Coombe Down and the story of Bath Stone

Last week Steve the leader of our walk in the past  walking group asked us to meet at the Museum of Bath Stone. in Coombe Down to the east of Bath.  I have to admit my heart sank.  After all quarries are not the most exciting subject. When I was growing up much of Bath was covered in soot from coal fires and steam trains and I always thought that Bath stone made the buildings look dreary. However when Bath was in its heyday in the late 18th century the honey coloured stone must have gleamed in the sunshine. Nowadays planning officials still insist that all building in the centre of town is made from the local stone.

The Coombe Down museum of Bath Stone 

I arrived early and  was able to take the time to look round the small free museum.  Visitors were watching a short film about the Coombe Down stabilization project.   Bath Stone is an oolitic limestone that formed the bed of a shallow sea in the Jurassic period. Surface stone can be used for dry stone walls but building material is found at a depth of a few feet. It has probably been used for local buildings since Roman times as it can be easily worked.

Ralph Allen who built the nearby Prior Park was one of the early quarry owners in Coombe Down. He developed the idea of quarrying stone and then using the flat bed of the quarry to build cottages for his workers. This was fine and some of his early cottages were built by John Wood who also designed the Royal Crescent.  He built rails to send carts laden with stone down the hill now known as Ralph Allen Drive where they could be unloaded onto barges and the stone taken into the centre of Bath.

However later quarry owners decided to extract stone from underground tunnels and build the houses on top. In the 1980’s people living in the expensive houses with views over the Bath sky line found cracks starting to appear in their homes and they were unable to sell them. A survey was carried out and found that many of the pillars that were supporting the roof of the quarries were unsafe. Surveyors estimated that about 500 houses were at risk.

Eventually it was decided to fill the quarries with concrete at a cost of over £150 million . A colony of rare horseshoe bats were found to be living in one of the quarries and an extra six million pounds was provided to save their cave and now they are even provided with heating.  The concrete foam used would have covered a football pitch to a depth of ninety metres.

Walking through the woods
Our walking group. I am fifth from the left.

We  walked round Coombe Down and admired the houses that had been saved. Our group also  rambled through the fields and bluebell woods enjoying the bird song and spring flowers.

We were able to find the cottage where Harry Patch was born in in 1898. His father and grandfather were stone masons in Coombe Down and when he died in 2009 at the age of 111 he was the last fighting Tommy from world war one. We walked down to the nearby village of Monkton Coombe to find his grave in the churchyard.

The grave of Harry Patch with poppy wreath
The grave of Harry Patch in Monkton Combe churchyard.

William Smith and the first geological map.

One of the early quarry owners was a man named William Smith. He was a blacksmith’s son from Churchill in  Oxfordshire who had spent time surveying the route of the local canal and also helping the local coal mine owners find good places to sink mine shafts. He noticed that the rock was in different strata and that fossils appeared in different layers. His work took him all over England and he used the information he had obtained to produce the first geological map of England which is remarkably similar to a modern map.

A plaque marking the cottage where William Smith lived.
Memorial on William Smith’s cottage.

Unfortunately his quarry was not a success and he spent some time in prison for debt His life has been commemorated by Simon Winchester in his book  “the map that changed the world” and by a museum which he designed himself the rotunda in Scarborough.

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Bath a brief history

I was happy to find out that Bath would be the venue for our February walk in the past history walk.  I  grew up  between Bristol and Bath and my father went to school in the city so I have watched  Bath change over the years.  Jane Austen would probably recognise the centre  but there is also a side to the city the tourists miss.   It has a large student population.  Bath university is particularly well known for sport and many  athletes train there.

We met for our walk at the back of Bath bus station.  If you plan to visit Bath I suggest arriving by bus or train as parking is very difficult. There are several park and ride schemes nearby and the main bus station and train station are close to the city attractions.

Bath is the only English city to be given UNESCO  world heritage status. For the locals this is a mixed blessing. I remember when I was at University one of my history lecturers asked me if it was like living in a museum. In summer it can be difficult to move through the city because of the number of tourists but they also bring  us much prosperity.

This walk was a brief introduction to the history of Bath which we hope to explore in more detail later.  I have provided a potted version here.

The Romans

There is a Celtic legend that the hot springs at Bath were discovered by a swineherd named Bladud who found that the hot mud cured a skin disease his pigs had been suffering from. He later became a tribal leader and established a shrine in Bath to the goddess Sulla. Although there is no evidence for his existence there are a lot of iron age settlements around Bath. Bath itself is supposed to be built in the crater of an extinct volcano.

