This was the era of ‘railway mania’. Merchants in Bristol, afraid that they would lose their status as the second port in the country and the primary one for trade with America, wanted their own railway line. So in 1833, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer for the Great Western Railway.
Many stretches of the route between London and Bristol posed engineering challenges to Brunel, who – when he took the job – had no previous knowledge of railways. But he was an engineering genius and managed to design and construct track, buildings, locomotives, bridges, cuttings and embankments to overcome every problem.
On this stretch, the line runs parallel with the river. To maintain a low gradient, it runs over the flood plain on an embankment and in cuttings through the valley sides. The rock in this cutting – blue and white Lias limestone – is laminated by mudstone (in other words, clay) and this is an unstable combination causing frequent landslips. It is a hazard that faced Brunel 170 years ago and is still present today costing Network Rail over £10 million pounds over the last ten years.
On 30 June 1841, the first train carried the Great Western Railway’s directors and Brunel from London to Bristol in just four hours. This is still the West Country’s main railway line. These days, high-speed trains make the journey from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads in as little as one hour and 42 minutes.