Building a bridge to our hearts

10th February 2006 at 00:00
From the first propellor-driven steamship to his suspension bridge, Brunel was ahead of his time. Jenny Coates explores his legacy in Bristol

In a recent BBC competition, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was hailed as one of the greatest Britons of all time. According to car pundit Jeremy Clarkson, Brunel built the world we live in.

Brunel, a visionary engineer born in 1806, designed the Great Western Railway, the first tunnel under navigable river, and the first propellor-driven steamship. He won a competition to design the Clifton suspension bridge aged 24, and was a champion of young people's ideas and inventions. His legacies touch all parts of the national curriculum.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Brunel 200 is a programme of exhibitions and celebratory events throughout the year and across the country. It begins in Bristol, with his most famous landmark: the Clifton suspension bridge. On April 9, Brunel's birthday, new lighting on the bridge will be switched on for the first time. "In previous illuminations, visitors saw just the lights," says Mike Rowland, visitor services manager. "This new one is designed to show off the bridge. It's an icon of the city. When you think of Bristol you imagine this bridge."

And in the city, Brunel's icons are everywhere - now revitalised with exhibitions to celebrate his birthday. The most atmospheric way to arrive in Brunel's city is by train, at his imposing Temple Meads station. The Commonwealth and Empire Museum, inside the station, runs guided tours for school groups, using real relics of Brunel's projects to bring him alive.

"We searched antique shops, attics... everywhere," says Hannah Godfrey, a researcher and tour leader for the exhibition. "We have things that children can hold and feel what the work was like for 19th-century labourers."

Nowhere is that feeling more profound than in the cavernous vaults beneath the station, which will be opened to the public for the first time this year. Warm air blows down the grimy tunnels, untouched since Victorian times. The museum's education team lead school groups down there, showing them where the spent coal dropped through hatches in Brunel's arched ceilings, and the floor where it was shovelled away by workers.

After the hour-long tour, the museum runs workshops using props and hats for role-play exercises. The workshops are linked closely to the curriculum after feedback from local schools, and are conducted by an education team.

Their enthusiasm for Brunel's quirky, extrovert character is infectious; any angle on the subject could be tackled. The team also organises bespoke workshops for teachers interested in one particular strand or another.

"The great thing about Brunel," says Sue Sanctuary, education co-ordinator for Brunel 200, "is that he is relevant across all key stages and subjects.

History, maths, architecture, engineering, physics... we get university students, schools, pre-schools."

And Brunel's influence reaches across the city. From the station, a group can walk the "Brunel Mile" through famous landmarks to the docks, and catch a ferry to the SS Great Britain. Once the largest ship in the world, she was the first propeller-driven, wrought-iron steamship. She made the fastest transatlantic voyage and went on to circumnavigate the globe and transport merchants, troops and finally cargo to all corners of the British Empire. Now she sits in a dehumidified dry dock that is itself a pioneering example of ship conservation. Pupils can explore the decks and cabins, decorated as they were in Brunel's day, and investigate the techniques used to preserve the ship.

"Our factual information and interactive displays are all in our museum,"

says Nancy Chambers, from the education team. "When you've walked through the exhibitions and absorbed as much as you want of the history, your visit to the ship is purely experiential. We have recreated it exactly as it was.

Except now there is an audio guide."

On the bottom deck, visitors are confronted with the enormous dehumidifier, which works constantly to cloak the ship in a curtain of warm, dry air. For engineering students, this modern innovation is as significant as the historical technology it preserves. It's the first time the idea has been used on this scale.

Drama workshops are run inside the SS Great Britain, and to celebrate the anniversary, she will also be hosting an exhibition on The Nine Lives of Brunel - his famous disasters and near-death experiences, which are well remembered (see sidebar). But more important was his innovative attitude towards the wider world. He was one of a group of businessmen who founded Bristol Zoo, keen to study the new species that steamship explorers were bringing home.

"Brunel wanted people to learn about the world that was opening up to his new ships," says Simon Garrett, head of education at the zoo. "And we are still learning new things about the world's wildlife here. We get many university students coming here to study. It's a biological education centre more than a zoo."

The zoo is involved in conservation projects all over the world. Its extensive programme of workshops, in a dedicated education centre, are designed to give children an understanding of the wildlife that surrounds us, and the problems it faces in the future.

For Brunel 200, the zoo is introducing an "Animal Engineers" trail to complement its existing activities. As an example of the pioneering spirit that he stood for, the zoo is an important part of Brunel's legacy.

If Jeremy Clarkson is right, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built our world the way we see it now. But the message in his birthday exhibitions is all about the future.

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