Bristol: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Monday, September 25 – Wednesday, September 27

The Underfall Yard

Working the way through the valleys and fields,
grass grown hills and stone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way,
Using just available light,
he could still see far….. skies…..deep time.

From the CD “The Underfall Yard”. Words and music by Greg Spawton.

(The “permanent way” is the trackbed, rails, ties, etc. that a train rides on.)

Our visit to Bristol was all about The Underfall Yard, a 23 minute track that pays homage to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian era civil engineer who, along with his contemporaries, changed the face of the English landscape and helped usher in the Industrial Revolution.  Visionary beyond his time, Brunel built the Great Western Railway connecting London with Bristol (and ultimately New York with the first propeller driven transatlantic steamship), brought innovative designs to bridges and tunnels, and ultimately revolutionized public transport.

From “The Underfall Yard” liner notes:

“This is a song about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the great Victorian engineers. Brunel’s ideas were huge and his achievements just as substantial. He was the kind of man who embodied the enlightenment and his works are symbols of the age of reason. Whilst the song is primarily about Brunel it is also about concerns that the visionary thinking of that era is behind us and we are heading into an age of unreason.”

Brunel’s accomplishments can be seen all over England but Bristol provides the best vantage point for some of his most famous contributions including The Great Western Railway, the SS Great Britain, the Underfall Yard, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The Great Western Railway 

We traveled the Great Western Railway from Paddington Station in London to Temple Meads station in Bristol, both designed by Brunel.  Temple Meads, built in 1840, was the world’s first functionally and architecturally complete railway terminus.  The current Great Western Rail company is, of course, a modern version, but they’ve retained the name, and the train still runs on the course laid out by Brunel, which includes a run through Box Tunnel, built by Brunel in 1841, taking us through 1.9 miles of the solid rock of Box Hill.  (Brunel refused to go around it.)


SS Great Britain

Not satisfied with ending the Great Western in Bristol, Brunel decided to extend the line to New York City.  The SS Great Britain was the first iron luxury liner with a screw propeller, and the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic.  The largest ship afloat when she was launched, the SS Great Britain made her maiden voyage in 1845, crossing to New York from Bristol in 14 days, returning in 15.  Run aground in Ireland in 1846,  she was salvaged and turned into a sailing ship for transporting coal, and eventually wound up as a floating warehouse off the Falklands.  In the 1970s the ship was restored and returned to Bristol where visitors can go on board and learn all about the great ship.  Although she had a varied working life,  the SS Great Britain was revolutionary in her time is now considered the great, grandmother of all modern ships


The Underfall Yard

The song takes it’s title from The Underfall Yard, a historic boatyard in Bristol’s floating harbor.  The barbor was constructed in the early 19th century to provide a stable harbor for larger ships, free from the tidal variations on the River Avon.  The Overfall dam was created across the Avon to allow surplus water from the harbor to flow into the river. However, silt quickly became a problem, grounding the bigger ships.   Brunel revised the sluice designs to alleviate the issue.  He built three shallow sluices and one deep sluice.  The shallow sluices control the water level, and the dep sluice, opened at low tide, sucks the silt out into the river.  The “underfall” sluice gives the boatyard its name.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

Our last stop was the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  Designed by Brunel in 1829, the bridge spans the Avon Gorge and the Avon River.  Brunel did not live to see it completed, but his innovative designs were the basis for the final construction.  We walked across, and then took a stroll up to the Clifton Observatory, which sits on a high hill over looking Bristol and the Gorge.


For more information about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, we encourage you to visit the Wikipedia page at



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