Isambard Kingdom Brunel: The man who changed Britain

    Hot air balloons rising and floating in the air against a cloudy sky, above the city of Bristol and the Clifton Suspension Bridge during the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. River Avon. Credit: Visit Britain
    Hot air balloons rising and floating in the air against a cloudy sky, above the city of Bristol and the Clifton Suspension Bridge during the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. River Avon. Credit: Visit Britain
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    Innovation and imagination have always ensured that Bristol has flourished. Now, with its maritime heyday a thing of the past, this vibrant city continues to look to the future while celebrating its rich past, as Eleanor O’Kane discovers

    Born in Portsmouth to a French father, and educated in Normandy and Paris before returning to England, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one of Bristol’s most celebrated sons. The legacy of his genius can be found through the city, from the Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the Avon to the mighty ship, the SS Great Britain, now a museum and resting in the dry dock that was built in 1839 for its construction.

    Many visitors arriving in the city by rail at Bristol Temple Meads may not be aware that the station plays a major part in the story of Brunel. In 1835 he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway aged 29, to work on a project to link the city to London by rail. The motivation was simple: to keep Bristol one step ahead of the industrious port of Liverpool and uphold its position as the second most important city in England. This ambitious project inspired many triumphs of engineering, not only in the construction of the railway itself, with its series of bridges, viaducts and tunnels, but in the building of stations such as Paddington and the western terminus at what is now Bristol Temple Meads station. The original terminus, which has a fine mock hammer beam roof, is no longer in use, but just outside the station you’ll find Bristol and Exeter Railway House, the former Jacobean-style headquarters of the Bristol and Exeter Railway, which was also constructed by Brunel.

    For centuries, Bristol’s prospering merchants sank their profits into the building of fine houses and churches. One of these, St Mary Redcliffe Church, is situated in the city’s former glass-making quarter. A magnificent 800-year old Gothic church, it was declared by Queen Elizabeth I to be the “fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England” during a visit to the city in 1574. Inside, you’ll discover fine examples of ironwork, medieval stone carvings and beautiful Victorian stained-glass windows. The main entrance to the church is through the ornately carved North Porch, which dates from the 14th century.

    Cross Redcliffe Bridge and you’re in the heart of Bristol’s maritime quarter. Once frequented by sailors, privateers and pirates, this area has given rise to many legends as well as some of literature’s best seafaring tales. The Hole in the Wall Pub, once a notorious smugglers’ den, is said to be the inspiration for The Spy-Glass tavern in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island while it was at The Llandoger Trow inn on King Street that Daniel Defoe supposedly met sailor Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe in the eponymous book. Captain Woodes Rogers was the real-life saviour of Selkirk, marooned for more than five years in the South Pacific.

    While piracy was illegal, as a privateer Rogers, who circumnavigated the world between 1708 and 1711, had a ‘letter of marque’ from the Government, which permitted the attack and robbery of merchant ships of certain countries. He was apprenticed to a mariner in Bristol and later went on to serve as the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas. The half-timbered Llandoger Trow dates from 1664 and is one of Bristol’s few surviving medieval buildings. It is also said to have been the favoured drinking hole of local pirate Blackbeard. King Street is also home to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, which raised its curtain for the first time in 1766 and continues to put on a packed schedule of performances.

    While the sailors and smugglers frequented the cobbled side streets, large, leafy Queen’s Square was the centre of maritime business, home to the Customs House and many shipping businesses. This square was also scene of some of the country’s worst social unrest, which preceded the 1832 Reform Act.

    Before the Act was passed, only 6,000 of the city’s 104,000 residents had the right to vote. In 1831 Parliament voted to oppose to the reform and three days of riots followed, centred on the square. So bad was the situation that work on the suspension bridge project at Clifton was halted and a number of trusted locals, including Brunel, were sworn in as special constables.

    Baldwin Street, named for an ancient mill owner, is where the old city walls were constructed, marking the beginning of the city’s medieval district. The narrow passageways and exotic aromas of St Nicholas Markets evoke something of how life would have been here during the Middle Ages when travelling merchants came to sell their wares. This area has been a place for trade for centuries; it is home to The Exchange, built between 1741 and 1743 by architect John Wood, who is perhaps best known for his efforts in shaping the cityscape of nearby Bath. Farmers came to this spot to trade for hundreds of years and the four large brass tables or ‘nails’ in front of The Exchange date from the 16th and 17th centuries and were used to seal deals, giving rise to the phrase ‘pay on the nail’. The Exchange’s clock has a third hand, a throwback to the days when Bristol time, 12 minutes slower than London time, was observed. With the arrival of the Great Western Railway, however, Bristol had to fall back into line with the English capital.

    The merchants of Bristol longed for fresh air and from the 18th century began to build houses in the suburb of Clifton, on the edge of The Downs. The number 8 bus runs from Temple Meads railway station through the city centre to Clifton or, if you’re feeling energetic, you can walk up Park Street. Still attracting the smart set, the mix of architecture, cafés and specialist shops make this leafy quarter a must-visit.

    Pride of place in Clifton is Brunel’s masterpiece and a symbol of the city, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge that links Bristol to the sea. Begun in 1831, the riots impeded its construction and it wasn’t completed until 1864, six years after Brunel’s death.

    Stay on the number 8 bus and you’ll come to Bristol Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the world, which celebrated its 175 anniversary in 2011.

    In Clifton, as in the rest of the city, a good deal of the elegant architecture was funded by the profits of the slave trade. Whether by processing slave-produced crops such as tobacco, transporting slaves or owning plantations, for around 100 years the merchants of Bristol profited enormously from this practice until it was banned in 1834. During this time around 500,000 slaves were transported to the New World in Bristol-owned ships. To find out more, the new M Shed museum has an informative section devoted to this dark, but undeniably influential period in the city’s past.

    With the high – as well as low – days of the shipping trade firmly in the past, Bristol’s harbour commemorates the city’s maritime heritage while looking to the future. The SS Great Britain was the world’s first iron-hull ship and the result of Brunel’s daring idea to extend the GWR (in ship form) across the Atlantic to New York. In its day it was a record breaker: the biggest ship in the world on its completion, smashing the speed record for a transatlantic crossing on its first voyage. Having been used as a storage hulk in the Falkland Islands between 1886 and 1933, it was rescued and brought back to Bristol in 1970. Now restored and in dry dock, the ship itself forms part of a fascinating museum about the history of this vessel and the passengers who sailed across the Atlantic and to Australia on board.

    Along the wharves, the Arnolfini arts centre, At-Bristol science museum and M Shed museum all bring a modern edge to the quays, which play host to the popular Harbour Festival each July. Despite the changes, the presence of the cranes, tracks and pulleys that still inhabit the dockside are a pleasing reminder of Bristol’s maritime heritage, which remains very much part of the city’s identity.

    For more on the SS Great Britain visit

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