Director’s Diary: Galleria, Ferroviale and the wrong kind of air

I am in Italy, and thinking of Brunel. The tube holds no fears for me, but tunnels under the Alps are just a bit too long for complete peace of mind. Surely we must come out of the darkness soon? This was a sensation entirely familiar to people travelling through Brunel’s tunnels: by foot under the Thames, or by Great Western Railway under Box. One of Brunel’s eccentric detractors, Professor Dionysus Lardner, argued passionately about the dangers of travelling at high speed through tunnels. Box was the longest railway tunnel in the world, and Lardner explained to a terrified audience that the air would be travelling too fast to be breathed. In the strangest of railway accidents, passengers would arrive intact, but lifeless. Less confident travellers always left the train at Bath and jolted down to Bristol by carriage. At least it offered respirable air.

Despite – in fact because of – my low level anxiety under the Alps, I enjoy a rare emotional connection with nervous travellers a hundred and sixty years ago. A kind of jolt if you like, except ‘jolt’ does not amply describe what early travellers went through: in Jane Austen’s famous description of the picnic at Box, our heroine arrives by carriage ‘entirely knocked up.’

The railway here along the Ligurian coast has all the drama of Dawlish and Starcross on Brunel’s Exeter line. In Devon they speak of storms where waves break over the top of GWR carriages, and only recently storms swept away a section of the railway so the West country was effectively cut off.

43135 43146 Dawlish (Resized)(1)

The Italian railway along the coast down to La Spezia has fabulous views and links Cinque Terra with Genova. Sometimes it is very close to the sea (below) and must be even more at risk than Brunel’s.

 

liguria_railway_line

Brunel did not build this line, but he did build railways in Italy, in Piedmonte, with the help of a young engineer called Babbage. Not Charles Babbage, the eccentric mathematician and Brunel supporter who built the world’s first computer, but his nephew. Brunel is known for eccentric detractors like Dionysus Lardner, but his friends and supporters were also flamboyant figures. Babbage was constantly at war with noisy street traders and hawkers, whom he sued or physically attacked or both. Brunel was well named Isambard, meaning ‘man of iron’, but it is even more appropriate that Babbage – a troublesome neighbour and fractious supporter – be remembered for a computer he called a ‘Difference Engine’. If there was potential disagreement to be found, Babbage could be relied upon. He could nose out disharmony and difference where all sides thought they were in agreement. He was a great champion of lost causes. Many put the ultimate victory of Stephenson’s Standard Gauge down to the fact that Babbage was a tireless champion of Brunel’s Broad Gauge. Choose your enemies carefully, but just as important, be ready to rein in your friends…

Brunel’s friendship with Babbage led to complications in Italy. A rival company, bidding for the Piemonte railway contract, lured Babbage’s nephew from Brunel’s employ with mouth watering terms. A fatherly Brunel urged him not to leave for what was probably a ‘spoiler’, but the young man would not listen. Two months later, contract terminated, a sheepish young Babbage asked for a meeting and Brunel gave him his job back. Brunel was a strict employer who prized loyalty highly and did not suffer fools gladly, so his indulgence of his friend’s young nephew is rather uncharacteristic. His ringing rebuke another time to another young draughtsman: You have wasted more of my time than the whole of your life is worth.

This week our heritage boat trips have been busy, despite mixed weather. Next week we have more archaeology groups and river walks, and a wedding reception on Saturday, so come for cocktails on Friday instead. Details below:

Sunday 13th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 14th Aug

10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 15th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks 12.00 City & Village tour for Archaeologists

Wednesday 16th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

12.30 City & Village tour for Archaeologists18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 17th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Friday 18th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

17.30 Cocktails with Midnight Apothecary

Saturday 19th Aug

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room 16.00 Wedding Reception

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