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Andrew Swift: abandoned plans

As we approach the centenary of the closure of Bristol’s unlikliest railway station ­– which would have seen passengers travel under Clifton Suspension Bridge – Andrew Swift takes a closer look at the city’s (very serious) plans to build a Grand Central Station in Queen Square.

When the SS Great Britain was launched into Bristol’s floating harbour on 19 July 1843, she was the largest ship ever built – and too wide to fit through the lock leading out of the harbour. It was only 18 months later, after the lock had been widened, that she could head off down the Avon.

It was not a good portent. As larger ships were introduced, the city’s docks, with no scope for expansion, would dwindle away unless drastic action was taken. As far as many were concerned, the only solution was to relocate the docks to a new port at the mouth of the Avon – Avonmouth.

For the new docks to succeed, they needed to be linked to the city – and to the railways that served it – by rail. So the promoters set about building a line. The obvious route to choose would have been one heading east to link up with one of the other lines serving the city. They chose, however, to build a line heading south, along the east bank of the Avon, to a terminus below the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

On the face of it, this was an unfathomable decision, as any goods carried along the line would have to complete their journey by horse and cart. But they had a very good reason for choosing the route they did.

Over 20 years earlier, when Brunel surveyed the route of the Great Western Railway, he planned to build his terminus in Queen Square. When money ran short, however, the company told him to take the line no further than Temple Meads.

The station he built was not only well away from the city centre but also poorly designed for expansion. As lines opened to Gloucester and Exeter, and new platforms were added, it grew haphazardly and became increasingly inconvenient. Both the railway companies and Bristol’s businessmen realised something better was needed urgently.

They came up with a radical solution – the construction of a new line, the Bristol & Clifton Railway. This would head on past Temple Meads along a viaduct north of Portwall Lane before crossing a swingbridge over the floating harbour into Queen Square, where a station would be built. From there, the line would continue west, over another swingbridge and across Canon’s Marsh, before curving north to another station on Jacob’s Wells Road. A network of sidings and goods lines would also be laid along Welsh Back, Broad Quay, the Grove and Cumberland Basin.

So powerful were the interests backing the line, and so sure were they of success, that the promoters of the docks at Avonmouth were confident that, if they built their line to a temporary terminus below the suspension bridge, the construction of a short extension linking it with the Bristol & Clifton Railway would follow as a matter of course. And, although the promoters of neither of the lines said so, it was common knowledge that this was what was planned.

This tacit agreement between the promoters of the two schemes, however, seems to have been what scuppered the plan for the line through Queen Square. Despite overwhelming support, determined opposition from those who saw it as an attempt to divert trade from Bristol’s docks resulted in parliament throwing out the bill for its construction on 20 June 1862.

Less than a month later, however, on 17 July, the bill for the line from Avonmouth to a terminus under the suspension bridge received royal assent. Its promoters seem to have been unconcerned that the Bristol & Clifton Railway would not be going ahead, as plans were being drawn up to get approval for another line through the city. That failed as well, as did another plan a couple of years later, and the railway companies eventually decided to cut their losses and build a new station at Temple Meads instead.

By the time the line from Avonmouth opened on 6 March 1865, it was clear that Bristol wasn’t going to get a central station and that, if the promoters wanted to link their line up with the rest of the rail network, they would have to build their own line through Bristol. Given the opposition that previous schemes had encountered, however, the chances of receiving parliamentary approval were nil. So they sought permission for a new line, branching off the original line 1.75 miles north of the terminus under the bridge and climbing through a mile-long tunnel to the heights of Clifton before heading east to join the Great Western. This was such an expensive option that the company went bust and the Great Western and Midland Railways took over the project. And so the Severn Beach Line was born.

The old terminus under the bridge wasn’t abandoned, though. A tram line was laid to it from Brislington, providing dockworkers living in south Bristol with a convenient way of getting to Avonmouth by tram and train. During the First World War, when their numbers were swelled by munition workers, the old station was unable to cope and a longer platform was brought into use just to the north.

It was from this platform that the last train left for Avonmouth on 3 July 1922. The old line would have survived longer had the trackbed not been needed to construct the Portway, providing a level road from Bristol to Avonmouth. Today all that survives of the long-forgotten station under the bridge is an open space and a couple of bricked-up tunnels.

As the centenary of its closure approaches, however, it is worth reflecting on how different Bristol would have been had the Bristol & Clifton Railway gone ahead and the city had got that Grand Central station. Queen Square would look like a station forecourt rather than a tree-lined open space. The King Street area, instead of being at one remove from the bustle of the central core, would have been at its heart. Redevelopment – along with new roads – would have spread out from that central station, obliterating much of the area’s 18th-century heritage.

At the same time, Bristol’s 20th-century development would almost certainly have been less road oriented, and the city would have a better suburban rail network. In 1966, a report by the council planning department concluded that ‘the demand for a railway commuter service is very low’ as ‘the lack of a station within reasonable walking distance of the heart of the city has made the railway service unattractive for city centre users’. By then, most of Bristol’s suburban railways had closed; more would follow. The only line to survive – in spite of two attempts to close it – is that to Avonmouth and Severn Beach, which today is busier than ever, with a recently-introduced half-hourly service.

With the development of the Temple Quarter and the growth in the number of people who walk or cycle as part of their journeys into and within the city, Temple Meads has never been busier. Its inconvenient location meant, however, in the days when the car was king, that Bristol’s suburban services were shorn away. How different it could all have been been if the Bristol & Clifton Railway had been given the green light 160 years ago.

More on the Severn Beach Line can be found in Andrew Swift’s Walks from Bristol’s Severn Beach Line, available from bookshops or direct from akemanpress.com

Images | Top left: After the plan to build a central station in Queen Square was abandoned, work started on a new station at Temple Meads, seen here in the 1920s. Top right: A map of about 1865 with the route of the Bristol & Clifton Railway superimposed in red. The station under the suspension bridge is at top left, with a red dotted line indicating how it could have been linked to the Bristol & Clifton Railway. Bottom left: the Bristol & Clifton Railway was to run from Temple Meads to new stations in Queen Square and on Jacob’s Wells Road (known at the time as Woodwell Lane). This map also shows the network of sidings which would have served the docks. Bottom right: The original station at Temple Meads had little scope for expansion. Featured image: a distant view of the original terminus of the line from Avonmouth, under the Clifton Suspension Bridge