Saturday, 11 June 2016

53 Isambard Kingdom Brunel

53 I.K. Brunel (photos: Brunel, Great Eastern, Flying arches, Landore viaduct)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is associated with the SS “Great Britain” in Bristol, the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, the Box tunnel near Bath, the Maidenhead Viaduct, and designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but in Loughor, Landore and Llansamlet this area has examples of the great Victorian engineer’s work. 

A wooden railway bridge was built over the river Loughor and opened in 1852 to carry the broad gauge line of the South Wales Railway from Swansea through to Carmarthen.  This became the last remaining timber viaduct designed by Brunel, whose other timber bridges had been gradually replaced by masonry.  Loughor’s bridge was 750ft long with a 40ft opening swing bridge at the Swansea end, and seventeen fixed spans.  It was on timber piles driven 14ft into the riverbed, with the piles arranged in groups of three, across the width of the viaduct.  A mixed-gauge track was laid, being broad gauge for the South Wales Railway and standard gauge for the Llanelly Railway.  The SWR converted to standard gauge in 1872, so when the viaduct was first rebuilt in 1880 both tracks were laid to standard gauge.  Major rebuilding was also carried out between 1908 and 1909, when the swing bridge (unused since 1887) was removed.

With the re-doubling of railway tracks between Cockett West Junction and Duffryn West Junction, in 2013 Network Rail replaced the viaduct with a modern railway bridge, but did relocate part of the old grade 2 listed structure onto railway land just to the west.

The Landore viaduct had been built from 1847 to 1850 to enable the South Wales Railway to cross the canal and the river Tawe to reach Swansea.  The arrival of the train from Chepstow at Swansea’s High Street Station in June 1850 was an occasion for much celebration, with speeches from Brunel and local dignitaries during a banquet in a marquee especially erected on the Burrows.  That site was later excavated for Swansea’s second dock, the South Dock (now the Marina), which opened in 1859, the year Brunel died aged 53.

Landore was Brunel’s longest viaduct, originally 1,788ft (a third of a mile) long, with thirty-seven spans, and built of Canadian pitch pine.  Forty years later its length was substantially reduced by building up an embankment on the eastern side of the valley with slag from the nearby Hafod copper works, and replacing many original timber piers with masonry.  But near Neath Road stand four masonry piers, each pierced with two arches, which are part of Brunel’s original design. 

At Llansamlet where the railway line passes through a cutting there was danger of land slippage from old mine workings.  Brunel countered this with four “Flying Arches” to hold back the cutting through which the line passes.  These span 70ft from the sides of the cutting; the design and weight of the arches, with heavy copper slag on top of each masonry arch, is sufficient to resist the thrust of the side. 

There is also a local link to one of Brunel’s three innovative steam ships.  SS “Great Britain” was the second of these, the first iron-built ocean-going ship with a screw propeller, now restored in its dry dock in Bristol.  But even that was eclipsed by his final nautical project - the huge PSS “Great Eastern”, which was beset with problems during construction at Millwall and in attempting to launch her sideways in 1858.  As a luxury transatlantic liner she was a commercial failure, yet her most productive use was laying transatlantic telegraph cables between Europe, America and India. 

The Swansea connection is that copper merchant Henry Bath’s company diversified into ship-breaking, and in 1889-90 dismantled Brunel’s giant paddle steamship using a wrecking ball at Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, on the Wirral.  It took over 18 months, with just the top mast surviving as the flagpole at the Kop end of Liverpool’s Anfield football ground: sadly not at the Liberty Stadium!  

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