The year 2006 marks the 200th anniversary of one of the giants of the Victorian era: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Born in Portsmouth on April 9, 1806, Brunel was variously a civil, structural, and marine engineer, architect, artist, designer, innovator, entrepreneur, and visionary. Many of his projects survive as legacies to Britain and can be seen today.
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One of these is the Royal Albert bridge used by the London to Penzance express. For almost 150 years, the Great Western Railway crossed here into Cornwall, 100 feet above the estuary at Saltash.
With its two 1100 ton iron trusses, supported by a 35-foot wide central pier, the bridge spans 1041 feet of river. Completed in 1859, no other bridge on earth had ever straddled this distance. The bridge, bearing the name of its creator, I.K. Brunel, is acclaimed as a masterpiece.
The top-hatted, bronze effigy of the engineer is found on platform 1 of London’s Paddington station. Brunel was part of the team that created this glass-roofed terminus. Trains run from here through Swindon and Bristol on railways built by Brunel.
At the Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire, the preservation charity, the Great Western Society, has recreated a section of the original broad gauge track that carried the GWR - “God’s Wonderful Railway”. In the summer, the replica Firefly steam locomotive and train runs along the line to deliver a Brunel experience.
Brunel intended his Great Western Railway to be the greatest in the world, with the former rural backwater of Swindon as its hub. Here, he created a `railway village` to house the workers who repaired and maintained the GWR’s rolling stock. Opened in 1843, Swindon Works was building its own locomotives within three years. By the early 1900s the site formed one of the largest workshops of its kind in the world, covering 326 acres and employing 14,000 people, building two engines a week and more than 250 carriages a year. This warren of yellow `back to back` Cotswold stone cottages survives almost in its entirety.
Closed in 1986, Swindon Works is now home to STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway. A life-sized waxwork figure of Brunel stands among the locomotives. The museum details Brunel’s life: how he was appointed as engineer to the GWR in 1833 and how he travelled on horseback to survey and plan a line from London to Bristol that would keep steep gradients to a minimum so that trains could operate at high speeds. When it opened in 1841, passengers found the line so comfortably flat that they called it Brunel's Billiard Table.
Brunel’s accomplishments are apparent in Bristol where the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built railway terminus has been restored to its Victorian grandeur with former platforms bedecked with lines of iron columns that soar to the world’s largest single span hammerbeam roof. Now part of the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, the terminus, with its gothic frontage, was built as a viaduct above a system of cavernous arched vaults that were used for stabling and storage.
Brunel's plan was for passengers to buy a ticket at London Paddington that would take them to Bristol – and then to New York by ship. At Bristol Docks in 1843, he launched another of his works, the world’s first ocean-going liner, SS Great Britain. Now, in the same docks, the 320-foot, six-masted steamship is an attraction for visitors to England’s west country. Rescued as an abandoned hulk in the 1970s, the ship has been re-restored to ensure her future survival against corrosion.
At the age of 24, Brunel submitted the winning design for the 702-foot long Clifton suspension bridge. With its twin, 86-foot high Egyptian-style piers rising above the suburb of Clifton, the bridge remains Bristol’s defining landmark. Initially, the project had to be abandoned because of a shortage of funds. Brunel never lived to see the Clifton Bridge completed in 1864. Nor was he well enough to witness the grand opening of his Royal Albert Bridge on May 2, 1859. Broken in health, he had to be taken by low carriage to view his masterpiece nearing completion on the Tamar. In the same year, on September 15, he died, aged 53. He had built more than a thousand miles of railway in England, Wales, and Ireland.
For more information visit these websites:
Didcot Railway Centre
SS Great Britain
Information and photo courtesy Visit Britain