Bath guidebooks usually date the history  back to the Romans who were drawn to the hot spa water and built a magnificent Bath Complex. to enjoy it. Much of this survives or has been restored though unfortunately you can not swim there any longer. You can taste the water but be warned it tastes vile.

Another reason why we met behind the bus station is that it is close to the route of the Roman Fosseway a road between Exeter and Lincoln. Here the Romans built a bridge to cross the river Avon. As well as enjoying hot baths the Romans were attracted to the area to mine lead from the nearby Mendip hills.

The Medieval Period

After the Romans left Bath seems to have declined in importance.  However the magnificent Bath abbey was built during the medieval period. The   medieval legacy is preserved in the names of the roads, Eastgate, Southgate, Westgate and Northgate though the walls and gates have disappeared.

The Georgians

Bath markets itself as a Georgian city.  In the 18th century, Bath stone was quarried from the nearby hills to build the famous crescents.  The aristocracy would descend on Bath to take the waters or play cards.  This was vividly described by Jane Austen, perhaps Bath’s most famous resident who does not seem to have enjoyed her stay much. If you visit the assembly rooms and nearby fashion museum you can take afternoon tea and children can dress up.  You can  imagine yourself in a scene from one of her books or visit the Jane Austen centre.

A couple wearing 18th century clothing.
A couple dressed in costume for the Jane Austen festival.

During this period William Herschel who had been an organist in Bath discovered the planet Uranus. You can visit his house and see the telescopes he made.

The Royal crescent Bath is built of yellow Bath stone.
The famous Royal crescent.

Visit Bath

Pulteney Bridge was built by Sir William Pulteney close to the site of the old Roman bridge to enable development on the other side of the river.

The Modern city

Bath was linked to Reading by the Kennett and Avon canal and later Isambard Kingdom Brunel built his famous Great Western Railway between Bristol and London with a station in Bath.

Bath was badly bombed during the second world war.  It was not considered a target but the Germans carried out what became known as the Baedeker raids. They targeted cities given a high rating in the Baedeker guide books in retaliation for British bombing raids on Germany. However it has been largely rebuilt using Bath stone.

Bath has built a new spa complex where visitors can swim in the hot mineral waters just as the Romans did.

Visitors swimming in the rooftop Bath.
The new rooftop Bath at the Thermae complex. Bath abbey is in the background.

Photos for this blog post were used with permission from VisitBath

This post is linked to grammy’s grid and grandma’s briefs, both sites for blogging grandmothers who are happy to welcome new members.

If you enjoyed this post you might like two national trust houses to visit near Bath.

Christmas lunch at Avon Valley Railway Station

20181211_111011This year our French group decided to have Christmas lunch at Bitton railway Station.

This railway was part of my childhood.  I remember sitting in boring lessons at school and watching trains pass along the line. The Avon valley railway line which was part of the Midland rail network ran from Bristol to Bath and connected up with the Somerset and Dorset railway known affectionally as the S and D or slow and dirty. It took people on day trips to the seaside, to places like Bournemouth and Weymouth.

However in 1960’s the government decided that the car was the future and closed a lot of branch lines including ours. For many years the tracks and stations were allowed to decay. However we were fortunate our line between Bristol and Bath was turned into a cycle track by Sustrans. The thirteen mile path is very popular with both cyclists and walkers and also provides an important wildlife corridor.

A group of volunteers bought Bitton railway station which dates from the 1860’s and decided to reopen part of the track. They now run trains over a three mile stretch including crossing the river Avon. The volunteers host special events such as Santa Specials, Thomas the Tank Engine days, murder mysteries and Grandparents days.  If you want a present for the man in your life they can even learn to drive a steam train.

The Railway Buffet

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The volunteers  also reopened the station buffet and use two converted 1950’s railway carriages  named Margaret and Rose to serve meals. Our U3A French group decided that it would make an unusual venue for our Christmas meal.

We enjoyed a very good  lunch with all the trimmings in Rose and we were even able to order a glass of wine  If you are visiting the area at other times of the year you can get a good range of reasonably priced snacks and drinks.  You can also enjoy a full English breakfast followed by a walk along the river towards Bath.  For locals it is a popular place to take visitors. For the more energetic the cycle track leads to the former Green Park Station in Bath which now houses a number of stalls where you can buy snacks or crafts. The station has free car parking.

On a personal note I am pleased to report that 2018 was a very good year for me. As well as starting this blog, Bill and I celebrated our ruby wedding after surviving 40 years of married life, our youngest son Christopher married his school friend Lorna and our second son Martin and his wife Kirsty presented us with our first grand daughter. I wonder what 2019 will bring.