Among the various fun British things that Mikhail wanted to do before his visa expires and he has to go back to Petrograd (foremost among them going to Edinburgh, which we’re doing tomorrow) was the Bristol-Bath cyclepath, which follows a picturesque branch line decommissioned in the sixties by a swing of Beeching’s axe. Rebuilt as a cyclepath by the first generation of Sustrans, which included my parents, it links the two cities with fifteen miles of well-paved track winding through beautiful countryside and suburban decay.
The weather couldn’t have been better – bright, but breezy enough not to be oppressive. The first leg of the track, leaving Bristol through a long, straight cut shadowed by bridges and lined with the weed-riven ghosts of old stations, was bustling with people: walking dogs or children, commuting into town, or just going for a stroll. But just as we got to the edge of anything that could be considered “Bristol”, Misha’s front tyre went very quickly and dramatically flat; a rather worried phone call home revealed that there was a bike shop in nearby Warmley, and fifteen minutes of walking had us there and getting repaired.
The stations at Bitton and Warmley both used to be inhabited by greasy spoons – proper, solid bacon-bap outlets – but a few years back Bitton went all bijou and upmarket, and Warmley has lately and lamentably decided to copy it. Even worse, at the point we arrived the metamorphosis from cheap, workmanlike catering caterpillar to overpriced affected yuppie butterfly was only halfway complete, so the station was inhabited by a formless goo of an establishment which hadn’t even got its shit sufficiently together to rustle up a gourmet organic panini or some other limp-wristed unfood – just a fridgeful of cans and a freezerful of lollies. So we refilled our water bottles and went on our merry way.
Further on, near Bitton, there’s a great collection of wrecked locomotive guts and gently rusting rolling stock, but while that sort of thing holds a romantic mystique to the average effete young Briton (speaking), you can barely move for wrecked infrastructure and derelict vehicles in Russia, so it probably wasn’t doing much for Misha. (I put this to him: he agreed.)
The last leg into Bath is absurdly beautiful, as the embankment cuts a high, straight, tree-lined path across the flat Avon valley, the river meandering to and fro around and underneath it, and on a sunny day – as this was – the fields on either side fall away in shimmering seas of yellow and green. And then, quite unexpectedly, you happen upon Bath.
Architecturally, Bath is a wonderful oddity: a Regency resort town frozen in time. For two thousand years it’s never served much purpose other than being a spa, for pleasure and relaxation (there’s little clumps of solvent-smelling light industry on the outskirts of the town, mostly out of sight and out of mind), and its height was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, around the same time the better part of Clifton was built. So everything is built of creamy limestone in grandiose neoclassical Georgian stylin’, with great sweeping terraces and crescents and gratuitous pediments as far as the eye can see; it’s a little monotonous, yes, but it’s also nice to have that uniform baseline attractiveness, rather than the ugly mongrel mess of most British cities, brutalised by Brutalism and defiled by plate-glass (I maintain that while the Luftwaffe were quite often complicit, most of the great post-1939 crimes committed against British cities were done so by architects).
I can’t imagine the level of planning-permission-themed nonsense the city council has had to impose to keep it that way, or how subsequently horrible it must be to actually do anything or run any business that isn’t based on ripping off Anglophiles – the city road network is a nightmarish tangle of one-way bullshit – and I know I wouldn’t want to live there (because I know what living in a Georgian house in the winter is like…) but I’m very glad it exists.