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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, January 23, 2007
    Following atmospheres

    Can't fault Isambard Kingdom Brunel for trying. For two years the tireless inventor and innovator of the great industrial era had a train running between Exeter and Teignmouth on atmosphere alone. Or as we'd say today, it used air pressure or vacuum. He called it the Atmospheric Train and it was probably better for the atmosphere than the coal-guzzling steam train (though the Atmospheric Railway relied on pumping stations which put out a lot of smoke - as the picture shows).

    Brunel's plan was to take the line all the way to Plymouth, but it never got further than the Teign because the bold exercise fell down on inadequate sealing valves which frequently broke and cost fortunes to replace. While the engineless Atmospheric Railway ran it was a safe and almost silent form of transport. Gentle giants, those trains - we can imagine the stirring trackside atmosphere they produced. I imagine also that once dismantled the old line retained an atmosphere of its own, or nurtured new atmospheres, like all old lines do (as I found when walking the Liverpool Loop Line some time ago).

    As part of the Brunel 200 celebrations last year Phil invited people to join him on a series of Atmospheric Walks, using the route of Brunel's Atmospheric Railway as a snaking landmark. But participants were encouraged to deviate, if required, in search of atmospheres. Almost 50 walkers took part.

    One consequence of these walks is the production of Atmospheric Maps, a folded booklet which includes photographs, poetry and prose taken and written by many of these walkers. Phil's written an introduction and 1,200 copies are to be distributed free of charge in the Teignbridge area, in the hope that others will be inspired to further exploratory walking around these ‘Atmospheric’ routes.

    Atmospheric Maps are being launched in Newton Abbot on 10th Feb, which will involve a short performance by Phil based on the walks and the discoveries made, followed by a new walk. I can't make the launch, but Phil's sent me a copy of the neat, colourful and lively little booklet. Appropriately I find that reading it creates a very pleasurable atmosphere here:

    Dark to light and light to dark
    Engineering art