Posts Tagged ‘Brunel’


May 23, 2016

Bertha was once known as a dredger – a boat which was designed to keep channels clear for shipping by removing silt. I now understand that correctly she’s a drag boat in that she was like an underwater bulldozer which just shoved silt elsewhere.

I saw her many years ago – in the 1970s I think – at the Exeter Maritime Museum which was a great place.


And there she is – or at least was. She looks a bit unprepossessing but this little vessel has claims to fame.

Let’s start with the motive power. This is a steam powered vessel but without screw or paddle wheel. She had a specific use in a specific location and she hauled herself along a chain which was anchored at some convenient point. Bertha would have been a dead loss in open waters for she had no method of propulsion other than the chain.

And then there is the age. Bertha dates from 1844 and was built to keep Bridgwater Harbour clear of silt. She was still operational when presented to the Exeter Museum in 1968.

And then there is the question of the designer. This boat is attributed to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Nobody is 100% certain but it is very, very similar to one he did design for use at Bristol docks.

She is currently at Eyemouth – the other end of the country and out of the water. Actually, Eyemouth is in Scotland.

All Brunel fans hope she’ll be returned to working order and will be seen in operation.


Brunel Rail

August 15, 2014

It was back in 1836 that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway first operated trains. Brunel was a bit of an adventurer, who didn’t follow what had gone before. He came up with original and different ideas. Some worked well whilst others turned out to be abject failures – one thinks of the atmospheric railway for what, sadly, turned into a fiasco.

Brunel pooh-poohed the Stevenson’s railway with the rather odd distance of four feet eight and a half inches between the rails. Brunel rather thought that a rail gauge of seven feet would allow for faster, bigger and more stable trains. The Great Western Railway was built to Brunel’s gauge and, it has to be said, the railway was first rate and proved that Brunel was right in selecting that broad gauge.

But commercially and from the national viewpoint he was wrong. Everywhere else used Stephenson’s gauge. At places like Gloucester all passengers had to change trains from one gauge to the other. That’s not so bad. Passengers have legs and can walk (mostly). Freight, on the other hand, needed to be removed from one train and put on another.

A decree handed down by Government made the Great Western Railway lay an extra track so that standard gauge trains could operate. In the end Brunel’s broad gauge had to go and the last train ran on it in 1892.

Now Brunel had adopted a different system for laying broad gauge track. Rails were laid on lengths of timber with the two length tied together with cross beams. The rail that Brunel used had a bridge section to suit this track laying style.

When the end came for the broad gauge, the old rail was no longer useful as rail. Other uses were found for it and there is still plenty of the old Brunel bridge rail about.

Here’s a piece in use as a very sturdy fence post on the railway near Urchfont.


This line didn’t open until 1900 so it was never broad gauge, but clearly the old rail was still stored somewhere and could be used when needed.

I snapped this in June 2005.

The Royal Albert Bridge

September 10, 2013

Whether or not you love the old Great Western Railway, its original engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, commands respect. In the BBC’s poll to pick the top 100 Britons, IKB came second with just Winston Churchill rated as a greater figure.

Today I’m going to admire his bridge across the River Tamar near Plymouth which is known as the Royal Albert Bridge or more often, by its location, as Saltash Bridge.

Since 1961 it has been overshadowed by the neighbouring road bridge but that’s 100 plus years newer than Brunel’s old masterpiece, built to carry a single rail track across into Cornwall and opened in 1859.

The story of its construction is an epic one but I shall just admire its beauty and grace as seen in my photo from 1st November 2005.



What a glorious and innovative solution at a time when tall masted sailing ships had to be able to pass under the bridge.

Yet it might have been better. For starters, it only carries the single track – trains in both directions have to use it. And secondly, the bridge was never deemed strong enough for the Great Western’s most powerful locos – the King class. But Brunel wasn’t to know that engines of such a weight would be built 70 years after he died. And actually, and quite bizarrely the bridge has now been strengthened and so special steam hauled trains with a King class in charge can now cross the bridge and enter Cornwall.

There were none of them on 1st November 2005. But there was one of the ubiquitous ‘High Speed Trains’.


For any non-UK readers, these trains have been running services throughout Britain since the 1970s at speeds of up to 125 MPH. They are well past middle age now (being polite) but they continue to trundle up and down the West of England line.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

May 11, 2013

Hands up all those who think that the Clifton Suspension Bridge was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Hands up or not, you could claim to be right. The bridge is undoubtedly based on designs by good old IKB, but circumstances forced changes to be made to his designs, after he had died. What we see is not what Isambard originally envisaged.

But it is still magnificent.


This wonderful structure owes its origins to a competition to build a bridge across the river Avon, linking Bristol with Somerset.

After various retrials, the competition was won by young Brunel, aged 24. Work began in 1831 but Brunel never saw it completed. He died in 1859, aged 53 and others completed it, after some redesign, as a monument to Isambard. What we see was completed in 1864 and it still serves well today, with some 12000 vehicles passing over the bridge each day.

What the photo above doesn’t show is the depth of the Avon Gorge here.


This rather hazy photo of half a bridge gives an idea of just how high up, above the River Avon, the bridge is.

By the way – it looks as though nasty little creatures have got into some of my old colour slides. My advice is to digitise your slides as soon as possible. My pictures date from 1972.

The S S Great Britain – Then and Now

March 14, 2013


Yes, this is a ship – a ship in very poor condition but then it was some 130 years old and had spent some of those years sunk. She had been used as a warehouse in the Falkland Islands and was scuttled in 1937.

In 1970 she was brought back to her building place in Bristol. I visited in about 1974 and took the photo.

Now it just happens that I took a very similar view in 2007. By then I had forgotten my old colour slide and that re-emerged in a bit of slide copying this year (2013). Thirty three years have gone by between the two photos. It is, I suppose, quite a long time, but by heck there have been changes.


This is the deck of the SS Great Britain, Brunel’s iron hulled, screw driven ship of 1843. In 1974 she was a rusted hulk not long back from her watery ‘grave’ in the Falkland Islands. In 2007 she’s restored and resplendent. Not only is the top deck perfect, all of the under decks are ‘done’ as well. On the day we were there we couldn’t visit the dining room because a sumptuous wedding feast was in preparation. But all of the cabins and berths are done up and look much as they would have done back in Brunel’s day. SS Great Britain is a wonderful living museum and well worth a visit

And then note the houses on the hill beyond. Well what a difference some paint makes. In 1974 they looked tawdry and run down. The same buildings now (or in 2007) look vibrant and cared for. I guess it’s a bit of simple city transformation.

The then and now aspect of these pictures really is pure chance. The 1974 image was taken on my old Canon Demi using Agfachrome film. The 2007 picture was taken with a 6mpixel Olympus digital camera.