Discover where Brunel spent 'his happiest hours'
- Credit: Keith Perry
The engineering ingenuity of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is evident throughout the West Country and his achievements as a designer of railways, bridges and steamships are a lasting legacy of his genius.
Often overlooked, however, is the labour of love that Brunel carried out over a 12 -year period in the Watcombe area of Torquay.
It was here that the man voted second only to Churchill in a 2001 BBC poll to determine The Greatest Briton of all time, masterminded the landscaping of what was once one of the Bay’s largest estates, stretching over 100 acres.
Although the land is divided today, a large section of the original property can still be freely enjoyed by walkers.
Brunel Woods are signposted from Teignmouth Road and the well maintained and clearly defined pathways form part of the 11-mile Maidencombe to Cockington section of the The John Musgrave Heritage Trail.
Brunel bought this land in stages between 1847 and 1858 with a view to creating an estate and building a house for his retirement and with the help of some of the most celebrated Victorian garden designers oversaw the development of the sloped site.
The book ‘Brunel’s Hidden Kingdom’ describes his work on the estate and records that ‘there can be little doubt that the happiest hours of his life were spent in walking about in the gardens with his wife and children’ and that ‘the improvement of his property was his chief delight.’
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An information board at the entrance to the woods off Brunel Avenue maps the various trails which enable you to follow in Brunel’s footsteps and you’ll find an unusual memorial to the Great Man in the form of a 58ft totem pole, depicting his engineering skills, which was carved by Keith Barrett to mark the regeneration of the woods after the storms of 1990.
Brunel died following a stroke aged 53 in 1859 with his house unbuilt but Brunel Manor, towering above the woodland, was eventually built in 1873 by James Crompton and is currently available for redevelopment or restoration.
The grounds do contain many important features of Brunel’s original gardens but, sadly, these are in need of much TLC.
Brunel’s Hidden Kingdom by Geoffrey Tudor was published in 2007 and, although out of print, copies can be found for sale on the internet.
A detailed description of Brunel’s work at Watcombe can be found on parksandgardens.org - the leading online resource for historic gardens.