Paddington, Didcot, Swindon
A closer look at Brunel!
Something about Brunel caught my eye years ago. Perhaps it was his highly unusual combination of names, or his presence in one of the most famous of Victorian photographs: the hat, the cigar, the nonchalant stance and muddy shoes, the mysterious giant chains.
My first glimpse of a Brunel structure was while on a long weekend holiday during my undergraduate "Spring in Britain." We visited Stonehenge, Salisbury, Cheddar Gorge...and Bristol. We viewed a bridge over the Avon, but my memories are mostly of the nearby camera obscura, and a small cave overlooking Clifton Gorge. The Clifton Bridge made an impression -- but "on the slant."
Some years later I crossed into Cornwall over the Tamar railway bridge with its giant inscription: I.K. Brunel 1859. I noted in my trip journal that Brunel sounded like an interesting, dynamic man, and that I'd like to find a biography of him.
My Brunel travels took me to some relatively out-of-the-way places. Other times I was on familiar tourist ground, but now knew what to look for, where to find traces of IKB.
Paddington Station is a good place to start (and a likely place to start for anyone traveling to Oxford or the West Country). Brunel built this station as the London terminus for the Great Western Railway -- God's Wonderful Railway, some have called it. On one visit, I found scaffolding, and this sign: "Brunel's beautiful soaring roof spans are, after 130 years use, showing signs of wear and tear. To extend the life of this elegant roof it is essential restoration work is undertaken over the next five years." All better now; and, as you can see, one of the Brunel "sights" to see at Paddington is the very building he designed.
You can see the balcony of Brunel's office above Platform 1, and there is a statue of him (seated, holding his hat) by the Underground entrance. The "meeting place" for travelers used to be marked with a silhouette of Brunel with hat and cigar.
You can travel on railways Brunel built from London to Bristol, to Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance. The line from London to Bristol was the original Great Western Railway, built in the 1830s.
Take a look at Rain, Steam and Speed by J. W. M. Turner, a foretaste of Impressionism. This painting shows a GWR engine crossing the bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead.
If your train stops at Didcot, or you're transferring here for Oxford, you can visit the Didcot Railway Centre, home of the Great Western Society. They have a collection of locomotives which are brought out on regular steamdays. They also have a museum with a fine lot of GWR relics. I loved the chamberpots with the GWR insignia! Check out the Great Western Society's home page for more information. A short history of Brunel's involvement with the GWR can be found here .
At Swindon, too, there is a railway museum. Swindon was the engine-building center of the GWR. Although the works have been closed and the city's industry has been diversified, they're proud of their railway past. Alongside the museum is the old GWR Railway Village . Did Brunel choose the village site by throwing a half-eaten sandwich from the line of the tracks? Hmm..I doubt it. These cottages were scheduled for demolition in the 60s, until saved by a crusade led by the poet Sir John Betjeman. The cottage exteriors cannot be changed, but the interiors have been modernized, except for the foreman's cottage which is open for visitors.
[Note: I have been informed that the Swindon railway museum has been closed, but has been replaced by STEAM - Museum of the Great Western Railway. You can find more information on the history of the GWR on Swindon's official pages; go to their heritage pages here.]
Bristol can be visited for a number of reasons: as a gateway to Wales and the West Country, as a sidelight of a trip to Bath. There are three major Brunel sights to visit.
One is the old Temple Meads railway station, the original western terminus of the GWR, next to the modern building. I find it quite charming. It was being restored when I visited; I hope it's used respectfully.
Next, there is the Clifton Suspension Bridge , in the old spa-town suburb of Clifton, over a gorge of the River Avon. The bridge's impact comes from a perfect combination of design and dramatic setting. The bridge was designed early in Brunel's career, but wasn't finished until after his death.
The S.S. Great Britain is the center-piece of Bristol's Maritime Heritage Museum. This was the first iron, screw-propeller driven, ocean-going ship -- if you can follow that! Brunel built it as an extension of the GWR; his idea was that someone traveling to New York would take the Great Western Railway to Bristol, then board a ship owned by the same company. The Great Britain had a rocky history: in later years it was used as a storage hulk, and was submerged in the Falkland Islands. It was raised and towed back to a grand welcome in Bristol in 1970. The S.S. Great Britain is being restored to its 1843 appearance.
If you can move on to Exeter, where you can visit another maritime museum, housing an excellent collection of boats from around the world, in its central building. There is also a group of boats moored in the Canal Basin, which you are encouraged to board. One of the boats is the Bertha, a steam dredger built by Brunel, the world's oldest working steam vessel -- it's been in the Guinness Book of Records. There is also a steam tug, a Hong Kong "junk", and others.
[note: I have now learned that the Exeter Museum's ethnographic craft have been moved to the International Sailing Craft Association museum in Lowestoft, Suffolk, and the historic craft (apparently) to Bristol. [Top]
From Exeter you can travel to Starcross on the river Exe, the smallest "Brunel" town I've visited. My day would have been more manageable if I had had a car, but I had to depend on the bus, which didn't run often. When I arrived in Starcross and found the Atmospheric Railway museum had changed its schedule and was open only after 2:15, I had to hang around for hours doing practically nothing. I had lunch in The Courtney Arms, worked on a crossword puzzle, and took a boat ride to Exmouth, there and back for a pound.
