Saturday, December 27, 2003

Xmas and Brunel in Somerset

But first another little London vignette:
After the theatre in the West End, we were waiting (and waiting...) for a Picadilly line tube. Everyone on the platform suddenly noticed all these mice running around in the trackbed. We saw one with a suspiciously short tail. Then, in the usual deadpan manner of London Underground announcements, came this. "Ladies and gentlemen, your tube will be here in about five minutes. In the meantime, please do not, repeat, do not feed the mice, They are specially imported Patagonian fighting mice and are trained killers. Thank you".
Xmas Eve night, we had an amazingly fast bus trip out to Wincanton (roads were unaccountably empty). Xmas day was just marvellous: turkey, champers, a choice NZ red and white, pudding, chocs, more turkey, beer. Presents, including many books. Much reading. Missed the Queen's message. Bugger. And then a Nurofen or two in the morning....
And so to Bristol on a Brunel expedition: we've found that two things in a day are about the limit, so Brunel's SS Great Britain was #1 and his Clifton suspension bridge was #2. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a rather driven man but an engineering genius. Think, Great Western railway, for starters. And so it was, in that order.
Bristol city centre was badly bombed during the war (there were aircraft factories, docks, other juicy targets) and so is rebuilt in Glorious Concrete style. The river is flanked by abandoned factories, warehouses and lots of industrial archaeology, with some apartments on the water, multicoloured on the high rock terraces to the north. The Rustbelt.
SS Great Britain dates from around 1844 and is the first 'modern' steel ship: screw plus sail propelled. It was rescued in 1970 from the Falklands (where it had called in for repairs that never happened and was subsequently used as a hulk), and was docked in the dry dock where it was originally built, 127 years to the day since it was launched.
It has been being lovingly restored ever since: it now has most masts, decking, rooms and will have replica engines soon. It was (can't make this up) chain driven - the engine couldn't make more than 18 rpm and the prop needed 53. So a bike-chain type gear-up (suitably massive, of course) was the solution. Amazing stuff - it carted over 15,000 Australians during the Gold Rush era. It still retains a lot of Brunel's egotism in its lines, size and general air of Victorian confidence.
Then on to the suspension bridge, a very delicate affair with multiple plates as the suspension chains, slender rods holding the roadbed, and suitably slim, tapered masonry towers. It just leaps across the gorge just west of Bristol centre. The Avon is a lot more muscular than Christchurch's one: the tidal bore in the main Severn channel (well west of Bristol) can be up to 40 feet, and even here the Avon looks to have several tens of feet of tide, to judge by the silted walls through the town. Light is fading but photos are still possible. A beautiful piece of engineering.
Finally, we head back through the centre of town to find Briavels Grove: the pre-war family home. Found the Grove, as usual in Britain, the houses look all the same when built in a row as they so often are. Then, back through still surprisingly uncrowded roads to Wincanton. Dark at 4.30 pm, of course. Great day.

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