Summer 2012 was extremely rainy here in Devon and several places were seriously flooded. This was followed by an equally wet Autumn which in turn was followed by the unending rainfall we are enduring this winter. Villages have been, and still are, cut off from life's essentials like doctors' surgeries, bakeries and postal deliveries; people who have defied the elements and driven through floodwater have, in some cases, paid with their lives. These adverse weather conditions are a constant reminder of how thin our veneer of civilisation really is. Of course, travel has been seriously affected and no more so than travel on Brunel's former Great Western railway line connecting London with the West Country. Even now, after weeks of struggling with the track, it is not possible to take a train from Newton Abbot to Exeter or from Exeter to Taunton - in the former instance, Brunel's line has been blocked by a series of landslips in the vicinity of Teignmouth and Dawlish and in the latter case, flooding several feet deep has entirely swept away the ballast upon which the rails rest. So there are questions - where will it all end and perhaps more importantly, how did it all begin?
It helps if you understand the kind of man Brunel was. He became Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway and personally oversaw every detail of the rise of that great enterprise. It was not surprising that he should die of a stroke at the age of 53 - he was one of those driven individuals who never stop working, and who made it his life's work to convince the shareholders of the Great Western that if he said something was possible, it was, and that he would therefore make them a great deal of money. He soon discovered how much it rained in Devon and what the patterns of local flooding did to the landscape but put the problems aside with solutions which he didn't really have the time to work out properly - mainly because he was under terrific pressure from the shareholders, who in turn, were under pressure from their competitors.
His solution to the Exe Valley flooding problem which closes the route from Exeter to Taunton with monotonous regularity was to build two houses adjacent to the track, one on either bank of the river at Rewe and Stoke Canon respectively, in which he housed two unfortunate engineers whose task it was, every winter, to monitor the flooding and attempt to keep the track open. His solution for the coastal stretch of track between Newton Abbot and Powderham was to base his work on a preliminary report commisioned before construction began, from another engineer, a Mr Walker working for the Admiralty, which basically backed his own view that there would be no problem in building a railway track between the cliffs and the sea. No worries there, then - this was no less a person than James Walker ( Advisor to the Admiralty on coastal projects) so the Admiralty clearly approved of him and his views could be quoted freely. Isambard Kingdom Brunel by these means thus deflected the concern of his Directors away from another pet project of his own - The Atmospheric Railway - and was indeed a very clever man.
Last week, (in December 2012) yet another 1000 tons of soil and rock once again slid down the cliff and closed the railway track, an event that has happened with monotonous regualrity since this section of the line opened in 1847 and that will no doubt be replicated quite soon in 2013.