The Starcross museum is housed in the last remaining "pumping house" of the Atmospheric Railway that was Brunel's famous failure. The railway was to run on compressed air, an idea that out-stripped the technology of the time. For instance, they used leather pipes, but the leather dried and cracked. The old story isn't true -- rats didn't really eat holes in the pipes!
The final major Brunel sight in the West is the Royal Albert (or Saltash) Bridge over the Tamar, between Plymouth and the Duchy of Cornwall. This project was a challenge due to the shifty nature of the river bed, and the fact that the bridge had to be high enough above the water line for tall-masted ships of the line to pass under it.
Buses to Saltash leave from near Plymouth Hoe and the information center. I asked my bus driver if this was the right one to take me to Saltash and the Royal Albert Bridge. He said it was, adding that it was too far for him to go to visit a pub! I didn't tell him that the Royal Albert was really a bridge!
Back in Plymouth you can visit the Barbican, one of the oldest parts of the city, very picturesque. Here at the Mayflower Steps the Pilgrims embarked for New England; there is a list of the passengers and their occupations on a building nearby. (Note: they sailed from Southampton but had to stop at Plymouth for repairs.) [Top]
To return to London is to return to the beginnings of Brunel's engineering career. The young Brunel started working in his father's engineering office when he was seventeen or eighteen, and was deeply involved in Sir Marc's great project, the Thames Tunnel . This tunnel, which ran from Rotherhithe to Wapping, was the first to go under the river -- in fact, the first to go under any navigable river. Sir Marc invented a tunneling shield that could be moved forward as the tunnel was dug. I.K. Brunel acted as on-site engineer on the project, and nearly died when the tunnel collapsed. Brunel went to Bristol to recuperate from his accident, and here entered the bridge competition that led to his first major project.
You can visit the Brunel Engine House at Rotherhithe -- if you are in London on the right day of the month. The engine house is very near the Rotherhithe tube station, not too hard to find. While you are in the area you might stop in St. Mary's, Rotherhithe. Christopher Jones, the captain of the Mayflower, is buried there. The nearby Mayflower pub is a reminder, too. (I can't help think of him as looking like Spencer Tracy in "Plymouth Adventure.")
There is a statue of Brunel in Temple Place, a small crescent on Victoria Embankment near The Temple. On your Brunel tour, this can be used as an excuse to visit the Temple Church with its knightly effigies. The Inner Temple is one of the most peaceful spots in London, and it is hard to believe that it is yards away from Fleet Street/the Strand.
If you were to hunt out the site of Brunel's home and London office, #18-19 Duke Street, you'd find a brutally modern hotel and nothing the least bit reminiscent of the 1840s. Alas. But there's a "blue plaque special" awaiting you in Chelsea: as a young man, Brunel lived with his parents at #98 Cheyne Walk.
And is there anything else to see on Cheyne Walk? Well -- yes! On the way there you might pass by the Chelsea Physic Garden on Royal Hospital Road. If it's a Wednesday (is it Wednesday, this year?) you could drop in. This is one of the oldest botanic gardens in England. I was there in the pouring rain and was proclaimed most brave -- and was I a botanist? Once on Cheyne Walk, you will pass Chelsea Old Church and Crosby Hall. All this area was part of Sir Thomas More's manor; he worshipped in the Old Church and endowed a chapel there where he hoped to be buried. Crosby Hall was the home of a wool merchant, which was moved from Bishopsgate in this century to save it from demolition. Richard III lived in it when he was still Duke of Gloucester. I was lucky enough to be able to view the gorgeous dining hall with its hammer-beam ceiling. Unfortunately it may now be a private residence. [Top]
Finally, London is where Brunel is buried, in the first great municipal cemetery, Kensal Green, easily reachable by train. My own visit to Brunel's grave was my usual comedy of errors. I knew it was Square 41, Row 1, so the grave would be easy to find, surely! Right.
There was no one in the custodian's house, and no map of the cemetery posted. I set out to the right, just on a guess, and when I came to a point where the path divided, I saw a little marker saying Square 22. Good -- the squares were marked. Wrong; that was the only sign I saw. I looked for metal flags for signs attached to trees, for cone-like stones like mileposts: nothing. And it started to rain. I went as far as the royal chapel (Princess Sophia - daughter of George III), made a circuit around it and returned to the gate.
There was a man who had just pulled his car up. He said to me, "I remember when there was a man in a uniform at the gate. He'd tip his hat to you when you drove in, and you tipped him sixpence when you left. A long time ago."
A custodian arrived. He didn't know where Square 41 was, but "the other fellow" would. I sat on that while he helped the other visitor - then in walked "the other fellow" from Harrow Road - a little nut-brown man with a gappy smile and a knit cap. "Number 41, is it? That's down by the Brunel Footpath." My eyebrows shot up - I went up on my toes! "Oh, visiting Brunel's grave, are you?" he said, and gave me directions.
I found it -- and here it is!
When I got back to the gate the nut-brown said he didn't think much of the stone, just a plain old stone for someone who made as much money as 'e did. -- He was very surprised to find that Brunel had died broke after his Great Eastern adventure.
I hope you have enjoyed this I.K. Brunel journey. Needless to say, I am no engineer - all mistakes are mine as an enthusiastic amateur Brunelian. For more information try this site . [Top]