4 Apr

I’ve just ticked off two of the sights I’ve wanted to see for a very long time — the great iron, Trans-Atlantic steamship: The SS Great Britain and the truly spectacular Clifton Suspension Bridge. Both are in Bristol and both were designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of our greatest ever engineers. When I studied my favourite subject of History at school in the 1960’s, it seemed to largely consist of the lives and achievements of great men and women, our country’s heroes and heroines. So I learnt about Clive of India, Gordon of Khartoum, Lawrence of Arabia, Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale  — The Lady With the Lamp, to name but a few. Two names that stood out in the Victorian era were the railway engineers : George Stephenson  and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Stephenson was a working class engineer from a poor family, who worked in the coalmines of North Tyneside before becoming the “Father of the Railways”, helped by his equally famous son Robert. Stephenson had been born in a tiny, clay-floored cottage in Wylam and could not read or write when he started work in his teens. That did not prevent him from progressing from mending steam-pumping engines in the mines to building steam locomotives such as The Rocket and then the world’s first passenger railways. Brunel, in stark contrast, was the son of a distinguished French emigre, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, who had come to Britain to escape the Revolution. Despite money problems Sir Marc made sure his talented son got a good education in Caen and Paris. Sir Marc was so talented that his debts were eventually paid for him by the British government in exchange for his agreement to stay in England. Young Isambard, born in Portsmouth, was to grow up to surpass even the achievements of his eminent father. He built: tunnels, bridges, a whole railway ( The Great Western), ships, dockyards and even pre-fabricated hospitals for the Crimean War. Both Stephenson and Brunel were great engineers and were never really direct rivals, but at school, my mates and I felt we had to choose our favourite. So just as I preferred John to Paul in The Beatles or Keith to Mick in The Stones, I ended up opting for Brunel over Stephenson in the “Great engineers” stakes. This was a strange choice for me, as Stephenson retired and eventually died in Chesterfield where I grew up, and had had a shopping arcade named after him in the town. Even today his life size statue holding a model of one his early steam locomotives, stands outside Chesterfield’s mainline railway station. Coincidentally, I also lived many years in Wallsend and near Killingworth on Tyneside where Stephenson started his pioneering work in the local coal pits. However I have always been lured towards the more exotic name of Brunel, and seduced by the  dizzying array and sheer audacity of his enterprises. Sorry George!

Bristol has several of Brunel’s most famous achievements. As well as the aforementioned suspension bridge and iron steamship, there is the World’s first railway passenger terminal next to the modern  railway station of Temple Meads ( now the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) and the remains of his large South Entrance Lock at the entrance to the Floating Harbour, built to deal with Bristol dock’s recurrent silting problem in the first half of the 19th century. However the bridge and the ship are the big draws and so it was that my long-suffering wife, Chris, had to forgo her shops, to be dragged along the quayside to see the world famous SS Great Britain, now restored and located in the same dry dock in which it was built. The whole operation has been given maximum publicity and one has to battle droves of school children and foreign students to get round it, but the experience is still fascinating and exhilerating in my opinion. I actually exaggerate about Chris, as I know she was really very interested and enjoyed it as well.

The approach to the ship is through a mock up of an “historic” dockyard, which is like a mini version of the one created at Hartlepool, up here on the north-east coast. Then the visitor descends winding steps to examine the hull of the great old ship. This involves going beneath the amazing glass sea which encloses the Great Britain at the water-line. Water floats on top of the sheet of glass but below it is completely dry. In fact the glass creates a completely air-tight space with automatic temperature and humidity control in order to prevent further rusting of the iron. The ship was constructed from large panels of iron riveted together. As iron is stronger than timber, Brunel could use thinner material to get the same strength and so was able to create a much bigger ship than its wooden equivalent would have been. In fact, when it was launched in 1843, the SS Gt Britain was the biggest ship ever to be built. It was built initially for the trans-Atlantic crossing to New York. Brunel had astonished Britain when he had announced that he wanted to extend the Great Western railway route — WESTWARDS! He did this by building three steam powered iron-hulled ships which surprassed all previous standards of:   naval engineering, speed, reliability and oceangoing comfort. The first was the Great Western, then came the Great Britain, and finally The Great Eastern. SS Great Britain was the first  propeller-driven, ocean-going, iron ship in the World. Its maiden voyage was from Liverpool to New York in 1845 and later it went from Bristol to North America. However it ran aground in Northern Ireland in the following year and after being salvaged and re-floated, was switched to the Australian route to Melbourne. It was the time of the Australian Gold Rush and its new owners had an eye for the main chance!. It made 32 voyages Down-Under from 1852 to 1876 carrying emigrants of all classes ( from steerage to First Class) and also the England Cricket team! ( The Poms beat the Aussies in the subsequent Test series.) All in all, it’s thought that Brunel’s Great Britain transported the ancestors of around 250,000 modern day Australian citizens. Later the ship was converted to sail and used to transport enormous cargoes of coal. Its luxury liner days were over!

