Isambard Kingdom Brunel looms over the transportation system of Southern England, his influence left a legacy that can still be seen today, many years after his death. His influence on the Great Western Railway (GWR) is easy to find if you know where to look.
I suspect the first real discovery I made was when I found his grave in Kensal Green Cemetery in London in 2013
My travels took me to Southampton, and inevitably to Portsmouth too, and it was there that I found a monument to the engineer; that was unveiled on 7 April 2006 to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth on 9 April 1806 at Portsea.
From Southampton I moved deep into GWR territory and relocated to Salisbury where I used GWR trains quite regularly. The current station at Salisbury is not a Brunel building, however, the former GWR station still exists, albeit in a different role as the Railway Social Club.
A blue plaque proclaims the heritage of this small easily overlooked building.
One of my expeditions took me to Bristol in January 2014. And it was in this city that I encountered one of the very tangible relics of Brunel.
The SS Great Britain was one of the many ships I had read about as a child, I even remember seeing photographs of it on it’s way back to Bristol for preservation. Standing on the decks of this grand old lady was really something, It is however one thing to read about a ship like this, and a totally different thing to stand on board her. I have been hoping to get back to the ship, and almost got there in 2015 but got distracted along the way.
Bristol is also home to Bristol Temple Mead Station, yet another Brunel creation. However, the current building is not the original Brunel station. I have still to investigate the Brunel station, although it seems to be perpetually under renovation. The glorious wedding cake of a station that is currently in use was expanded in the 1870s by Francis Fox and again in the 1930s by P E Culverhouse. Brunel’s terminus is no longer part of the operational station. It stands to the left of the current station façade (where the coaches are). I do not have images of the entrance of the station yet, but hopefully one day.
This image below is of the Brunel station and it is quite a wedding cake. The area behind it though is almost an unwanted space.
Bristol also houses yet another Brunel creation, the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge that I visited in August 2015.
Inside the museum I came to a replica of the 1837 “North Star”, and it is really a comparatively simple loco when compared to the machines that rule the rails 100 years later.
The original was purchased by GWR and ran one of the first trains between Paddington and Maidenhead in 1837. There is no consideration for crew comfort in this machine, although I am sure these locos did not break too many speed records. This locomotive was not a Brunel design though, but it was modernised to run on his Broad Gauge (7 ft (2,134 mm), later eased to 7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm)). Unfortunately Broad Gauge was not too good an idea and was not universally accepted and GWR had to change all of its rolling stock and relay its track down the line.
Leaving Bristol the train passes through Bath Spa, and the station there is also attributed to Brunel.
In June 2016, travelling South East from Cheltenham I passed though Swindon, Reading and finally into London Paddington Station which is where GWR terminated. The station today is quite a hodge podge of design, having to cater for the massive expansion of rail into the capital.
If you known where to look you will even encounter Brunel seated on a chair watching the comings and goings. What would he have to say about what they did to his station?
And if you tarried long enough in London you could always retire to your hotel that was a part of the station.
This imposing building is the London Hilton Paddington, or, as it was known: The Great Western Royal Hotel and it was opened in 1854.
There is also a statue to Brunel in London just past Somerset House, and I photographed that in 2020.
And that sums up my Brunel discoveries for now, I know there are others, because most GWR stations had a hotel attached to it, and I am quite sure that Brunel was involved in at least one of them, but that is another exploration for another day.
Brunel was an engineer. He was a man who could turn his mind to bridges, ships and tunnels. He left behind a legacy that has endured, and his work will probably be here long after this blog has closed down. He created and designed and influenced, he was an inspiration, and the world sadly has been replaced by accountants who create nothing, or managers who could not manage their way out of paper bags, and directors who dip their hands into tills with alarming frequency. Where did we loose the engineers? why do we not have engineers that create on a scale like this? Brunel made mistakes, but his success outweigh his failures. He was a man of legend and we are so much richer because he was in the right place at the tight time.
DRW © 2016-2020. Created 01/11/2016 , added new images 31/08/2020