Running a marathon through old railway tunnels
Over a weekend in August 2018 I travelled to the city of Bath in Somerset to take part in a marathon organised by Relish Running. The race passes through two disused tunnels of the former Somerset and Dorset railway. One of the tunnels is more than a mile long and running through it offers quite a unique experience.
The journey to Bath
Our journey from London Paddington to Bath was on one of the recently-introduced “Inter City Express” (IET) trains that have been built by Hitachi and are operated by Great Western Railway. I was interested to find out how much of an improvement the new train would be over its highly successful and still popular predecessor; the HST. (find out here – IET vs HST).
Bath, known for its Georgian architecture and hot springs, is always a good place for a day trip and we have made several of them over the years. This was our first ever overnight stay in the city and we managed to use the extra time to have a good walk around and explore a bit more of the outskirts as well.
In the evening we ate at the hopelessly touristy but very historic Sally Lunn’s Restaurant. We enjoyed the famous Sally Lunn Bun (a kind of brioche) as part of the starter. The food wasn’t exactly outstanding but I hoped it would provide me with enough carbs for the race the next day.
Railways in Bath
Railways first came to Bath in 1840 when the current Bath Spa station opened as a major stop on Brunel’s famous London-to-Bristol “Great Western Railway”. The line passed right through the middle of Sydney Gardens on its way into the city. Over the years railway photographers have flocked to this iconic location to take shots of trains passing through the park. The GWR station and the line are both still in use today almost 180 years on.
In 1870 the Midland Railway opened a second station in Bath. This station was latterly known as Bath Green Park and was connected to the Midland’s line towards Birmingham and the north by a line via Mangotsfield.
In 1874 the Somerset & Dorset Railway (S&D) opened another line from Green Park; it headed south through the suburbs of Bath using two new tunnels bored through the limestone to reach Midford, Evercreech and eventually down to the Dorset coast near Bournemouth. Together with the earlier Midland line, the S&D provided Bath with a north-south link to complement the east-west route of the GWR.
Unlike Bath Spa, Green Park was designed as a terminus and most of the trains that served its two routes terminated there. However there were a few north–south through trains that reversed in the station. The most famous of these was the “Pines Express” which operated in the summer and linked Manchester with Bournemouth.
By the early 1960s usage of Green Park had decreased to the extent that it was inevitable it would be included in the Beeching Plan. Sure enough, the station and both the lines it served were closed in 1966. All the track was removed, bridges were demolished and the two tunnels to the south of the city were completely sealed up.
Happily, the attractive station building at Green Park was retained and today it is home to a variety of small businesses and on Saturdays it hosts a popular farmers’ market.
The Two Tunnels Path
In 2013, after a long campaign and a lot of hard work, the charity Sustrans finally opened the Two Tunnels Gateway. The walking and cycle path uses the track bed of the old S&D railway south from Bath to Midford. The creation of the new route involved not only the restoration of the tunnels themselves but the recreation of several bridges as well.
The old line left Green Park station, crossed the River Avon and soon curved around to initially head south east. The modern path starts just south of the river (#1 on the map below) and then follows the track bed through the tunnels towards Midford (#6 on the map). All the way along the path there are explanation signs which point out the history of the line.
Around two miles from Green Park the path enters Devonshire Tunnel (#3 above). The S&D line was built to a tight budget and whilst some sections further south were double track, all the lines through the south of Bath, including the two tunnels, were single. The tunnel is just over 400 metres long and is now fitted with lighting to enable cyclists and walkers to find their way through in safely.
After Devonshire Tunnel the path emerges into Lynchombe Vale and there is a brief section of embankment, now mostly enclosed by trees, before it enters the second tunnel.
Combe Down Tunnel is over 1.6km (1 mile) long and was the longest in the UK without intermediate ventilation shafts. Signboards at the entrance recall a fatal accident in 1929 when a locomotive crew of a freight train were asphyxiated by fumes in the tight confines of the tunnel and their train became a runaway.
After Combe Down the path crosses Tucking Mill Viaduct, links up with National Cycle Path 24 and then heads towards Midford and another viaduct.
The complete path through the tunnels is just under 3 miles long in total. The route is now very popular and it is well used by walkers, runners and cyclists.
Local company “Relish Running” have put together a series of running challenges based on the Two Tunnels Path. They hold the races, which include the 5km, 10km, half marathon, marathon and ultra 50km distances, frequently throughout the year.
A circular cycle route (National 224) was also created just after the path was opened . It made use of the old railway as far as Tucking Mill and then looped around back to Bath via Bathampton using the tow path of the Kennet & Avon Canal.
The loop is about 13 miles; the perfect distance for a half marathon course. Relish Running use a modified version of the route for their half marathon (1 lap) and marathon (2 laps) races.
Marathon – August 19th 2018
On Sunday morning I made my way to Brickfield Park. The park is located adjacent to the Two Tunnels Path (just north of Devonshire Tunnel) and was the start and finish point for all of the day’s races. Already at 9:00am the park was busy with runners preparing for the day’s challenges.
