CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Devon Life today CLICK HERE

Brunel’s Forgotten Totnes Building

PUBLISHED: 11:40 24 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013

The Pump House Today

The Pump House Today

A local and national campaign has saved a historic building in Totnes designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the finest industrial architects of his age, showing that people power really can work.

Though few locals even know it exists, the Pumping House, situated beside Totnes station, was part of an extraordinary experiment in rail travel.



During the 1840s when railways were being planned, there was some doubt as to whether steam engines would cope with South Devon's hills. Brunel had the idea of an Atmospheric Railway, using a vacuum. Pumping engines along the route sucked air out of a tube, dubbed a 'Rope of Air', between the tracks. The vacuum pulled the train along.



The theory was sound, but the available technology wasn't reliable enough. Brunel planned to extend his Atmospheric Railway to Plymouth but, less than a year after it started running between Exeter and Newton Abbot, the directors of the South Devon Railway pulled the plug without giving the whole system a proper trial. The pumping house in Totnes was mothballed.



The rustic Italianate-style buildings that housed the boilers and engines are rare survivors of an extraordinary chapter in Brunel's life. Atmospheric railway buildings at Starcross and Torquay eventually gained listed building status. Because of an oversight, the Totnes buildings were not listed and simply melted into the 20th-century industrial paraphernalia of a dairy processing plant.



The building under threat


In May 2007, the building's future started to look uncertain. "We heard that Dairy Crest were pulling out of Totnes and selling the site," says Pruw Boswell-Harper, Totnes Town Council's heritage champion. "We realised that, without listing, Brunel's building could be under serious threat."



Dairy Crest wanted to flatten the pumping house to realise the potential market value of the site. Three groups, including the Town Council, made applications to English Heritage, but were disappointed. "English Heritage said the building wasn't intact, though it is," says Pruw. "They saw the Atmospheric Railway as a failure."


This last point particularly irritated Dr Mark Horton, a presenter on BBC 2's Coast programme and reader in archaeology at the University of Bristol. "If you only preserve technological successes you're literally whitewashing history," he says. "When electric railways came in towards the end of that century, power was supplied from the track side through a central rail, a direct successor of the Atmospheric Principle."



Pruw and her colleagues appealed against the decision to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). In mid-February they were told they had been refused again for the same reasons. "They had simply gone back to English Heritage rather than review the situation independently," she complained.



Offers to lie in front of the bulldozers


When the roof tiles started to come off the building, the gloves were also off as far as the local community was concerned. Pruw enlisted the help of Adam Wilkinson, Secretary of Save Britain's Heritage, and local MP Anthony Steen, who tabled a question in the House. She even had offers from locals to "lie down in front of the bulldozers - everyone was involved right across the community and beyond".


Save Britain's Heritage had campaigned to save Brunel's Temple Meads Station in Bristol in the 1970s, so they were very familiar with his illustrious history. Adam Wilkinson says: "We were able to draw on a huge army of experts, from interested locals right through to industrial archaeologists and Brunel historians. They were amazed that a building of this significance was facing any kind of threat. Even though this building was not commissioned, it is still a vital part of Brunel's vision for that line. We put forward the case as forcefully as we could."



Philip Chandler, Editor of totnesonline.com, is one of many who fought the cause from their keyboard. "I contacted the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society, and they rang as many bells as they could around the archaeological community, including Dr Mark Horton who is a big Brunel fan, and he stirred the pot quite vigorously."



Jeremy Clarkson gets on board


A great deal of pressure was put on English Heritage to change its mind, even Top Gear's lad of culture Jeremy Clarkson got on board; having championed Brunel in BBC's Great Britons series he was suitably acerbic. "Dairy Crest is a jolly big and important company, I'm sure. But its chilled products will never worm their way into the fabric of Britain quite like Isambard Kingdom Brunel did."


Deciding what should and should not be saved for the nation is not an easy task. As Roger Bowdler, Head of Designation at English Heritage, explains, the organisation has to be responsive and receptive to expert claims made by others. "We can't always say yes; we have to weigh up the evidence and advise the Secretary of State accordingly. Because Brunel has a lot of cachet and the building was part of his engineless railway carriage experiment, we had a rethink in the case of this building."



