Tunnel vision: The Brunel Museum in London tells the story of the first passage under the Thames
Tunnel vision: The Brunel Museum in London tells the story of the first passage under the Thames

Brunel's Britain: Kingdom come, from east to west

Brunel bestowed travellers with a wealth of transportational marvels, says Simon Calder

Simon Calder@SimonCalder
Monday 08 December 2014 12:37

How grateful should today's travellers be to Isambard Kingdom Brunel? Well, during a career cut short by his death, aged 53, in 1859, this engineering genius became the father of urban mass transit systems, inter-city rail transport and intercontinental passenger shipping. He even found time to design the odd boutique hotel ... so, quite a lot.

Brunel was the traveller's engineer. His legacy is a spectacular range of Victorian industrial archaeology from the Thames to the Tamar – much of which is still essential to Britain's transport infrastructure in the 21st century.

Begin beneath the Thames, at Wapping Station on the London Overground. While you are waiting for a train for the two-minute journey to Rotherhithe, walk to the south end of the platform and look at the arches that Brunel and his father, Marc, created when they built the first tunnel beneath a navigable river.

Marc Brunel, a French-American, was the chief engineer of the scheme. It was conceived in 1824 to provide an essential alternative to boats, or a long detour via London Bridge, for moving goods between the north and south banks of the Thames – then the busiest docks in the world.

As you discover on the other side of the river, at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe (Railway Avenue; 020 7231 3840; brunel-museum.org.uk; 10am-5pm daily, £3), the scheme was initially a structural and financial disaster. But when it finally opened as a pedestrian tunnel in 1843, it became the nation's biggest tourist attraction. Within the first year, two million people – representing about 90 per cent of London's population – had paid a penny to walk beneath the river.

This business model proved unsustainable, but within two decades the capital had the world's first underground railway – and in 1869 trains started running through the tunnel, as they do to this day. Although the "East London Line" was not the first to open, the tunnel is certainly the oldest piece of subterranean railway infrastructure in the world – and Brunel's revolutionary tunnelling shield became the model for all later deep-level lines, including the capital's new Crossrail project.

Each Saturday, the director of the Brunel Museum, Robert Hulse, leads a waterborne tour of Brunel's London for London Walks (walks.com; £9, booking not required), beginning at Embankment station at 10.45am. It includes the piers of the original Hungerford Suspension Bridge, adjacent to the downstream side of the Jubilee Bridge; Blackfriars rail bridge (by IKB's son, Henry Marc Brunel), now venue for the world's first trans-river railway station; and the launch site for Brunel's Great Eastern steamship on the Isle of Dogs.

The one big Brunel site that the tour misses is his most notable achievement for many travellers – currently celebrated on the big screen. Brunel gets a cameo close to the start of the film Paddington, when his statue, adjoining Platform 1, is centre stage. The station, opened in 1854 as the London terminus of the Great Western Railway, is now served by the world's fastest diesel trains. Within 20 minutes of leaving Paddington along the lines that Brunel created, you cross Maidenhead Railway Bridge – which Brunel built earlier, in 1839, when the line to the west began. It has the widest, flattest brick arches in the world.

Brunel's original Reading station has been comprehensively rebuilt, but two minutes' walk away is his former Great Western Hotel, now the Malmaison (0844 693 0660; malmaison.com), where the public areas are full of railway memorabilia. Talking of which: 15 train minutes west, you reach Didcot Parkway station and the adjacent Didcot Railway Centre (01235 817200; didcotrailwaycentre.org.uk; weekends all year and daily during school holidays, 10.30am-4pm; £5.50). Exhibits include a section of Brunel's preferred broad-gauge track – 49 per cent wider than standard gauge – and the atmospheric pipes that comprised part of one of his heroic failures, a pneumatic railway.

The planned trajectory west was blocked by Box Hill, east of Bath, so Brunel went straight through it. Work began at either end with separate contractors. When they met, the alignment was only two inches adrift. When Box Tunnel opened in 1841, it was the longest in the world, at almost two miles.

Brunel's Great Western carves elegantly around the southern end of the now Unesco-listed Bath city centre, and along the Avon valley to Bristol Temple Meads. The station is one of Britain's key transport terminals, and gateway for two of Brunel's most spectacular creations.

His elegant design to connect the city of Bristol with north Somerset was the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is celebrating its 150th birthday. It wasn't completed until five years after Brunel's death. Today, it remains a toll bridge, costing £1 for cars but nothing for hikers or bikers. The world's original bungee jump was made from here, in 1979.

This weekend, British Airways has inadvertently paid tribute to Brunel with a revolutionary new idea – integrated international travel involving the Great Western Railway. In collaboration with First Great Western and the Heathrow Express (both Brunel-dependent) BA is offering a single ticket for train and plane – as devised in 1840 by IKB.

Brunel planned for passengers to buy a through-ticket in London that took them to Neyland in Pembrokeshire, where they boarded one of his ships to New York. Today, little remains in Neyland besides the 8ft tall Brunel statue. But Brunel's SS Great Britain – launched in 1843 – survives. His design for the world's first ocean-going iron ship with a single propeller screw also transformed that travel experience.

The ship had a dismal end, being scuttled in the Falkland Islands in 1937. However, a campaign in the 1970s brought her back to the city of her birth and she now stands magnificently once more by the waterside in Bristol, cunningly preserved against the elements (0117 926 0680; ssgreatbritain.org; 10am-4.30pm daily (to 5.30pm from March; £13.75).

You can continue south-west to Exeter and along Europe's most ambitious coastal railway line – running from the Exe Estuary to the port of Teignmouth, through Dawlish, where the tracks were washed out earlier this year. The restored line leads to Brunel's magnificent Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar; to appreciate it properly, alight at Saltash and walk back across the adjacent road bridge.

The line continues along the spine of Cornwall all the way to St Michael's Bay – complete with mystical Mount – and Penzance. From next weekend, the first direct train of the day to the far south west arrives 40 minutes earlier, at 12.37pm, with a new express that departs from Paddington at 7.06am; one-way fares typically £37.80 if you book well in advance.

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