Director’s Diary: An Ill Wind

From Italy I wrote of railways, heavy seas and storms, and now I am returned to see the damage. High winds are no friend to bridges. Almost exactly a hundred and seventy years ago, in 1839, Lord Orkney telegraphed that the Great Western Railway 6 o’clock train must not through. Maidenhead Bridge was in a dangerous state after the terrible gales. Brunel was well used to these dire predictions: the bridge was and remains the flattest, widest brick arch in the world, and for some people it was only a question of time before it fell into the river. Brunel arranges an inspection and discounts this ‘cock and bull story’ and the train arrives safely and on time.

Every day we run heritage boat trips under three Brunel bridges, and I lead the Saturday trip. Along the river, the weather is fierce but I’m pleased to discover all the bridges are intact and the launch ramps of the Great Eastern have not washed away. We lunch as usual at the Tunnel Club. Rather dramatically, a big tree near the Museum has come down, but volunteers Bill and Rosaline, who got married here last week, help me move and saw and make safe. It is hard but gratifying work.

Sunday I am again leading a boat trip as our regular guide is on family holiday – August is a busy month. As well as our regular visitors, I am surprised and pleased to welcome Lucy and Isaac, members of the Brunel family. They are on their first visit to Brunel’s first project. We first met some twelve years ago over a collection of drawings…

Another surprise – a second tree is damaged. This is substantial and tomorrow I must make enquiries and find quotes from tree surgeons. I had not noticed yesterday, I am not as thorough as Brunel in 1839. But my 6 o’clock train, being an underground, went safely through.