Brunel's Railway Coast


Brunel's Railway

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

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The smoke in your eyes, the smell of the steam.

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This must be one of the most glorious railways journeys in the world.

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It was the first glimpse holidaymakers have of the sea as they go to the West Country.

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This wonderful view of the south coast.

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The genius behind this route was Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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who, in 1843, was commissioned to build an extension to the Great Western Railway,

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down along the South Devon coast to Plymouth.

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On the face of it, this is a ridiculous place to build a railway line.

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Even on a calm day like today,

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passing trains are at risk of a soaking from waves, crashing onto the sea wall.

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So, what made Brunel build his line here?

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To find out, I'm meeting railway historian Peter Kay.

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It's impossible to have a direct route because of the range of hills.

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He had to choose between either coming right along the coast

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as he did or having a route right behind Dawlish and Tynmouth through very long tunnels.

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Surely, to build a railway here was an incredibly risky operation.

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The storms would have come in and smashed over his railway.

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I think the local people tried to point that out to him.

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There were several petitions to Parliament

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and the Exeter Corporation said the line would be a danger

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to Her Majesty's subjects, because of the risk from sudden storms.

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Brunel was convinced there would be no problems caused

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by the sea to his railway, because he was such a confident engineer.

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Brunel's original route was several yards further out.

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He wanted to go round this headland on the outside without a tunnel here.

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Of course, had the line been built further out,

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it would have been even more exposed to the ravages of the sea.

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Fortunately, he was opposed by the local people who did not want to lose their beach.

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This was the gentlemen's bathing beach

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and would have been lost entirely had Brunel got his original route.

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So, he had to build a system of tunnels through the cliffs.

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Yes, there was only one tunnel intended originally and he ended up with five.

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It wasn't just the tunnels.

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We seem to have this huge sea wall for about four miles, from one headland to the other.

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That was quite a substantial construction job.

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The stone came from Torbay by ship, was landed on the beaches.

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When the line opened in 1847, Brunel had taken the bold decision

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to use a new means of propulsion called the "atmospheric system".

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Huge pumping houses like this one at Starcross were constructed to create

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a vacuum in a pipe laid between the rails which sucked the trains along.

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Although the system worked, it was too expensive to maintain

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so steam locomotives took over after just 12 months.

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So, how has the railway fared since Brunel's time?

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Well, I'm afraid the pessimists were quickly proved right.

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This section we're walking on now was rebuilt totally in the 1860s.

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The real ongoing problem was that the sea wall often got undermined by the weight.

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So, it's not just the storm smashing against the wall,

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but the continual erosion at the base that's the problem.

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The base of the wall is the normal problem.

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The bedrock underneath the foundations is very poor stuff.

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The waves break it up and suck out the infill behind,

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make a hole in the bottom of the wall and then the line collapses.

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Now we've got global warming and sea level rises,

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are we going to lose the line for good in the next 50 years?

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Well, who knows?

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Who knows indeed?!

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When Brunel built this line, he insisted that it would be

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no more expensive to maintain than any other stretch of railway.

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£9 million has been spent since 2004 trying to shore up the line,

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prompting calls for a replacement to be built inland.

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But such a line could never compete with the amazing coastal scenery

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that makes this one of Britain's most stunning railway journeys.

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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.


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