It was once one of the principal economic arteries for Bristol and North Somerset – a railway line from the coal mines of Somerset right into the heart of Bristol.
But for almost 60 years, the North Somerset railway has been abandoned, left to become a quiet, overgrown and out-of-bounds path that echoes to the ghosts of those old coal trains.
But now, 57 years on after the last train ran, the question of what, if anything, should happen to this long-lost railway, will be one of the key questions the city has to wrestle with into the 2020s.
In North Somerset, much of it has long disappeared, and is nothing more than a green line still just about traceable on a map. It’s an embankment here, a gap between two fields that doesn’t look quite right, a spot where a road goes over a bridge or a sweeping curve of trees that is best noticed from above.
The most obvious remnant of this once busy steam-powered artery is the stunning viaduct that dominates the village of Pensford, just outside Bristol, to this day.
In Bristol itself, the line came gently down off the Mendips past the village of Whitchurch and into the built up area of Brislington. It ran under the main A4 Bath Road down under Sandy Park Road.
Then it crossed the River Avon roughly where the St Philips Causeway bridge now starts, at Sainsbury’s, before joining the main lines running into Temple Meads. Built in the early 1870s to connect the coalfields of Radstock and Midsomer Norton to the port and railways of Bristol, South Bristol grew up either side of it.
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Stockwood was built on one side, Whitchurch and Hengrove on the other. Once the Beeching cuts saw the axe fall, and the track was pulled up, parts of it were even built over. In the little valley between Stockwood and Hengrove, the track became the Whitchurch Railway Path, a ‘Greenway’ cycle track through the trees and between the back gardens.
But it’s when that old railway line gets to Brislington that the connection is lost. Nobody, no trains, no cyclists, no dog walkers and no people, travel up and down the old North Somerset Line today.
And that final stretch of the old line, the part where the engine drivers would be slowing down their long coal trains in preparation for the busy signal junctions over the river, is now the subject of a debate that goes to the very heart of the very different visions for transport Bristol should have moving into the middle part of the 21st century.
The closed line
Shoppers pulling in to the Tesco car park in Brislington, off the Callington Road A4174 South Bristol ring road, have no clues to suggest that they are on the spot which was once a railway. As they veer right into the car park, the road naturally heads straight north, towards the hospital through the trees on the left, and the service area to the side of the giant supermarket building.
There are gates ahead and from there, the old North Somerset Line emerges again from its modern ring road and supermarket car park overlay, back to a quiet and empty ghost line.
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Behind the Tesco, drivers coming down the hill from Knowle into Brislington go over an incongruously narrow and odd humpback bridge, and the first clue that a railway was once here emerges – a dead-end road called Station Road leads down to a scrap metal yard that was set up where once Brislington Station, its platforms, ticket offices and GWR signs once stood.
From there, the old line is flanked by trees either side, hiding it from people’s back gardens as it continues under Bath Road next to the Lodekka pub and alongside, but not part of the Tramway Retail Park and its huge Dunelm and Go Outdoors.
A final clue for the residents of Brislington is the bridge over nothing at the end of Sandy Park Road, before the line becomes a long thin car park at the back of the council depot, and a tree-lined gap between two roads next to the entrance to Sainsbury’s.
So what should become of it?
The people of Bristol, or at least the people of Brislington and the city councillors and planners, have been debating what should happen to the old railway line in Brislington for years.
One issue has always been a sticking point – when the railway closed, over time, different bits of the Brislington section were sold off and now different parts of it are in different ownership.
In 1981, years after they started using it because they could, the church leaders of the Plymouth Brethren Meeting Hall were given planning permission to use the bit behind the Lodekka pub as a car park for their meetings.
That bit is tarmacked still and a fence cuts across the old railway line to divide it from the bit beyond, at the side of Dunelm, where it has become a deep, impenetrable, linear jungle of brambles, bushes and litter.
But there are now, at least four different ideas, plans and proposals for this entire stretch, from the Tesco’s at Callington Road, all the way to the Sainsbury’s at Castle Court.
A new road
The A4 from Bath to Bristol runs through Brislington, over the railway line by the Lodekka and to the bottom of Arnos Vale. It’s one of the busiest, most congested roads in Bristol. There’s a park and ride on the edge of the city, but the buses can still easily get stuck in the traffic of the A4.
While it doesn’t exactly follow the same path as the old railway line – it’s more a narrow X – highway planners and councillors have for years looked at the map and seen the possibility of laying down a new road along the old railway line. Traffic could be split, the logic goes, with some on the old railway line, going underneath the rest on the A4. Increasing the road capacity could, the theory goes, free up a bit of space for unbroken bus lanes, a new Metrobus route.
For years, this has been the council’s plan. But it was one of those plans that was never firm enough to actually happen, but was firm enough for the council to reject any other, different plan for the railway line – hence why nothing has happened to it for more than 50 years.
The so-called Callington Link Road is still on the council’s drawing board, despite long-standing opposition from local residents and the growing number of people in Bristol who say new roads are never the answer to congestion issues.
