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In a class of its own

Special feature - Brunel Bicentenary

English Heritage wants Brunel's Great Western Railway to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Andrew Mylius discovers why.

When former culture secretary Chris Smith asked conservation quango English Heritage to draw up a list of potential new United Nations Educational, Scientic & Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites in 1997 he received a swift response.

'We made the case that Britain was the cradle of the industrial age, and that there should be a discrete list of sites that reected its status as the world's first industrial nation, ' recalls chairman Sir Neil Cossons.

One of the chosen sites is Brunel's Great Western Railway (GWR), says Cossons: 'The GWR is a spectacular statement of Brunel's engineering prowess.

And it is the epitome of Britain's transport system at the height of its industrial power.'

English Heritage and the Department of Culture Media & Sport have waited until this year to persuade UNESCO to have the 192km GWR listed. Making the case in Brunel's bicentenary year will add extra punch, they hope.

Choosing just a handful of sites to tell the story of industrialisation proved incredibly difcult. 'We had to distill a long list of 111 sites down to something like a dozen, ' says Cossons (see box).

English Heritage wanted to chart the birth of factories, water and steam power, mining and smelting, and the growth of new communities housing multitudes of industrial workers. But it also wanted to nd a site that exemplied the new transport systems ushered in by the industrial age.

'We looked at canals, which were an important phenomenon of the 18th century, unifying trade. But canals were not invented in, or unique to, Britain.

France has far more impressive canals, ' Cossons says. 'On the other hand, the steam railway had its origin in Britain.

'The first was the Stockton to Darlington line, a bit of which can still be seen but without track.

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway was the first passenger line, but all the Liverpool end is gone. Of the inter-city lines, London to Birmingham was electried in the 1960s and signicantly knocked about.

'The Great Western Railway, however, is substantially complete, ' Cossons continues.

'It had a singular engineer in the form of Brunel, and what he created wasn't just a work of engineering but of great architectural design.'

One of the UK's foremost engineering historians, Julia Elton, observes that, close to 170 years after it was completed, 'there's so much left of the Great Western that Brunel would still recognise it'.

From London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads, the GWR threads its way between bridges, tunnels, cuttings and stations that are, says Cossons, 'like pearls on a string'.

Brunel and his contemporaries were challenged to design long distance routes for first generation steam locomotives which lacked signicant pulling power. 'He wanted a well graded line, which resulted in the construction of more civil engineering works [than might have been deemed necessary by engineers designing for more powerful locomotives a generation later], ' says Cossons.

'There are a lot of cuttings and tunnels of signicant depth and length.'

GWR lays bare Brunel's skill as an engineer, in his alignment and grading of the route, and in many of the structures built, says Network Rail major structures engineer Andrew Clayton. He began designing the route's major structures before cast or wrought iron was available.

With the exception of an ill-fated rail over road bridge at Uxbridge Road, London (NCE 12 January), and a handful of cast

iron over-bridges, all the major crossings were built in masonry or timber.

The shallow height to span ratio of Brunel's brick arch bridge across the River Thames at Maidenhead (below) remains stunning today, Clayton notes.

'Brunel worked to permissible stresses. He conducted tests on models, but assumed slightly higher strength values than we'd use today. Materials are therefore working harder than he anticipated, ' Clayton says.

Yet 'Brunel's structures are all behaving pretty well.

They present no particular maintenance problems and in terms of operating the railway, we're still reaping the benets.'

The GWR does not deserve World Heritage Site status for its engineering genius alone. Elton notes that the route's existence is testament to Brunel's abilty to persuade west-country nanciers of the scheme's commercial viability, and to convince Parliament to consent to construction.

Small investors bought shares in the project, Elton adds. 'This was the first time that ordinary people had been able to put money into a major construction project and make a profit - or risk a loss. It marks a turning point in the democratisation of the financial market.'

Meanwhile, Brunel's attention to architectural detail skilfully set out to reassure the railway board and land owners whose estates the railway crossed.

Dressing the seven span Hanwell viaduct in a fashionable Egyptianesque style, or designing the bridges and viaduct through Bath in neoclassical style, softened the shock of the new, Cossons observes.

The railway also ushered in new social behaviour, tastes and leisure patterns. 'For the first time ever it became possible for ordinary people to go on holiday. The railway unleashed our passion for travel.'

Workers were freed from living next to the factories or offices they worked in, giving rise to new suburbs, adds Cossons. And the national diet changed, Elton says: 'The railway brought fish to people who had never been to the coast.'

Conservation v operation

Assigning the Great Western route World Heritage Site status would present no conict between operation and conservation, as all the major structures along its length are already listed, states English Heritage head of industrial architecture Keith Falconer.

There must be hundreds of structures already protected on the GWR. There are 81 listed buildings in Swindon alone.

World Heritage status doesn't add any extra protection but it does become a material consideration in any planning application. Local authorities can use that as a constraint or, if they're engaged in regeneration, as an enhancement.'

Comments on the line's operation and conservation from Network Rail major structures engineer Andrew Clayton and English Heritage chairman Sir Neil Cossons' are almost interchangeable.

'We're keen to dovetail historic structures into the modern network, ' says Clayton. 'Things are changing all the time, but we are custodians of some very important engineering. We have an obligation to the public to maintain these beyond our needs to run the railway.

'There's an underlying and fundamental issue, though: As structures deteriorate we have to continue to use them.' Clayton says turning structures into 'museum pieces' is not really an option on a working railway, and instead favours strengthening, repairing and replacing worn components as they age.

'We feel that to keep historic structures in use gives them continued meaning and underlines their importance - and we need to demonstrate that history can integrate with modern life, ' Cossons adds.

Nine star listing

Brunel's Great Western route, from Paddington to Bristol, is one of nine industrial sites that English Heritage wants listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The other eight are:

Derwent Valley mills, Derbyshire

Manchester - Ancoats, Castleeld and Worsley

Blaenavon, South Wales

Cornish mining landscape, Cambourne

Forth Rail Bridge

New Lanark

Pont-Cysyllte Aqueduct, Wales

Saltaire, Yorkshire

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