Mark Horton travels on Brunel's Great Western Railway along the stunning south coast of Devon, considered one of Britain's most amazing railway journeys.
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TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
The smoke in your eyes, the smell of the steam.
This must be one of the most glorious railways journeys in the world.
It was the first glimpse holidaymakers have of the sea as they go to the West Country.
This wonderful view of the south coast.
The genius behind this route was Isambard Kingdom Brunel
who, in 1843, was commissioned to build an extension to the Great Western Railway,
down along the South Devon coast to Plymouth.
On the face of it, this is a ridiculous place to build a railway line.
Even on a calm day like today,
passing trains are at risk of a soaking from waves, crashing onto the sea wall.
So, what made Brunel build his line here?
To find out, I'm meeting railway historian Peter Kay.
It's impossible to have a direct route because of the range of hills.
He had to choose between either coming right along the coast
as he did or having a route right behind Dawlish and Tynmouth through very long tunnels.
Surely, to build a railway here was an incredibly risky operation.
The storms would have come in and smashed over his railway.
I think the local people tried to point that out to him.
There were several petitions to Parliament
and the Exeter Corporation said the line would be a danger
to Her Majesty's subjects, because of the risk from sudden storms.
Brunel was convinced there would be no problems caused
by the sea to his railway, because he was such a confident engineer.
Brunel's original route was several yards further out.
He wanted to go round this headland on the outside without a tunnel here.
Of course, had the line been built further out,
it would have been even more exposed to the ravages of the sea.
Fortunately, he was opposed by the local people who did not want to lose their beach.
This was the gentlemen's bathing beach
and would have been lost entirely had Brunel got his original route.
So, he had to build a system of tunnels through the cliffs.
Yes, there was only one tunnel intended originally and he ended up with five.
It wasn't just the tunnels.
We seem to have this huge sea wall for about four miles, from one headland to the other.
That was quite a substantial construction job.
The stone came from Torbay by ship, was landed on the beaches.
When the line opened in 1847, Brunel had taken the bold decision
to use a new means of propulsion called the "atmospheric system".
Huge pumping houses like this one at Starcross were constructed to create
a vacuum in a pipe laid between the rails which sucked the trains along.
Although the system worked, it was too expensive to maintain
so steam locomotives took over after just 12 months.
So, how has the railway fared since Brunel's time?
Well, I'm afraid the pessimists were quickly proved right.
This section we're walking on now was rebuilt totally in the 1860s.
The real ongoing problem was that the sea wall often got undermined by the weight.
So, it's not just the storm smashing against the wall,
but the continual erosion at the base that's the problem.
The base of the wall is the normal problem.
The bedrock underneath the foundations is very poor stuff.
The waves break it up and suck out the infill behind,
make a hole in the bottom of the wall and then the line collapses.
Now we've got global warming and sea level rises,
are we going to lose the line for good in the next 50 years?
Well, who knows?
Who knows indeed?!
When Brunel built this line, he insisted that it would be
no more expensive to maintain than any other stretch of railway.
£9 million has been spent since 2004 trying to shore up the line,
prompting calls for a replacement to be built inland.
But such a line could never compete with the amazing coastal scenery
that makes this one of Britain's most stunning railway journeys.
Mark Horton travels on Brunel's Great Western Railway along the stunning south coast of Devon. The line engineered by Brunel opened in 1847 and was deemed a danger at the time, since it was built so close to the sea. It is now considered one of Britain's most amazing railway journeys.