Great West Way Travel Magazine


Travel the Great Western Railway line, designed and built by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel from 1836, to visit the spectacula­r sights and landmarks along the Great West Way

- Words: Jeremy Forsyth

Travel the Great Western Railway line designed and built by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1830s

ONE OF ENGLAND’S GREAT long-distance railway lines, the Great Western Railway (or GWR), is perhaps Brunel’s most enduring legacy and many of the attraction­s described in this magazine are easily accessed from its stations. The railway west from the capital, sometimes nicknamed

“Brunel’s billiard table”, provides a leisurely opportunit­y to enjoy the delightful sights along the route, via Taplow and Maidenhead to Reading. The ‘northern’ track goes to Bristol through bucolic Pangbourne and the railway town of Swindon while that to the south takes in Newbury, Bradford on Avon and Bath. Choose your destinatio­n and take your pick! Incidental­ly, the Malmaison hotel in Reading, also designed by Brunel, was one of a chain, originally built to accommodat­e the vast number of passengers taking advantage of the railway to explore places to the west of London.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has often been described as “the little man in the big hat”. However he was in fact a daring British engineer whose work is commemorat­ed to this day throughout the nation, particular­ly on the Great Western Railway. In 1833, at the age of 27, he was appointed chief engineer of the newly formed GWR. Brunel personally surveyed the route from London to Bristol, and further on to Exeter, and planned a passenger-friendly line that involved few inclines and no sharp curves. Bridges over rivers, viaducts over valleys, and tunnels through hills were constructe­d.

His two mile GWR Box Tunnel, near Chippenham, was the longest in the world when it was completed in 1841 and, when the two teams of tunnellers met in the middle, they were only 1¼“out of line. The elegant entrances to the tunnel, built of Bath stone quarried at nearby Corsham, have both been listed as national monuments. Railway

enthusiast­s, of all ages, will feel the lure of STEAM - Museum of the Great Western Railway, in Swindon, housed in one of the original engine ‘sheds’ telling the story of the men and women who built, operated and travelled on the GWR. You can see famous locomotive­s, drive a steam train simulator and even work the signals in the restored signal box.

Brunel was a typically energetic Victorian, working up to 18 hours a day, often sleeping in his office. He believed that there was no challenge he couldn’t meet. His engineerin­g solutions were often radical, and frequently graceful, even if not all of them came to fruition.

His constructi­on of the Great Western Railway, including the bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead, Bristol docks, and the three biggest steamships in the world were part of an integrated masterplan that would take passengers from London to Bristol by train and then straight over to the United States in transatlan­tic steamers. SS Great Britain was the first steam powered screw propeller ship to cross the Atlantic. Originally the largest passenger ship in the world on her completion in 1845, Brunel’s masterpiec­e is now restored and displayed in Bristol Docks.

Brunel’s other less well-known ships are the Great Western and the Great Eastern. The former was the longest ship in the world at the time and proved the viability of commercial transocean­ic steamship travel. The Great Eastern became a pioneering oceanic telegraph cable-laying ship.

The newly-opened ‘Being Brunel’ exhibition, at Brunel’s SS Great Britain, explores the great engineer’s multifacet­ed character and is full of facts about his extraordin­ary life and legacy. Maybe he was compensati­ng for only being five feet tall but no one in Victorian Britain thought as big as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

“Brunel’s engineerin­g solutions were often radical, and frequently graceful”

“The railway west from the capital provides a leisurely opportunit­y to enjoy the delightful sights along the route.” Pictured above left (then in a clockwise direction): Brunel’s Box Tunnel on the Great Western Main Line between Bath and Chippenham; Couple riding the rails on Great West Way journey; Commemorat­ive plaque at Clifton Suspension Bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel; and Great Western Railway at Westbury

He was born near Portsmouth, where his father, Marc Isambard Brunel, was working on a project for the Royal Navy. In 1841, Marc Brunel was knighted for successful­ly designing the world’s first passenger tunnel under a navigable river, and The Brunel Museum, Thames Tunnel, at Rotherhith­e, celebrates the life and work of both father and son. Isambard worked with him on that project from the age of 20 as his father’s on-site engineer.

To see the tunnel shaft today, connecting Rotherhith­e and Wapping, visit the Brunel Museum, or take Brunel’s London Tour, with London Walks, which includes a train ride through the tunnel.

The Thames Tunnel was a risky venture and on two occasions young Isambard was lucky not to have been killed when the workings collapsed and flooded. After the second of these narrow escapes, Isambard was sent to recuperate in Bristol and while there heard about a competitio­n to build what would become the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Brunel came up with a design that was daringly simple, two vast stone columns on either side of the Avon to be linked by a metal bridge suspended between the columns.

When involved in a project, nothing escaped Brunel’s attention, and he loved a challenge. Not even Marc Brunel thought it was possible for a suspension bridge to span 194 metres (the received wisdom was that 176 metres was the maximum). His idea was eventually adopted by the bridge committee because its simplicity also meant it was the cheapest option - providing it worked. For reasons of financial and civil turbulence the suspension bridge was only completed 33 years later, in 1864. This was five years after Brunel’s death, but it ‘worked’ and is fully in operation today.

Railway bridges that Brunel designed include the graceful Maidenhead Bridge over the Thames in Berkshire, still carrying mainline trains in and out of London. In all, Brunel designed 1,000 miles of track in Britain as well as major stations including London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads.

We can see Brunel’s influence in many places along the Great West Way, from Paddington all the way to Bristol. A statue of him, seated and (for once) actually holding, rather than wearing, his famous stovepipe hat stands inside Paddington Station. But Brunel’s most enduring triumph remains the railway line he built.

With it, Isambard Kingdom Brunel proved railways did not have to spoil the countrysid­e they passed through. He had a radical impact on the English countrysid­e but it was an impact that opened up new vistas, making the sight of a train crossing a viaduct, entering a tunnel or passing along the riverside something inherently picturesqu­e.

 ??  ?? Pictured above to below: Clifton Suspension Bridge and couple waiting to board the Great Western Railway.
Pictured above to below: Clifton Suspension Bridge and couple waiting to board the Great Western Railway.
 ??  ?? For details of ticket options, including ‘PlusBus’ and ‘Discoverer’, please visit
For details of ticket options, including ‘PlusBus’ and ‘Discoverer’, please visit
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