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An early Sunday morning at Cockwood

 An early Sunday Morning at Cockwood

 Richard J. Brine


What a pretty view - Sunday morning, boats at rest, and across the railway line ahead of you, a fine view of Exmouth over the water. But also ahead of you lies Brunel's "little local difficulty" - a tantalisingly narrow gap where his plans fell apart and he spent a small fortune (of his own money) trying to take the line on to Newton Abbot and bring calm to GWR Board  meetings.


Brunel never really solved this problem to his satisfaction - he was a brilliant engineer and he devised a solution of sorts but it was only the arrival of more sophisticated structural materials that enabled other engineers to devise a safer solution than his and that wasn't to happen until the middle of the 20th century. 


An Atmospheric railway train
The weight of Brunel's Atmospheric trains was  nothing compared to the weight of modern trains crossing the gap simultaneously and at speed and the steel structure needed to create support here has to be very special indeed. We see this train passing the Dawlish pumping station, redundant and long-gone.


A modern train crossing the viaduct at speed

Crossing the tiny viaduct safely in 2016

© Richard J. Brine


Think of the word 'viaduct' and you may conjure up a deep valley with monumental brick pillars supporting a railway track as it spanned rivers, hills and dales. But this wasn't  a wide gap - in fact it was a very narrow gap and that made the problem harder for the engineer who had to get enough material into the space to provide any support at all - and all there was to hand was wood.

That they solved this problem at all is a tribute to the skill of these great engineers, especially when you consider that they were providing solutions from a distance at the same time as Isambard Brunel struggled with another project -  flooding in  the first tunnel  under a river anywhere in the world - the tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping which had been designed by his father Marc Brunel and started in 1825. 


A modern train going over the viaduct at speed

Low tide and Brunel's problem is exposed

We see the tiny brook, each tide moving more silt out into the sea

© Richard J. Brine


Brunel's surveys showed him that the ground below the gap was composed of a mix of  sand and soil brought to the seashore by a tiny underground watercourse known as Staplake Brook which was visible only at low tides.  His engineers began to solve the problem by tipping cartload after cartload of soil and sand into the gap but this material alone only made things worse.

So he ordered wood to be added to the mix which did slow up the rate of soil loss. After a while, they experimented by driving piles into the  ground with some success. The tallest of local trees were felled  and hammered down some 30 feet until they began to be sure they had reached bedrock and that was the solution they were forced to go along with.


An engineering train carrying shuttering for tunnel repair
If Brunel thought his troubles were over when they got this far then the tunnel sections  which lay ahead of him were about to give him even more angst. This photo was taken on a Sunday morning in March 2016 as an engineering train returns from engaging on work in the tunnel section with replacement parts - it seems there will always be a work to do on this line.


The line to Teignmouth was opened by the owners, the South Devon Railway Company on 30 May 1846 as single track and broad gauge and the sections designed for atmospheric power closed 9 September 1848 rendering the pumping stations surplus to requirements after only a few months usage. The track was converted from broad gauge on 21 May 1892. Up and Down tracks were laid in sections over a period of several years, requiring the widening or removal of several tunnels near Teignmouth. But the story is by no means over.



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