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180th anniversary: trains link Bristol and Bath

180th anniversary of the first trains linking Bristol and Bath as Brunel’s grand train stations opened

  • 31 August marks the 180th anniversary of the first trains running between Bristol and Bath and the opening of both railway stations.
  • The stations and railway were designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as part of the Great Western Railway which opened in full a year later. Brunel’s railway set new standards in train travel with the entire route and many of its bridges, tunnels and viaducts still in use today.
  • Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol has a museum dedicated to Brunel’s extraordinary achievements including his sketches and designs for the Great Western Railway and even an eye-catching silver-gilt dinner set gifted to him by the Great Western Railway Company when the line was finally completed.

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Discover more about Brunel’s Great Western Railway at Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol

31 August marks the 180th anniversary of Bristol Temple Meads and Bath Spa railway stations opening, along with the first trains running between Bristol and Bath.

Brunel designed both stations, as part of the Great Western Railway which, from 1841, linked London Paddington and Bristol.

Brunel’s station at Bristol is one of the earliest surviving railway termini in the world and is a Grade I listed structure. Its grand design is worthy of the great engineer’s ambition to build what he argued was the ‘finest work in England’. It features a 72ft span gothic timber roof and although no longer in use as a station, it remains a fitting tribute to Brunel and the ambition of Victorian engineering.

Visitors to Brunel’s SS Great Britain, where there is an entire museum – Being Brunel – dedicated to the engineer’s work, can see original sketches drawn by Brunel as he was designing the railway. Fascinating detail such his designs for ornate lamp posts and a ticket office can be seen in the museum, along with Brunel’s circle sketches in one of his notebooks.

By drawing freehand circles while he was riding existing railways, Brunel realised the challenges he would face in designing a route for the GWR that would provide the smoothest possible journey for passengers. Visitors to Being Brunel can step aboard a replica broad gauge carriage to recreate a journey on the GWR and try their hand at drawing circles while it shakes and shudders, allowing them to compare their drawing skills to Brunel’s. An interactive map the size of a snooker table brings the GWR route to life within the museum, providing insights into the unique design features.

Other objects in the museum include Brunel’s set of drawing curves and drawing implements, and his designs for the Box Tunnel and Maidenhead Railway Bridge which, to this day, continue to serve the Great Western main line.

As GWR’s chief engineer, Brunel created a route and stations that have stood the test of time. Today’s trains follow the same route including Brunel’s bridges and tunnels.

One of the most eye-catching objects on display in the Being Brunel museum is a silver gilt dinner service, set out within a recreation of the Brunel family dining room. The dinner service was a gift to Brunel from the directors of the Great Western Railway Company as appreciation for his work as chief engineer.

Nick Booth, Head of Collections at Brunel’s SS Great Britain, said:

“The opening of Bristol and Bath stations was part of Brunel’s grand project, which allowed people and ideas to travel between Bristol and London at previously unimaginable speed. It can be viewed as a pivotal moment in time and the history of the UK, and marks an important step towards Brunel’s vision to have people travel from London to New York on one single ticket via the GWR and his Bristol-built steamships. Brunel had a hand in every aspect of the GWR construction, from surveying the line before construction through to designing the smallest details on the columns at Bristol Station.”

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About Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Brunel’s SS Great Britain is one of the UK’s top museums, recently winning the European Museum of the Year Award for Europe’s Most Welcoming Museum, the Portimao Prize. The SS Great Britain is now in her original dry dock where she was built in 1843. Visitors can have a full day out, in and under the ship and explore the life and works of one of the world’s greatest engineers in Being Brunel.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain is Bristol’s number one visitor attraction (TripAdvisor 2019-20). It is home to the world’s first great ocean liner, the SS Great Britain, the Being Brunel museum, and the Brunel Institute, which houses one of the world’s finest maritime and Brunel collections. The charity that manages and maintains Brunel’s SS Great Britain and collections is the SS Great Britain Trust.