965, the year it opened.

West of the Old Bridge lay Broad Quay; beyond was Narrow Quay. Lined with workshops and warehouses and with a combined length of over 250m, it was here that most boats from Bristol moored up. The quays survived until the 1970s, but all trace of them has since been swept away. Carry on across two zebra crossings to follow the course of the old quays, now landscaped and rebranded as Bath Quays North, and looking across to a row of repurposed factories. Shortly after reaching the end of what was once Narrow Quay, turn left across Bath’s newest bridge, as yet unnamed. It leads into what was the yard of Stothert & Pitt’s Newark Works, the first factory to be built on the south bank. Opened in 1857, it was designed by Thomas Fuller, a local architect who later emigrated to Canada and designed the parliament buildings in Ottawa. S&P’s were known as crane makers to the world and a crane constructed here in 1864 is on display in the yard.

At the end of the yard, turn left along a narrow alley onto Lower Bristol Road. Cross at the traffic island ahead, turn right and, after 100m, left along Westmoreland Road. After going under the railway, turn right along Westmoreland Station Road, which served the GWR goods yard. After 125m, turn down an alley under the railway. Carry on past a terrace with Bath-stone ground floors and brick first floors, with a mixed-use development under construction on the right. At the end, turn left along the Lower Bristol Road and carry on past St James’s Cemetery. After passing the Holiday Inn, cross two sets of pedestrian lights ahead, turn right across another set and turn down the road to the right of Take Charge Bikes.

Above: Skew Bridge as it was originally built in 1840

After passing another S&P crane, turn left along Stothert Avenue. In the 1890s, S&P expanded from their original site, and continued to expand until after the Second World War, eventually covering much of the Western Riverside. The two cranes you’ve seen so far give a misleading impression of their output – to find out why they became so famous you need to visit the four cranes outside Bristol’s M Shed, which were built in Bath in 1951. S&P closed in 1987; work on redevelopment of the Western Riverside started in 2011.

At the end, turn right past Western Riverside’s only surviving bit of industrial infrastructure – a sewage pumping plant opened in 1914, part of which now houses an energy centre powering over 800 nearby homes. Carry straight on at the end towards a large blue object – part of the old Destructor Bridge, named after the council’s waste incinerator or ‘destructor’, and demolished in 2015.

Turn left past Sovereign Point and right across the new Destructor Bridge, before turning right down a ramp on the far side to follow the riverside path eastward. After 200m, another ramp leads up to Victoria Bridge, one of Bath’s architectural gems and as groundbreaking in its day as the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It was built in 1836, pioneering a double cantilever method of bridge design, which was replicated across the country. It closed in 2010 due to safety concerns, reopening in 2015 after major restoration.

On the other side of the bridge, go down steps to continue eastward along the riverside path, past the site of another part of S&P’s works, beyond which lay the engine sheds and marshalling yards of the Midland Railway. At the end, turn left across a footbridge. The bridge to your right once carried trains into the station you can see ahead; the footbridge stands on the abutments of a similar bridge dismantled after the railway closed.

Cross a zebra crossing and carry on past the supermarket. Ahead is the imposing overall roof of a station built in 1870, a scaled-down version of the Midland Railway’s St Pancras terminus in London. It closed in 1966 and, after it was listed in 1971, was acquired by the council and restored. It is currently under restoration again.

Walk out through the station and head eastward to return to the city centre.

Many more walks can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath published by by Akeman Press;

Featured image: The new bridge to South Quays