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Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Photo by Robert Howlett
Locomotive crossing the Walkham Valley Viaduct
Brunel's Walkham Valley Viaduct
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an innovative C19th engineer, born in 1806, who designed railways, bridges, tunnels, stations and ships. His designs were impressive and creative and often embraced novel solutions to engineering problems. They had in their time what we would call today the 'wow' factor.
In Devon his best known elegant and dramatic engineering achievement is the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, that carries his Great Western Railway across the Tamar. The bridge bears the inscription 'I.K. Brunel engineer 1859', the year of its completion and his early death.
There are local statues of Brunel at Saltash and at Pennycomequick roundabout in Plymouth. They show that he was a short man, around 5ft, who wore the fashionable tall stovepipe hats of the time. They do not, however, show him smoking the cigars for which he was also famous, and which most likely contributed to his early death from a stroke aged 53.
Brunel statue at Pennycomequick roundabout, Plymouth
Brunel wanted to be remembered for his dramatic projects like the Tamar bridge and the scenic sweep of the Great Western Railway along the coast at Dawlish. However, he was also engaged in other minor railway projects as the Great Western railway network expanded with branch lines during the 1850s.
On the A386 road from Plymouth into Tavistock near Grenofen, is a sign bearing the name Brunel. This celebrates the Grenofen tunnel and Walkham Valley Viaduct, which were designed by Brunel as part of the South Devon and Tavistock Railway. Constructed in the late 1850s and opened in 1859, it was the Tavistock South, then 7 foot broad gauge, rail route connecting Tavistock to Plymouth. . It was converted to standard gauge 4ft 8 inches in 1892 and eventually closed in 1962 as part of Beeching's branch line cuts.
The route included six large timber viaducts and three tunnels, the most northerly of which took the line under the west side of Grenofen and was of generous proportions to accommodate the single broad gauge 7ft track. The original Brunel-designed viaduct was one of the longest in Devon, built with sixteen spans of Baltic pine bridgework on masonry pillars. The timber was replaced with a steel trestle around 1910, supported on the original masonry pillars which were extended upwards. This viaduct was demolished in 1965 after the closure of the railway line.
The approach to Tavistock over the wooden Walkham valley viaduct must have been a dramatic part of the rail journey; the heavy steam trains making the wooden structure creak as they passed slowly over its 1100 ft (370 metres) length, more than 130ft (40 metres) above the then industrialised Walkham valley.
Some locomotives were push/pull: pulling the train from Plymouth to Tavistock but pushing it on the return journey. This meant that the steam and smoke followed the train on the return jouney.
The new Gem cycle bridge replaced Brunel's Walkham Valley Viaduct and was opened in 2012 for cyclists and walkers. Its design references Brunel's original timber viaduct.
Driven by all his grand projects Brunel often worked more than 20 hours a day, and did not live to retire to the house, with landscaped gardens, now called Brunel Manor, he was preparing at Watcombe near Torquay.
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