Relish Running operate a colour-coded “wave” system that is designed to despatch competitors in small packs to make sure the hundreds of runners are well separated along the public paths and tracks. Just before 10am those of us in the “light blue wave” were shown to the start and treated to a comprehensive safety briefing.
With about 50 others I set off running just after 10am.
The first mile of the course was on a slight incline up to Devonshire Tunnel but it seemed to pass quickly. The one mile marker was actually attached to the north portal of the tunnel.
I had to adjust my eyes a bit as I entered the tunnel, and I also needed to make sure I was on the left so as to stay out of the way of cycles catching me up. The running soon became easier; somehow the cooler air made it seem easier to breath. I think many people, including myself, ran quite a bit faster in the tunnels.
The 50km race was already under way and as it was an out-and-back course it meant that I was greeting runners coming in the opposite direction in the middle of the tunnel. It was quite neat passing people in the dark shouting words of encouragement to each other.
I ran out of Devonshire into the daylight and then along the embankment. Before long I was approaching the second tunnel. The 5km turnaround was reached just before the entrance to Combe Down Tunnel.
Running through the second tunnel took about 8 minutes and was even better than the first one. The gradient was now falling so my pace was slightly faster. There was also a cool sound system towards the centre that was producing orchestral music as I ran past.
The first drinks station was positioned just to the south of Tucking Mill viaduct (3 miles). 10km runners continued along the track a little further here before their turnaround. Ultra-50km runners were having to do this 5 times!
From Tucking Mill there was a steep path that led down the embankment. Then I was out running on a series of narrow lanes (unfortunately not closed to traffic) that took me through the lovely little village of Monkton Combe. The running was a little harder here as the lanes headed up several short inclines. Eventually the route branched off and followed the track bed of another old railway, the Bristol and North Somerset, for a short distance.
The second drinks station (4.5 miles) was positioned in a car park just before the route started to follow the towpath of the Somerset Coal Canal. I ran alongside that waterway for a short distance until it joined the main Kennet and Avon Canal (part of the London to Bristol connection) next to the beautiful Dundas Aqueduct.
The route, all along the canal, was easy to follow from there. The path was all flat as the canal contoured around Limply Stoke Valley to the east of Bath. The miles seemed to go a bit quicker here, not least because of the numerous shouts of encouragement I got from people on the boats.
The third drinks station (7.5 miles) was positioned at the side of the towpath itself just before the village of Bathampton. The path then turned westward and started to head into the centre of Bath. I was starting to get just a little tired at this point, but knowing I was now heading back towards Bath helped me a lot. It was certainly a good feeling to finally see the railway tracks, enter the city and run past Sydney Gardens (9 miles).
Next I passed through two short canal tunnels one after the other. The second one used to have a hole in the roof so that the boat owners could pay their tolls into Cleveland House located directly above.
The running route passed a few locks (10 miles) as the canal descended into central Bath and to its final merger with the River Avon.
Now running along on the banks of the Avon, I had to make a little out-and-back detour (to add distance) through to the 4th drinks station (10.5 miles) which was located next to Pulteney Bridge and just across from the weir and the spectacular Bath Abbey.
After looping back at the drinks station I ran back along the Avon, under the railway bridge, across the river to the north side and eventually across the busy road in front of Bath Spa station. This part of the route was busy with tourists enjoying their Sunday morning walks.
I carried on along the river path passing warehouses on the south side and then Green Park Station on the north. I finally crossed the Avon again just after the 12 mile marker.
Now, finally south of the river, I headed across a pelican crossing, through a series of back streets and returned to the Two Tunnels path (13 miles). After another detour through some more back streets I arrived back into Brickfield Park to complete the loop. It seems they measure the half marathon at 13.4 miles here, which is a little unusual.
There was a drinks station at the marathon crossover section (13.4 miles) and, as well as my normal water, I had a cup of the flat Coke they were offering. I then set out once again back towards Devonshire Tunnel and the second lap.
Running through those cool tunnels again helped, the bit back along the canal was also fine but the distance eventually took its toll. If I had been like the “Pines Express” on the first lap, I was more of a slow heavy freight train gradually losing steam on the second. By the time I got back round to the 12 mile mark (approx 25.4 miles) again I was almost fit for the scrapyard !
I thoroughly enjoyed the race.
Running through the tunnels was quite a unique experience and the scenery along the towpath outside Bath was beautiful too. It was also quite inspiring to be running along the River Avon past all the famous sights of Bath in the final 3rd of the circuit.
The atmosphere was very friendly. The race marshals were all excellent and the drink stations were fantastic. They provided us not only with a choice of drinks but, unusually, little bits of food as well.
The only quibbles I had was that it got a little bit busy on certain sections of the tow paths and there were a few issues with cars on the short section in the lanes between miles 3 and 5.
The wave system worked well, but at times the separation was a bit too much and it sometimes felt like I was running on my own. My knees could have also done without running up and down some of the staircases you needed to navigate around the bridges in central Bath.
All in all though, Relish Running should be heartily congratulated for organising such a fantastic event. If you like running and you happen also to be interested in railway history, this is simply one not to be missed!