Wiltshire Tourist Guide

Great Western Railway - Wiltshire

Great Western Railway or Brunels Billiard Table as it was known at the time is without doubt the most famous of railways in England.

This railroad runs from London through Swindon in Wiltshire to Bristol. The unique position of Swindon as an important junction and its prominence to the railways operations made Swindon into a very important railway centre for both maintenance and construction of steam locomotives and wagons. In its heyday, between the two World Wars, Swindon employed 14000 people in its locomotive works. Swindon works were eventually closed in 1986 but one building was preserved and now houses a popular museum dedicated to the history of the Railway together with the headquarters of English Heritage.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was England’s most famous and celebrated engineer of all time. His name and achievements were synonymous with that period of massive change in Britain is now known as the Industrial Revolution.

Industrialisation, the introduction and rapid spread of new technologies were proceeding at breakneck speed and Brunel more than any other engineer captured the spirit of those times.

Born in 1906 at Portsmouth, the only son of a French civil engineer, and educated in France Brunel soon followed in his fathers footsteps. In what was, even for that time, a relatively short life span Brunel was associated with a great number of widely varied mammoth complex engineering projects, often running several simultaneously.

Brunel was an ambitious, ruthless, driven workaholic whose ingenuity pand achievements were phenomenal and an inspiration to the world. Bridges of revolutionary design, the Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol and the river Tamar Railway Bridge linking Devon to Cornwall. Steamships of undreamt of size and power, the Great Western, Great Britain and finally the Great Eastern, docks, tunnels and even a complete prefabricated hospital building shipped in parts to the Crimea in 1855 are to mention just a few of the more notable.

His most famous and finest achievement of all was perhaps the construction of the Great Western Railway (GWR) linking London with Bristol. At 27 years of age Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the project. Often working 20 hours a day and travelling by horse and coach (as well as continuing to supervise a dock scheme at Bristol at the same time) he completed a preliminary survey of the rail route.

Despite fierce and influential opposition from landowners, coach proprietors, the Kennet and Avon Canal Company and other interested railway companies Brunel had the support of the great engineers of the time. An Act of Parliament granting the necessary compulsory purchase powers was passed then followed by the Royal Assent in 1835 and the great work commenced.

Over the next six years Brunel threw himself into the work and among his lasting achievements are the bridge at Maidenhead, viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, and the two-mile-long Box Tunnel. Between the Bath and Bristol section alone, there are three viaducts, four major bridges and seven tunnels.

In 1841 the GWR directors left London on the inaugural journey along the entire length of railway from London to Bristol, completing the journey in 4 hours.

In contrast to the rest of the growing railway network of England Brunel used the broad gauge (2.2m) for the project instead of the standard gauge (1.55m) and inevitably track-width had to be standardized. After a competition between the two configurations and despite the fact that Brunels broad gauge was faster, safer and more comfortable, the Government in 1846 decided to adopt the standard gauge for all future rail construction and Brunel conceded defeat. A third rail was added and GWR eventually converted wholly to standard gauge in 1892.

Many famous world record breaking steam locomotive journeys were made on this Railway reaching a peak between the two World Wars. The western world at that time was speed mad both on land, sea and in the air. The excitement generated by these steam locomotives elevated the footplate-men to boyhood heroes of that generation and the elite of the working class. To coax every ounce of speed from these leviathans was a skill admired by all. Locomotives and trains became household names. One notable speed record was that attained in June 1932 by a ‘Castle Class’ locomotive pulling the ‘Cheltenham Flyer’ gave a record start to stop average speed of just a shade under 82 mph between Swindon and Paddington which has never since been equaled.

You can see many famous examples of the GWR steam locomotives lovingly maintained in beautiful condition at the Museum which is housed in a former railway building in the heart of the former Swindon railway works and tells the fascinating history of the GWR. For Wiltshire visitors both old and young, a day out for all the family at the Museum is an enjoyable, interesting and rewarding experience not to be missed.


Great Western Railway