The GWR was of course one of Brunel’s largest and most ambitious works, though perhaps not as spectacular as the Clifton Bridge or the ‘Great Eastern’. (By ‘Brunel’ I mean of course Isambard Kingdom, and neither his father Sir Isambard nor his son Isambard. I’m not sure, but I think ‘our’ Brunel was the only one with the middle name ‘Kingdom’.) To survey the line’s route he would set out early in the morning — on horseback, of necessity — for long rides into the country, accompanied by a friend similarly mounted. This friend happened to live on the opposite side of the road to Brunel, who used to sit up all night making engineering calculations, and then, very early (like 3 a.m.) would pull a string he had rigged up so as to ring a bell in his friend’s bedroom. Like most people who get up early he had no sympathy for people who slept ‘late’, and Brunel thought it great fun (it’s hard to avoid the epithet ‘great’ for almost everything about Brunel, including his capacity to chain-smoke great fat cigars) to ring the bell far too early.
Anyway, as with so many of his projects, Brunel had great difficulty getting parliament to pass the various bills necessary. One of the objections raised by the House of Lords to the proposed GWR route was that it would pass close to Eton College, a fact that many lords thought threatened the very fabric of English society: they said that wicked riff-raff would take convenient trains down from London and corrupt the purity of the Eton boys, who, in turn, would pop up to the fleshpots of the city. They wanted the route to go instead via Basingstoke, whose inhabitants were presumably less corruptible, or perhaps already too corrupt to matter.
More stuff, anecdotal or germane, about the Great Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in due course. Meanwhile here’s a picture; it’s one end (there are two (duh)) of the GWR’s Box Tunnel, which many said would collapse, (some early passengers would get out for this section of the journey and take the stagecoach over the hill), but is still in use over a century later: