Reflections on the picturesque Paulton Basin

Roy Mitchell takes a local walk through 250 years of Paulton’s industrial heritage and glimpses a more sustainable future.

My only previous visits to Paulton were some 25 years ago. I hardly took any notice of it then as my visits were short and to a largely housebound friend who lived in a cottage at what was then near the edge of Paulton. Paulton is not on any major road I regularly use so my travels have usually bypassed it either side and never taken me through it. 

It is one of my interests though to explore the area I live in as much as possible. So an invitation from a friend who lives in Paulton to visit their (much praised) very large three quarter of an acre garden and to explore the extensive past industrial heritage of Paulton was another chance for me to get to know it a bit better. Especially as we would be meeting up with two other joint friends I had not seen for a couple of years except on Zoom. These ‘Covid’ times!

The weather forecast for the arranged day had not been promising and first thing on the morning it was very wet from overnight rain. It steadily dried up though and by lunchtime it was a reasonable autumn day. 

My friend’s garden was an absolute delight. Within the large plot the lower half of which had previously been part of a field (used for pasture I would guess) were several very distinct separate garden areas hosting plants chosen to best suit the conditions either natural or in some cases created. It was a place of many rooms, each with its own character, features and interest. The garden makes good use of trees throughout to enhance the drama of the garden by providing striking and interesting focal points. I sensed a feeling of harmony in the garden as largely working with what was there to meet the needs of the plants themselves and in being sympathetic to creating a sense of enhanced naturalness. 

The garden was also home to several chickens provided with their own day time large enclosures and also a separate night time shelter secure from foxes who regularly visit the garden as well as badgers. Dunnocks too stay year-round and nest in the garden. In my own small garden they are seasonal visitors spending winter with me but going elsewhere to nest. Dunnocks being ground feeders spend a lot of time searching for food in a relatively confined area and are easily observed for long periods.

 I grew up in the country and am well used to birds, whether hens or wild birds ground feeding. I find watching their activity very reassuring and comforting for some reason! Whenever I observe any living thing, plant or animal, being comfortable or thriving in its environment or gently looking for food, it increases my own sense of wellbeing. Seeing things stressed has the opposite effect.

Our walk around Paulton revealed the extensive industrial past which fuelled its growth as a place to work and live. Paulton sits on the Somerset Coal fields and was home to many small collieries. The problem was getting the coal to its markets which were principally in Bath and Wiltshire. The roads were not at all good and so around the year 1800 the Coal Mine owners formed a company to build the North Somerset Coal Canal which started at Paulton and joined up with the Avon and Kennet Canal giving access to Bath, Bristol and Wiltshire. 

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Paulton Basin:© Helena Crouch 

The early years were the boom period for the canal, with coal from this area being used to heat the rapidly expanding City of Bath which was confirming its own architectural and spa heritage during the 1800s. With the coming of the railways however the canal fell out of use, as then did coal itself, although the last pit did not close till the 1960s. By that time Paulton had turned to manufacturing and a couple of large factories provided the work until they too were unable to compete or find a market.  Today remnants of this industrial activity are all that is left to see, with the factory sites now given over to housing and those seeking work having to look further afield, very largely.

The residents of Paulton are not indifferent to their heritage and there are plans afoot to restore the canal with a good start having been made. Nature too is being encouraged with several initiatives being undertaken. Our walk took us past the site of one of the old factories, now a pleasant housing development with good adjacent green space to walk in. Then down the hill to the river; its water meadows and the site of the Timsbury and Paulton Canal Basins. What was probably a very dirty and unhealthy working environment is once again a very picturesque and inviting landscape. 

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Purnell (swimming pool) pond: © Helena Crouch 

On our way down to the river we passed the site of an old large outdoor swimming pool which once had changing rooms around it but is now open and converted to be a large square pond with grass around it. Not exactly a natural feature but now one provided for the wildlife and a different sort of human enjoyment. On reaching the bottom we came to the line of an old track and railway which led to the Timsbury and Paulton canal basins, but first passing the Batch nature reserve. I had no idea what a Batch is but had seen several Batches mentioned on the maps I looked at. Well it turns out that a Batch is the local name for a mine spoil heap, some of which can be very large and not very pretty. This one was comparatively small and was being colonised by lots of vegetation, including trees which are perched right on top. Some of this Batch has obviously been taken away but enough remains to feel the scale of even this small one.

The canal basins are now large ponds, home to swans, lots of mallards and some moorhens. Otters are known to be in the area and have been helping themselves to the fish depleting some of the streams and ponds. A tiny goldcrest was spotted in a hedgerow and the song of robins accompanied us along the way. A jay, unseen by us, let us know it had spotted us, issuing its characteristic alarm call as we passed through its territory. Some grazing cattle on the trackway were in contrast unperturbed by our passing and even allowed some stroking of their thick winter coats.

The canal trust has uncovered the largest canal dry dock ever built on the canal network. It is attached to the Paulton Basin. They are in the process of restoring a bridge over the entrance to the dry dock and there is an information board here which also tells of the contribution of the canal being dug to the eventual drawing up of a map of England’s geology by one of Paulton’s nearby residents, William Smith. He became known as the Father of English Geology and his ideas, formed by closely observing the way rock layers revealed by excavations always followed the same order, paved the way for our present day understanding of geological time.

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The Dry Dock at Paulton Basin: © Helena Crouch 

Our route back took us past the site of an old foundry which produced its own mix of cast iron giving it a distinctive feel and look. Examples can be found in the iron fencing and gate posts to people’s houses in the vicinity. A field recently changed by lessening the quality of the soil and the sowing of wildflowers was pointed out to me. This year I was told had been a very good year with a long show of different flowers.

All these community efforts, the sight of children out on their bikes or gathering at the local playing fields and the frequent exchange of greetings and chats with other residents out and about created a good sense of Paulton as still a close-knit community, despite being more of a dormitory small town than the working place it had once been.

I have an interest in looking at the journeying of people, nature, and places through time: the experiences they go through and the impacts they have on each other. It seems to me that the way we sometimes go about making a living can wreak havoc with the health of all including the environment, whilst at other times a better balance has been achieved.

Paulton is a good example of this journeying. What struck me was how the exploitation of coal which provided all sorts of economic, social, and environmental challenges for our relationship with nature and each other has turned full circle, with the health of nature and of humans now being seen as more interdependent. This doesn’t remove the need to get your living but maybe we might learn not to swing so far between the extremes of the exploitation of something wholly for human use and the need to respect the harmony and health of all, as far as possible.

It was, for me, good to see the community in Paulton valuing nature and actively working to restore their surrounds by creating new green spaces and Nature Reserves. Not a coal mine in sight now, only a green and pleasant land and I think, a great sense of community.

A very pleasant and interesting walk. I would recommend a visit to Paulton Basin if you are interested in exploring our working heritage or if not just for the very lovely scenery and interaction with nature.  

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