The hull today is  flaky and corroded. It is coloured rusty red. A replica of the 6 blade giant propeller has been fitted on the back along with a very large red rudder. It is wierd walking round the part of a ship that is usually beneath the waves. Shafts of watery , dappled sunlight filter through the glass plate above and strange shadowy figures walk around the ship at ground level on the other side of the false sea. It was a very unusual sensation being down there and was almost as if we were walking around in a watery grave.It is also a miracle that we could walk round it at all. It  The ship was badly damaged in a ferocious storm off Cape Horn and suffered from a serious fire while trying to round South America in 1886. Consequently, it had to limp to the Falkland Islands for shelter and repairs. It was in fact beyond repair and ended up being used, in turn, as: an enormous warehouse, a quarantine hospital and a coal hulk, before being holed and scuttled by the islanders in 1937. As one walks around it today one can see the crude iron patching put over the gash where it was holed. This was applied after the ship was expertly and miraculously salvaged in 1970. It was floated back to Bristol on a specially built pontoon in a blaze of publicity. It now aptly rests in its birthplace.

Up above the visitor can go on deck and  visit recreated passenger cabins, lounges and dining saloons. Ghostly mannequins sleep in the tiny bunks, visit the ship’s barber, exercise in the saloons or are violently sick into buckets! Informative audio guides explain what a long voyage was like for all the different class of passengers. I was reminded of the early sections of Peter Carey’s famous novel “Oscar and Lucinda” which takes place on a voyage from England to Australia. I wonder whether Carey was thinking of the SS Great Britain?

You might think I was Brunelled out after all this but 2 days later we were approaching his great Suspension Bridge after exploring the lovely area of Clifton, up on the hill above Bristol city centre. Clifton village is full of beautiful Georgian terraces with ornate, canopied, wrought iron balconies. They are built around leafy squares or in long, elegant curves. It’s as beautiful as Bath but without the tourist crowds. We didn’t see even a single open-topped bus tour! One stunning curving terrace — Royal York Crescent — is reputed to be the longest in Europe. Clifton is the area where the rich merchants and industrialists built their grand homes and other gracious buildings accommodated visitors who came to take the waters at nearby Hotwell Spa. It is still a delightful area to wander around but the undoubted star attraction is Brunel’s bridge. At the top of the village is a big green and this merges into the lovely Clifton Downs. But the gentle sloping green ends suddenly and abruptly as a near sheer cliff plunges down to the River Avon far below. This is the famous Avon Gorge and spanning it is the equally famous suspension bridge. Its twin towers  and the huge curve of the cables supporting the road between them make for a dramatic spectacle as you approach the gorge from Clifton Green.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was designed by Brunel in 1831 at the tender age of 23. A competition had been held to find the best design and Isambard was so keen to win, that he submitted 4 entries. All plans were rejected by the chief judge, the eminent Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford, who then cheekily chose one of his own designs! There was such an uproar that Telford was sacked, a second round of the competition was held and Brunel declared the winner. His plan was grandiose with Egyptian style towers topped by sphinxes .  However financial constraints meant that the design had to be simplified. Then came the Bristol riots in the early 1830’s which frightened away the main investers in the project, so the construction work had to be abandoned and the bridge lay unfinished for the rest of Brunel’s lifetime. It must have been frustrating for him. He had lovingly referred to the bridge as “my first child, my darling.”

Brunel’s darling was finally completed in 1864, five years after his death, as a memorial to him by colleagues and friends at the Institute of Civil Engineers. The chains were acquired from another Brunel suspension bridge at Hungerford, that had been replaced by a rail bridge. The bridge across the Avon Gorge was originally designed for horse-drawn carriages but now carries 4 million motor vehicles a year. The roadway hangs a scary 75 metres( 245 feet) above the high water mark of the Avon. It seemed even higher when we were there because the river was pretty low following a prolonged drought. Before crossing it, Chris and I looked at it from all angles and tried to take photos despite the high sun being in exactly the wrong place! ( It always is when I’m around!) We climbed up a grassy slope to an Observatory, at the top of which is a small working camera obscura. This one is like the poor cousin of the big Camera Obscura that sits at the top of The Royal Mile in Edinburgh next to the castle. There you get an extended explanation and tour of the city via the magic of the camera which projects live images of the area on to a large, white, concave screen which is like a big shallow bowl. The Clifton camera obscura is smaller and is a do-it-yourself job but is no less unusual and fascinating. We entered a small dark room and pushed a handle round to see a live picture of the gorge and the bridge spanning it in a single sweep.

I have never had much of a head for heights. As we finally approached the great bridge, I had the proverbial butterflies in my stomach. Despite safety fencing alongside the pedestrian walkway it still felt pretty scary. My nerves were hardly settled by the Samaritons’ signs on prominant display at the bottom of the towers. But on it we went. Chris went first and I followed, pretending to be nonchalent about the whole thing. It was  a case of 700 feet ( 210 metres) of looking steadfastly forward and hardly daring to look down. When it was built this was the longest span of any bridge in the world. I did actually glance down a couple of times in order to maximise the experience. Just for a split second I imagined myself plunging into the void below. It was not a comforting thought. At last we were over and I got Chris to take a picture of me to prove that I had been there, despite the sun being in the wrong place again. I momentarily relaxed, proud of my achievement in conquering all those fears. But then I remembered that we had to do the return trip over the same vertiginous chasm! As we walked back I couldn’t help noticing birds soaring high on the thermals — below us!

So we had followed in the footsteps of Brunel, even though he sadly never got to walk across his most famous bridge himself. For a Brunel fan like myself it had been a very exciting week . If Isambard himself could have come back to life I think he would have been amazed that people were walking and driving across the bridge that he never saw finished and that thousands were touring his great steam ship that used to lie on the bed of the South Atlantic Ocean. He might also have been surprised but pleased to learn that in 2002 , in a BBC poll, he was voted the second greatest Briton of all time. Not bad for the son of a Frenchman!


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