40 years ago volunteers began a ground-breaking project to link Bath and Bristol with a cycle path. Jess Connett gets on her bike and discovers how this helped connect communities between both cities

It was the section from Bitton to Saltford and then the outskirts of Bath that the volunteers tackled first. Work began one hot weekend in June 1979 (the exact date has been lost over the decades), when the first lorry full of limestone dust carefully drove onto the old railway line. The tracks were gone but their ghosts remained where the sun-bleached grass did not grow. Kids in flared velvet trousers brandished rakes, while their long-haired dads rolled the surface flat. After 10 weeks of spreading dust over the coarse ballast, they had created five miles of what would become the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, one of the busiest cycle paths in the UK.

It took only 10 weeks to get the five-mile section ready for cyclists

“Then we prayed for rain,” recalls John Grimshaw, the civil engineer who had mapped out the practicalities of building the path. The rain would bind the dust into a hardwearing surface. “It didn’t rain. So we hired a pump, to get water out of the River Avon. And then, of course, five minutes after we switched it on, it rained.”

John Grimshaw was the engineer who designed the Bristol and Bath Railway Path

John was part of Cyclebag (Channel Your Calf and Leg Energy Bristol Action Group), set up in a room above The Nova Scotia pub in Bristol in July 1977. Their thousand-strong demonstrations, calling for more cycling provision, strained against car-centric town-planning ideals that had run a dual carriageway through Bristol’s Queen Square. Bristol had only one purpose-built cycle lane at the time: on the M5 motorway bridge near Avonmouth.

“There wasn’t another metre in this part of the world,” John says. “I remember going to a conference where the government cycling officer said he wanted to eliminate cycling fatalities, and he would do that by eliminating cyclists. That really was their policy. It all just seemed a nightmare, and it was all negative, so I wanted to do something more positive.” Cyclebag would later become Sustrans, which has been going for 30 years with John at the helm.

The new cycle path would run along Midland Railway’s Mangotsfield and Bath branch line, which opened in 1869. For just over a hundred years it connected Brummie holidaymakers with Devonshire fresh air, and carried coal from South Gloucestershire. But the passenger service failed to survive the Beeching cuts of the 1960s (where many British railway routes were reduced or restructured), and train traffic ceased entirely in 1971. The route was earmarked to be turned into a bypass by Avon County Council.

Cyclists taking a break at Avon Valley Railway in Bitton

Meanwhile, members of Cyclebag were touring Europe, visiting cities with purpose-built, traffic-free routes for cyclists. The group began to plan a path that would connect the outskirts of Bristol to the outskirts of Bath. By avoiding the traffic on the A4 and the hilly alternative road through Kelston, Cyclebag envisaged people ditching their cars and cycling for everyday journeys.

“Children from the deprived inner-city areas could safely cycle out to the open country to go fishing along the river,” said a Cyclebag publication from the time, “horse riding at Hanham Green, to be railway enthusiasts at Bitton, to go boating at Saltford, or to the races at Lansdown.” The path was not just a path. It was an entrance to a car-free utopia where children could learn to cycle in safety. It was where everyone could regain the confidence that, a generation earlier, people on bicycles didn’t know they had.

Cyclebag made a planning application in April 1979. They secured £10,000 from Clark’s shoes, got permission to lease the land, and rolled up their sleeves. As soon as the stretch opened, it became “insanely popular,” John says, with a thousand walkers and cyclists counted during one weekend.

Volunteers of all ages helped to create the path: kids in flared velvet trousers brandished rakes

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, little seems to have changed in 40 years. The car park at Avon Valley Railway is full of cars sporting bike carriers. A dad packs a tricycle down with ruthless efficiency, while serious lycra-clad cyclists spill through the gates to get back onto the wide – now tarmacked – path. A mum waits for her daughter on a bright pink bike to finish the ice cream that is mostly on her face, before they cross the tracks and pedal on along the embankment towards Bath.

In 1981, Cyclebag restarted the project to bring the path into Bristol. It would take another four years to reach Lawrence Hill. In the meantime, they were busy building car-free paths all over the country, including the Pill path under the Suspension Bridge. “We built wherever we could,” John says. “The idea was that every town needed a Bristol and Bath Railway Path. We should try to get a greenway down every canal, every river, every park.”

With the city centres linked, the number of journeys taken annually rose into the millions. After a hundred years of trains chugging between Bath and Bristol, a new transport era had been ushered in. The path now carries more passengers on bikes than the Midland Railway ever did.

Featured image: The first section of path opened between Bitton and Bath and quickly became a well-used route. Images courtesy of John Grimshaw