Celebrate Isambard Kingdom Brunel's 200th Birthday

By Johnny Wilson | 06 April 2006
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shows a logo for Brunel 200 overlaid over a pencil drawing of a man in wearing a top hat

Brunel 200 is the culmination of years of planning and work to celebrate the bicentenary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. © Brunel 200

The weekend of April 8 2006 marks the bicentenary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s birth and a range of events under the banner Brunel 200 are happening right across the south of England.

The biggest celebrations will be centred on Bristol, which adopted Brunel as one of its own and can still lay claim to being the city most affected by his grand designs.

“He’s part of the consciousness of the people of Bristol,” explained Ruth Sidgwick, project manager for Brunel 200.

To mark this special relationship a raft of events will take place across the city including street parties, processions and the free distribution of a new book entitled Brunel: In Love with the Impossible.

Shows a photo of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge will be at the centre of celebrations in Bristol © Destination Bristol.

On the evening of Saturday 8 April, the eve of Brunel’s birthday, there will be a huge stage show and firework display before the switching on of new lights on the impressive, Brunel designed, Clifton Suspension Bridge.

“Brunel, who would have been 200 on April 9 2006, was more than anyone else responsible for Britain’s technological hegemony in the Victorian era,” added Ruth, who has been working with colleagues on the celebrations for four years. “He was an amazing engineer, artist, architect and designer.”

“The variety of projects he designed and built was extraordinary including railways, tunnels, docks, and bridges that totally revolutionised this country’s transport network,” she added. “Most are still in active use today.”

a small steam train on a quayside steaming past a fully rigged ship

A masssive celebration of steam happens over the Brunel weekend at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. © Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Many of these innovations happened beyond his adopted city and celebrations will occur in several places, each boasting its own link to the great man.

Starting in Isambard’s birthplace, Portsmouth, a new statue will be unveiled of the city’s most famous son, at the Historic Dockyard where an exciting weekend of events entitled Celebration of Steam will take place.

A variety of steam engines, boats and model railways from the Victorian period will be on show to look at or in some cases take a ride on.

Steam - the museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon - from April 9 hosts a series of events centred on the work of Brunel. An exhibition entitled Battle of the Gauges, recounting the fierce rivalry between the different track sizes used on Victorian railways will be of interest to train enthusiasts.

A train moves along the tracks in a cloud of steam

Steaming at Didcot - the replica Firefly locomotive in action. Photo courtesy of Didcot Railway Centre

In the event Brunel’s broad gauge was abandoned in favour of George Stephenson’s standard gauge. A replica of Brunel’s Duke Street office, which acted as his base in the town, will also been unveiled.

Holburne Museum of Art in Bath will mark the anniversary with a major exhibition of the engineer’s effect on the city. Sketchbooks, artefacts and original images will all on be display.

The ‘Firefly’, a replica broad gauge locomotive will be available for visitors to ride at Didcot Railway Centre. Broad gauge was Brunel's fateful innovation: although it was safer than standard gauge, Stephenson's system was much more widely spread around the country, and it trumped Brunel's brilliant idea. A new Science, Learning and Railways Centre will also be opened on at Didcot April 9.

People are often unaware that as well as being a formidably prolific engineer and architect Brunel also had a penchant for designing elaborate gardens.

a photograph of steps leading down to a circular ornamental garden with pond and trees in the distance

Watcombe offers a sedate celebration of Brunel 200. © Brunel Manor

The recently restored Watcombe Gardens in the grounds of Brunel Manor House near Torquay in Devon will be reopened for the public on April 9. This was the estate he planned to retire to, but unfortunately never got to see, as he died before it was completed. For more information visit www.brunelmanor.com

There are many more events happening right across the South of England, for a full list of all the events taking place as part of Brunel 200 visit www.brunel200.com

For more information about some of the important museums, heritage sites, displays, artefacts, collections and built heritage, read our substantial feature about the genius of Brunel: On The Trail Of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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