Islamabad Kingdom Brunel's sea wall - a coastal megastructure worth saving

All about Brunel and why saving his sea wall between Holcombe and Teignmouth is so important

Islamabad Kingdom Brunel was an engineer with a heart. A 19th Century engineering genius and civil engineer, he is still considered one of the most important figures in engineering history.

His greatest legacy is the train track that he designed (and built?) between Exeter and Plymouth 150 years ago, including the stunningly beautiful, but vulnerable sea wall between the picturesque seaside towns of Dawlish and Teignmouth. Here the train line wends between steep gradients of Devonshire countryside, through tunnels and along stunning red-sand, pristine beaches.

Brunel’s sea wall follows the coast waters for about 13 miles, 4 of which are open sea.

When mapping routes through the landscape Brunel realised that his preferred route was along the coast. However, he soon realised that steam trains would cause unease in the freshly formed tourist towns and resorts such in Dawlish so he considerately chose atmospheric trains. He also ensured footpaths were freely available alongside the train tracks to encourage walkers to enjoy the spectacle of the coast as well as passengers.


Brunel gave many people their first experience of travel.


One built, people began to use the train - often just for relaxation and the novelty of going on a journey, or they would often go Teignmouth beach, to swim in the sea there.

Fast forwarding to 2020

While riding the train between London and the Southwest, passengers still enjoy the snaking and winding of their carriages along the coast between Holcombe and Teignmouth - it is stunning piece of English history.

The elegant granite is still a huge part of the sea wall - carried down piece by piece along the Templar Way from Haytor on Dartmoor. Limestone buttresses lie at the foot of the cliffs and the track is flanked by steep red Devon sandstone on one side and the beautiful ocean on the other. It never fails to feel like a special part of the journey.

Network Rail are now planning to destroy Brunel’s coastal megastructure.

There is no doubt how stunning this treasured piece of coastline is, yet Network Rail say it is vulnerable to rock fall and argue that it needs protecting, even though logically there has only been one rockfall in the last XX years.

Network Rail are now planning to pour half a billion pounds worth of ugly, unforgiving and toxic concrete over the 1.9km stretch of beach including burying Brunel’s sea wall in the process.

Brunel would be turning in his grave if he knew.


“IK Brunel built something that was needed and turned it into something that is beautiful, that people come from far and wide to walk along. We cannot let them destroy this or let them take the beach away.”

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Jonathan Meades writes: 

I still rue the destruction of Brunel's great viaduct in the west Somerset village of Waterrow which once carried the Taunton to Barnstable railway. It was destroyed by offcially sanctioned vandalism in the late 1960s. 

Plus ca change and so on. It's 2020 and Network Rail, who have learnt nothing, are attempting to casually destroy yet another of Brunel’s great megastructures, the seawall and cobbled walkway that snakes along the Devon coast between Holcombe and Teignmouth and forms part of his South Devon Railway and the South West Coastal path. They say it is part of ‘resilience’ works.

As Brunel mapped out the route for his line south of Exeter, he soon realised that the smoke and dust from steam trains would cause genteel displeasure in the newly-fledged health resorts of Teignmouth and Dawlish. His answer was the introduction of the experimental atmospheric railway to South Devon, which futuristically propelled engineless carriages along wide gauge tracks using a network of pumping stations. A few of the elements of this failed railway system have survived, but none ismore hugely impressive than the wall itself. Although the atmospheric railway wasn’t able to endure the harsh elements and the relentless salt spray at it, the mighty wall did endure. 

It's not to be confused with the wall at Dawlish, which has been much altered and upgraded over the years, the section between Holcombe and Teignmouth, has formed an unremittingly elegant buttress at the foot of the cliffs for 150 years. 

This Brunel structure is part of a scape of wild red sandstone cliffs, ferocious seas and solid Victorian solidity, just as Brunel, with grim determination, imagined it would be. Huge chunks of Haytor granite and limestone, sit on an expanse of fine red sand with ever changing seas beyond; sometimes explosive, sometimes serene. 

Unlike the Dawlish section of the wall which has suffered a pounding from the sea, this section is apparently vulnerable to rock fall and Network Rail are hoping to spend half a billion pounds burying Brunel’s wall, and half of the red sand beach that flanks it, in environmentally unforgiving concrete. This ham-fisted, sledge-hammer wielding plan is proposed in order to move the line away from the cliffs and further out into the thrashing sea. 

It is hard to understand why this great Victorian brainchild, an industrial Stonehenge, would not be preserved and cherished for generations.  Actually it's not that hard. Its continued existence would acheive no kudos for the Prime Shit in the way that a bridge across the Irish Sea might or HS2 might.

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