I’m not a train buff but have to concede there is something intrinsically romantic about the steam age and the achievements of that brilliant engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was already renowned for design of the SS Great Britain in 1843, for some time, the biggest ship afloat. I was lucky enough to see the Victoria Galleries exhibition, which had much to see and admire about development of the Bath and Great Western Railway.
As engineer of this project, Brunel undertook a huge task. He appointed contractors, designed innovative and beautiful bridges to fit difficult terrain, made viaducts and tunnels, and meticulously planned the route for his railway line. It squeezes past the city centre, avoids the Avon River and valuable Georgian architecture, while traversing hilly countryside.
Brunel’s Box Tunnel was regarded as one of the Engineering Miracles of the 20th Century. Four thousand men shifted 447,00 tons of soil, using pickaxes and explosives to make the tunnel, working by candlelight. So many candles were needed, a factory was set up on the site. It was dangerous work; one hundred navvies died in the two and a half years it took to complete her.
Another problem arose with the rail line: the Kennet and Avon Canal was in the way. In days before modern earthmoving equipment, the whole section of Hampton Row at Bathwick had to be moved. Workers used picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, horses and carts. They slogged away 24/7 to finish the new canal section. Since the work prevented delivery of goods, and brought loss of income, the GWR was charged twenty pounds an hour during closure of the canal, equivalent to hundreds of pounds.
Dozens of houses were demolished in the poorer areas of town. It’s said that whole streets disappeared; a sort of slum clearance in an area of poverty and crime. In upmarket Bathwick, the only house demolished was later rebuilt.
Prior to the railway, Britain had over forty different time zones, set by the position of the sun. This made Railway Timetables impossible. To solve the difficulty, it was necessary to adopt Greenwich Mean time.
Sydney Gardens in Bath must have seemed the perfect spot for visitors to view this marvel. Brunel believed the drama of the steam train with trailing plume of smoke and a loud whistle would encourage new passengers.
At first, train travel was regarded with distrust by certain members of the public. Different classes and sexes had rarely mixed in Victorian England, and questions were raised about the propriety of men and women travelling together in dark tunnels.
Wonderful posters of historic Bath, were designed to encourage citizens of all classes to travel on this new-fangled mode of transport.. There is one with a Roman Soldiers helmet, another shows the Roman Baths –Aqua Sulis- others featured exquisite buildings such as the Royal Crescent or Pulteny Bridge… Charles Dickins, Beau Nash, General Wolfe and Jane Austen were among prominent people who had already taken to the rails.
Then there are the marvelous paintings, several on loan from other collections. A peaceful rural landscape of Bathwick to Bath Station, indicates a view which is now almost city central. A painting of Bath Spa Station at night, by Peter Brown, was on Facebook. It glows with light. A lovely view of Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, once hung in St David’s Station. My favourite was William Powell Frith’s massive painting from 1862, The Railway Station. It depicts Paddington, London, designed by Brunel and Matthew Digby Wyatt. I love this cathedral-like structure with glass roof, cast iron curlicues and organic patterns against the upper glass walls, a worthy backdrop for the colourful spectrum of Victorian Society.
A soldier in red lifts his daughter on high in a farewell gesture, there are lads in caps and coats with lace collars, an upper-class mother’s tearful goodbye to her son, leaving for boarding school, a newspaper boy, a bridal party in elaborate silk and satin dresses, railway porters sorting out the luggage, black suited detectives making an arrest, a spotted dog, and much more.
Before Brunel’s railway, travel had been slow, uncomfortable and expensive. The journey from Bath to London by coach and horses had cost one pound eight shillings, the equivalent of seventy pounds in today’s money. This meant it was restricted to the rich.
In 1840, trains ran between Bath and Bristol; out-of-the-way vistas were suddenly within the reach of everyone. The poor enjoyed day trips to the seaside, and at the extraordinary speed of fifty eight miles an hour. The middle classes treated themselves to yearly beach holidays. By 1841, the line had been extended to London. As we all know, by then, there was no stopping this amazing technology – and Brunel had triumphed once more.