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Brunel’s Billiard Table June 30, 2008

Posted by davidit in Uncategorized.
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Today has been a day that I have been looking forward to for many months, entirely selfishly.  The conference is over and I am en route for Plymouth, I have  started this post as the train sits at Taunton station picking up new passengers and dropping off at others.

You will know from from previous posts that I am  a great fan of the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, although I not a train nut, his ingenuity has had an influrence upon the modern world that still resonates today.  But for the first time ever I am travelling on the route that made his name.  The Great Western Railway, now named after privatisation from British Rail, First Great Western, which in itself is a historical lie and a misnoma, as the Great Western Railway company was first set up  in the C19th, so how can this C21 encarnation be the first?

The rail route from London to Plymouth was a technological creation that had a psychological impact upon a nation’s psyche that is hard to grasp especially in our instantly connected world.  Englands naval power has for centuries been based in Plymouth.  Plymouth is synonymous with Drake, Cook, Chichester, Knox Johnson and a longer list than I can think of or research whilst on a train.  Plymouth  is still one of the major homes to the  Royal Naval fleet even today.  Yet in its heyday Plymouth was so remote from London.  The railway solved that problem.

When the route to Plymouth was opened, Brunel himself stood on the footplate of one of his seven foot singles, accompanied by his Chief engineer Daniel Gooch and steamed as I have done from Paddington to Plymouth.  Only Brunel promptly turned round and steamed back, getting back to London on the same day and immediately reported back to Parliament that “…this day I have steamed to Plymouth and back.”  The enormity of this statement should be seen in the light of Cook who some 60 years earlier had taken 4 days to journey from the admiralty in London to join his ship the Endeavour on a voyage of discovery that departed from Plymouth in 1769…

Today I have ridden over the Maidenhead bridge the flattest brick arched bridge ever, barrelled the two and a half miles of the Box Tunnel, sailed past the Clifton Suspension Bridge and terminated at Plymouth home to the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, all concieved, designed and built by the visionary IKB.  I have been in engineering heaven all day.

The telegraph was the Victorian Internet and the railways its super highway.  The Great Western Railway timetable unified local time  to GMT and the railways connected England to itself, telescoping time travelled into hours and not days.  Rather like that adage all roads lead to Rome. The Victorian railways connected England to London and the disposesed from the final land enclosures used the superhighway to migrate to the big cities, London in particular.

There has been a wonderful irony in my trip today, as I headed west I was reading Steven Johnsons book The Ghost  Map which catalogues the 1854 Cholera outbreak in London and how Dr John Snow discovered the relationship between, sewerage, the source of ‘fresh’ drinking water and mortality rates in Soho.

It was the railways that brought the masses to London, the cramped conditions and poor sanitation that ensued proved a breeding ground for cholera.  John Snow made the link between water quality, Cholera and the Broad Street water pump.  Johnson argues that it was Snow’s ability to recognise the interconnectedness of things that helped him to see the pattern death and where the dead drew their water from. He transceded populist quackery and looked from a top down perspective to see patterns of death to identify deaths  cause.  It was the clarity of Snow’s thinking and his ability to see patterns and connections where hysteria reigned that ensured his success in solving the cause of Cholera.

Is Dr John Snow the first example of Inquiry Learning?




1. Douglas Harre - June 30, 2008

Am also a fan of John Snow’s map as I used to use it in my 6th form Geography classes as the first time mapping was used to illustrate health matters…and have visited the site in London….you will probably be aware that the cholera outbreak at that time resulted in the construction of the amazing London sewerage system….designed by John Bazalgette and still in use today.. the pumping station at the mouth of the Thames fell out of use with new technology but has been rebuilt as another example of audacious Victorian engineering….you may have time to visit that also..:-)…..

2. Lil - June 30, 2008

I visited the web cam at the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash in the hope I could scroll back through previous footage to see you standing waving but alas, its live footage only and it is pitch black in the UK as I write! Really pleased to hear you enjoyed the London-Plymouth rail route; it really is a lovely ride and gets more and more beautiful as the journey comes to an end. The weather in Auckland is fine again but the wintry blasts will return from tomorrow; hoping the winds die down before your return on Saturday, perhaps have your camera ready in case its worth uploading your landing to YouTube! LYL

3. David - June 30, 2008


I used to work around the corner from the Broad Street pump for many years and know Soho really well. Bazalgette is another Victorian hero, but alas I will not have time to get to Mucking to see the pump house, ingenuity in adversity must have been a Victorian Engineers motto!

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