It was part of a wider bid for Government money for strategic development in 2018 as part of the West of England transport planning document – something that also included the controversial South Bristol Orbital road around Stockwood and through Whitchurch Village.
But now, the council has two issues to tackle. The first is the challenge of improving public transport between Bath and Bristol that has turned heads once again towards the old railway line – but not for regular traffic this time – and the second is a fully-formed counter proposal that has been put to it from a wide coalition of groups.
That counter proposal was submitted as a planning application earlier this year from a coalition of organisations, led by Greenways and Cycleroutes Limited, a Bristol-based company that specialise in creating or restoring paths for people and people on bikes.
The plan has the backing of a range of community organisations in Brislington – Greater Brislington Together and Brislington Liveable Neighbourhoods, as well as Bike Bristol and a company called Meanwhile Creative, whose involvement elevates the proposal above just a plan to turn the old railway line into a cycle path.
For where the space left by the railway line is wide enough, between the Sandy Park Road bridge and the Lodekka, Meanwhile Creative want to install shipping containers along it that people can set up offices and businesses in.
The idea is that it becomes something a bit like a cross between Cargo at Wapping Wharf and the Paintworks or the Engine Shed containers next to Temple Meads station.
The rest of the railway line either side, from the old station at Talbot Road to the Lodekka and from Sandy Park Road to Sainsbury’s will be restored with the kind of pedestrian and cycle path that’s fairly common around Bristol.
In an attempt to get around the stumbling block that has scuppered any and all previous plans to convert the railway line into a cycle path – that the council want to turn it into a road one day – those proposing it say the conversion is only intended to be temporary.
“This project is a low key path designed to allow public use of this valuable corridor, which passes safely under the Bath Road Bridge, until such time as the land is required for a link road.”
While they don’t say it formally, those behind the proposal presumably hope that, if allowed and successful, the council will have a harder job convincing people to convert a popular cycle path into a new road than a place no one currently can use.
The plan was submitted in February and accepted by the council – even though it is a plan from a third party for land the council actually owns – in March. Planners are yet to decide on the idea.
Judging by the response from people on the city council’s planning portal, it has almost universal support. No fewer than 281 people have written in to support the plan, and only 15 objections – and of those 15, closer examination reveals that six of them were people who actually wrote in to support it, but ticked the wrong box. But the objections that are objections – all nine of them – speak to a third idea for the long lost railway of Brislington – do nothing.
The ‘Do Nothing’ option
While the hundreds who support the plan for a Brislington Greenway come from all over Bristol, almost all of those objecting to the proposal live right next to the old railway line.
For 57 years, their homes have backed on to a silent strip of land, being gradually taken over by nature.
And while all the debate has been about whether and how this corridor between the houses and under the roads can be put to use again for people, since the 1960s, it’s gradually become a corridor for wildlife.
Those objecting have a range of complaints, including one about the fact that while the idea has been shared around the social network of cyclists, few people living in places like Repton Road know of the plan.
Among the objections are the fears that opening up what is currently a closed strip of land at the bottom of their gardens to the public would instantly mean the kind of crime associated with places like the Bristol to Bath Railway Path in Easton will arrive in Brislington – burglars will suddenly have easy access to those back gardens.
But the main one is around the impact on wildlife. “Whilst it is true we should be pushing measures to fulfil green targets and measures to tackle the climate emergency, there is a balance that needs to be struck between promoting green public transport and protecting the natural environment,” said one resident of Repton Road, objecting to the plan.
“There has been a lack of transparency and open stake holder engagement with the residents of Repton Road regarding this. And whilst I am sure you will get a lot of support for the proposal it is unlikely that you would get as much support from the residents who will be directly impacted by this.
“Instead, we have been told it’s this or a new busy road – again open space does not need to be developed on! I can’t imagine with the green recovery initiatives and Bristol trying to divert traffic away from the city that a road would ever be approved – particularly as this route doesn’t offer much ease off the Bath road. Therefore, we should not be being bribed to one initiative over another,” she added.
A railway again?
While the first three outcomes are tangible – the first is the official proposal, the second is a counter proposal and the third is the reality right now – a fourth proposal is something that doesn’t have formal backing from anyone – yet.
But as plans are developed for some kind of mass rapid transit schemes in Bristol, proposals are made for tram networks, light rail schemes and more Metrobus routes, those thinking more outside the box are eyeing up the old North Somerset Railway as a ready made route to cut through from the south western edge of Bristol to the core of the city.
It’s not an unheard of idea: The Metrobus m2 route from Long Ashton utilises the old railway line routes around Ashton Gate and over the Ashton Swing Bridge, there have long been proposals to convert the Bristol to Bath Railway Path back to some kind of alternative light rail or tram line between Bristol and Bath.
And with the council once again throwing up the question of just how can the transport route between Bath and Bristol through Brislington be made less of a polluted, car-clogged nightmare, is a creative use of the old North Somerset Railway line back on the agenda?