Listing is achieved


DCMS has now give Brunel's building Grade II Listing, so Richard Gage, South Hams District Council's Conservation and Design Officer, will be adding this historic gem to the other 3,500 listed buildings he looks after. "Internally, the really special thing about this building is its glorious roof structure," he enthuses. "Meaty mid-19th-century industrial, those Brunel-esque roof timbers are really quite special." Those listed buildings will influence any future development on the site.


Richard says: "Get the right architects, get the people with vision, get a steer from the local authority and these buildings can really become an integral part of the community. It has so much potential, it's crying out for something special."


Local group The Atmos Project, which is bidding for the site, believes it may well have that special something. Their leader, Nigel Topping, says Brunel's buildings are at the heart of their vision for a sustainability showcase site. "Brunel was of one of Britain's great innovators of the industrial revolution. Now we hope to use the building to show off the work of innovators in sustainable living, which will be the 21st century's revolution."



Let's hope that after 160 years the true potential of Brunel's hidden gem in the heart of Totnes is realised.


HELEN STILES



For more information about The Atmos Project go to www.atmosproject.com

More on Brunel can be found on www.brunel200.com

0 comments

More from Out & About

Tue, 16:33

With breathtaking beaches, rolling countryside, stately homes and unique villages, it’s no wonder high-profile film productions flock to Devon - how well do you know the movies that have set up camp here however?

Read more
Tue, 15:17

Whether it’s on our beautiful beaches, in our magnificent moors or within our stunning stately homes, film productions are constantly setting up in Devon. Here are 16 that you might not know used the county as a filming location

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

From angry spirits to headless horses and ghoulish monks, Devon has more than a few supernatural stories to get your skin crawling. We have picked 11 haunted places in the county

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October is the perfect time to discover the joys of Exmoor. Jennette Baxter of Visit Exmoor suggests five great ways to enjoy autumn on the moor

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Wild camping can be one of the best ways to escape the crowds for a night or two and lose yourself in the landscape - SOPHIE PAVELLE chooses her five favourite places to ‘wild-life’ camp in Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From sandy beaches and lighthouse-topped cliffs to views of the Jurassic Coast, the Devon coastline offers many perfect locations for a seaside walk. We pick 10 of the prettiest routes to take

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Take our quiz to find out how well you really know Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As the weather starts to warm up and the Devon countryside beckons, LIZZIE JANE of the National Trust in the South West offers plenty of walk ideas for you to try. Whether you want a relaxed Sunday stroll or a more strenuous hike, here are 10 walks across Devon (and beyond) to help you escape the crowds and head off the beaten track

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The South West Coast Path is celebrating 40 years by calling on people to help raise £40,000. To show their support, teams from Devon’s top tourist attractions are preparing to take to the trail. CHRISSY HARRIS finds out more

Read more
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Away from the hustle of places like Woolacombe and Ilfracombe, North Devon is peppered with tiny coves, empty beaches and wooded walks leading to secluded bays that feel a million miles away from the tourist trail. BECKY DICKINSON reveals her pick of the best kept secrets on the North Devon coast

Read more
Friday, September 14, 2018

As part of her regular series where she visits Devon’s best places for 24 hours, Lydia Tewkesbury has this time been to Sidmouth

Read more
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Ranging from rocky and windy walkways along the South West Coast Path to the sandy beaches on the picturesque coastline, the district of North Devon is one of the prettiest coastal areas in the South West of England. In no particular order, here are 10 of the prettiest villages in the district of North Devon

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In Devon’s towns and cities there’s an awful lot you can do in just 24 hours. For her regular feature, Lydia Tewkesbury travels to see what you can do in a day in Kingsbridge

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Villages in Devon are some of the prettiest in the South West. From beautiful little hamlets on the outskirts of the moors to seaside communities, we pick 10 villages in Devon you need to visit

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy



Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search