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Tour de Force: A Bridge to the Past

On a January morning in 1970, Mike Rowland left Bath Police Station for his inaugural day as a bobby on the beat. The first person he met was an American asking directions to the ‘ancient bathrooms’. “I pointed him towards the Roman Baths,” Mike recalls, “and realised that a big part of policing would be helping tourists.”

One place he regularly gave directions to was Bath railway station. “I was intrigued by the gabled building, with its bridge skewing across the river into the station; all designed by a man who became something of a hero of mine: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.” Mike’s growing interest in history led him to qualify as a Blue Badge Guide. In 2000 he left the constabulary and took a job as visitor-centre manager at Clifton Suspension Bridge – bringing him into daily contact with the bridge’s engineer and designer: Brunel.

“Brunel came to Bristol in 1828 following a near-fatal accident,” Mike explains. “He was working underground on the first tunnel under the Thames. The riverbed gave way and the young engineer was snatched from the rising water seconds before he drowned. Brunel’s father – who ran the family engineering business – sent his son to Bristol to ‘convalesce’.

“Bristol was one of the great trading cities. Sugar, rum and tea were flowing through its port. A local merchant left money for the construction of a bridge from residential Clifton across the gorge into Somerset. This would mean the genteel Cliftonians – whose only way out of town was via the port – could avoid contact with the ‘dirty dockers’ and local brothels.

“A competition was held. The judge was Britain’s national bridge-building champion, Thomas Telford. He dismissed all the entries – including Brunel’s radical single-span plan – submitted his own more traditional scheme, and declared himself the winner.

“The embarrassed committee quietly dropped both project and judge. When it was revived the following year, Brunel resubmitted, but lost again. Brunel was adamant that  his was the best scheme. He met the judges and berated and harangued them until they changed their minds. Victorian engineering was a dirty business.

“Isambard’s first major project was underway. But in 1831, the Bristol Riots broke out – angry citizens protesting poor social conditions and the lack of rights sacked the city. The project was delayed, investors pulled out and in 1843 the bridge was abandoned.

“But the pocket-genius Brunel (he stood just 5ft 4ins tall) had captivated Bristol and they hired him to sort out the docks. The river has a 13 metre tide – the second highest in the world. In 1809 the Avon had been dammed to create a ‘Floating Harbour’, but as a consequence it regularly silted up. The river was also the local sewer and the silty stink became intolerable. Brunel devised a system to flush out the water at low tide.

“The engineer now turned his hand to the technology that was transforming Britain: the railways. He built a horsedrawn mobile caravan with a couch to sleep on and space for his cigars. Dubbed the ‘flying hearse’, it was his mobile home and office as he surveyed land between London and Bristol ready for the Great Western Railway.

“The plans for the GWR were met with fury. The Kennet and Avon Canal had been finished in 1810 and the financers were just turning a profit. If the four-day barge journey from London became a four-hour railway dash they were out of business. And the double-gauge railway, more comfortable than any ever built, would make the passenger carriage redundant.

“Brunel was cross-examined in parliament for eleven days. The biggest controversy surrounded the building of the Box Tunnel near Bath. One MP claimed that the speed of the train going into the tunnel would ‘compress the passengers to death’. Brunel demolished their objections with engineering science.

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“The GWR was the Rolls Royce of railways – known in the West Country as ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’. Brunel oversaw every detail, including the stations. The Bristol terminus featured two tracks coming into the station, platform areas for first, second and third class passengers, room for their luggage, space to turn and refuel the engines, ticket offices and restaurants. None of this had ever been accomplished in a single covered space before.

“Two spurs were built on into Wales and Cornwall, opening up the country and changing the way people worked. Fish caught overnight in Cornwall could be on the plates of London restaurants by lunchtime the same day. The railways led to the development of the Victorian seaside holiday.

“Brunel had conquered land, now he would cross the seas. The engineer wanted to extend the GWR across the Atlantic, with passengers stepping off the railway onto steam boats. In 1843 he launched the ss Great Britain – the first all-iron steam-driven ship in the world, it could reach New York in 14 days.

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“The Great Britain was in service for two decades. During its last voyage she was beached following an Atlantic storm, and lay submerged in salt water until 1970 when she was refloated and towed back to Bristol for restoration.

“Isambard’s final project was another boat; the gargantuan SS Great Eastern. His drive to complete her cost him his life; sleeping four hours a night, smoking 40 cigars a day, the exhausted 53 year old collapsed and died.

“His fellow engineers commemorated him by completing the Clifton Bridge. In 1864, some thirty years later than planned, the Clifton Suspension Bridge opened to the public. Last year we celebrated its 150th anniversary. For a century and half, thousands of cars and pedestrians have crossed the bridge. It’s a monument to a time when engineers like Brunel were building the modern world, a symbol of Bristol, and a very important part of my life.”

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