The most fascinating ‘hole in the ground’ in history.

24 07 2010

The Man, himself: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

We spent Wednesday morning with Mr. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (18061859), one of the most ambitious and accomplished engineers (and cigar smokers) in the history of the British empire, on which, he pointed out, he had tremendous influence.

We spent Wednesday afternoon with Mr. Robert Hulse (timeless), one of the most knowledgeable and charismatic tour guides (and wits) in the history of the British empire, on which, he pointed out, the sun never sets (because God doesn’t trust the British).

To meet up with Mr. Hulse, we took the Tube to Rotherhithe, East London.  After passing a decidedly dangerous-looking playground of sharp metal and rust, we took a left turn into a courtyard dotted with park benches that looked like various sorts of suspension bridges.  Brunel designed bridges and ships alike, so we figured we’d found the right place.

We had.  The Brunel Museum is quaint and lived-in, so to speak, but quite well-done.  Or, as my professors often say about quality museums, the place was quite ‘well-interpreted’.  The place truly came to life, however, when Mr. Hulse greeted us–dress shirt with the button closest to his belt fashionably undone–and began straightaway to convince us that everything that is good and worthwhile in the world started right here, right where we were standing–in this complex of the  original Thames tunnel Engine Room and, just below us, the Giant Hall Entrance to the Thames Tunnel.

The entrance to the Thames tunnel, until a few months ago, hadn’t entertained visitors like us in the last 145 years, and so it wasn’t exactly used to company.  We had to crawl through a tunnel and down stairs, treacherous as the playground we passed–appropriately, perhaps–to get into the most influential ‘hole in the ground’ in the history of mankind, perhaps even the history of the universe.

It was worth it, for this was when the true magic began.  Only the greatest of Victorian poets could re-create the splendo(u)r of our beloved Mr. Hulse’s presentation, but here is the basic gist of his presentation, followed by a sampler of his greatest hits:

Brunel, ‘Lord of the Underworld’ according to Mr. Hulse, took over the Thames tunnel project at the age of twenty, inheriting it from his distinguished engineer father.  The conditions in the construction left much to be desired, but to the surprise of many, the project did indeed succeed.  However, the Thames tunnel was not economically viable (‘Brunel’s folly’ a la ‘Scott’s folly’?), and so, in order to make up the difference, the tunnel offered the place for tours, banquets, and sordid other commercial activities.  Highlights of Mr. Hulse’s description:

  • “If you’d had better railways you’d had better Apollos.”
    • [trademark hyperbole perhaps, but Brunel was forced to constrain the grandeur of his creations at the behest of more practical contemporaries]
  • “What is a submarine but a short tunnel?”
    • Clearly, Brunel invented everything.
  • “The braver you are, the more you buy.  So, real men shop.”
    • Walking in the tunnel was a terrifying experience for many.  Gift shops abounded, and the more souvenirs one bought, the braver one could be considered.  Actually, there were fatal floods in the tunnel, so some of the fear was founded.
  • “A steam-powered organ and steam-powered ballroom dancing: a ‘Great Victorian Rave’!”
  • “The tunnel was populated by, as they were called, ‘women no better than they should be’.  Oftentimes, there was the unmistakable noise of two people in energetic conversation.”
  • You sat on three Brunel bridges, but the most important one is the transatlantic cable, which was laid by his ship, The Great Eastern.

Only thing that would have made the tour better: Brunel-styled cigars for all.

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