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Brunel: King amongst the Victorians?


Victorian Sewer by mr j doe

Peter Moore looks back to the Victorian era: a time of engineering prowess, limitless ambition and impressive hats

The Victorians are Britain’s champions. With their tall hats, long tail coats and whiskery faces, they tore up the rule book for British society in the 19th century and bequeathed the younger generations a tidy public transport system, a developed political structure and an ingrained sense of duty. However, their mark was not merely social: they spent much of their time enthralled with building schemes, constructing just about everything that they could dream up.

Viaducts, bridges, mills, mines and smouldering chimneys sprouted from the ground like daisies, changing the beautiful British vistas for good. In the meantime, fresh from an eternity lumbering happily in the fields, the masses were rounded up by parish beadles and set hard to work amongst the sweat and soot of the factories.

Victorians were bent on building ‘things’. It could be argued that the launch of George Stephenson’s Rocket (or the ‘cartwheeled chugger’), eight years before Victoria’s coronation was the event which sparked the Victorian era of innovation. The day itself was marred, however, when the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, trying to catch a better view of proceedings, stepped before the Rocket and as a sad result became the world’s first reported railway casualty.

Other inventions followed. There was the bottom-breaking ‘penny farthing’ bicycle, the light bulb, the telephone, the telegram and the first one-piece toilet. Times were exciting: minds were fresh with excitement and innovation. People wanted more than ‘Spinning Jennys’, they wanted grand designs and glorious projects. What they wanted was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel is king among Victorian engineers. He was a five foot man with a five foot hat, a dangling cigar and impressive sideboards. If you wanted something doing in the 19th century, then Brunel was your man. Along with his father, he was responsible for the first tunnel that ran under the Thames, a clutter of fabulous bridges and some equally impressive structures down on the South Devon and Cornwall railway. But when Brunel really wanted to show off, he went for boats.

Brunel, like his Victorian peers, was fascinated by size: bigger was better in almost every event, from exhibitions to empires. Brunel himself, applied himself to making a ‘great’ boat, the SS Great Western. When it finally sailed from Bristol in 1837 to New York, it shaved the normal length of a crossing down by half.

His next project was to do the same with a boat forged of iron. Back then, this was adventurous stuff: an iron boat was about as logical as a house crafted from cheese. However, screw propelled, wrought iron riveted and glimmering under the summer sun, the SS Great Britain (note the ‘Great’ again) was launched with minimal jitters in 1843. The only problem came when the ubiquitous bottle of Champaign missed the side of the boat and Prince Albert was left scurrying about for a new one.

Buoyed (sorry), by the success of his first two steamships, Brunel got together with a ship builder called John Scott Russell and decided upon constructing the largest ship ever built. Her statute (a length of 705 meters and weight of 17,274 tonnes) was imperious and Brunel was meticulous in her design and construction, constantly referring to her as the ‘Great Babe.’

This last project proved a struggle. She was big and clumsy, components were often difficult to source and when completed she couldn’t squeeze out of her dock and she earned the nickname the ‘unlucky’ ship. Still, once completed she performed admirably and helped to lay the first ever trans-Atlantic cable, which in time became essential for future communication between Europe and the Americas.

However, financial difficulties and a series of unfortunate incidents marred the life of the SS Great Eastern. Perhaps she was Brunel’s masterpiece, at the limits of Victorian innovation, but for some she was a white elephant. Each minor accident cost thousands of pounds to repair and many declared her to be unsustainable. Eventually, she was sold for scrap in 1889. She was so large that it took a team of people 18 months to dissemble her.

Despite this, the SS Great Eastern survived Brunel. He died shortly before her first voyage to New York, worn down by the exertions of his life and a catalogue of health problems (one of which had seen him have a coin lodged in his throat for numerous years). But today Brunel’s reputation is assured. The work that he completed set the standard for modern seafaring, improving design and pushing the limits of engineering forward in an unprecedented manner.

It wasn’t just a host of Victorian pioneers with anxious wives and looping pipes – the advances in maritime history came as a result of inspired design work, talented engineering and, in the case of Brunel, more than a little touch of genius.

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Discover more about the life of Brunel and Britain’s other pre-eminent Victorians on the History Channel, available on digital television networks and amongst Britain’s most popular television channels.

Pack the bags: We’re off to Paris!


Paris France Eiffel Tower by stevenvanwel

The art of escapism

British summers are becoming so wet that you could swim to the continent these days and still arrive drier than the last batch of laundry that you left hanging on your clothesline.

Not only are we looking doomed to spend the rest of our summers trying to decide what shade of grey the sky is, but we seem to have recently swapped places with France on the glamorous leaders front.

So in honor of the spectacularly spoony French President and his gorgeous wife Carla Bruni it is time to doff the proverbial and head over to Paris for some tré chic weekend action.

And of-course the beauty of driving to Paris is that once you get off the ferry at Calais you can stock up on all the local culinary goodies before dashing across France in your car, consuming vast quantities of Fois Gras and strong cheeses whilst listening to the first ladies latest album, Comme si de rien n’etait, at full volume in some sort of weird and wonderful Gallic hybrid Hunter S. Thompson scenario.

One you get to the city of lights, forget about all the usual sights and head straight for the Marais neighborhood. The best place to stay here has to be the Murano Urban Resort, a seriously cool place covered in op-art fabrics and good looking Parisians. Head to the bar and settle in, with 140 different flavours of vodka and a 19 hour day drinking license you could be there some time.

Or you could just check into somewhere modest and then head to the Louvre like everyone else, at this time of year you may only have to queue for six hours to see the Mona Lisa, although as much as I love postage stamps I think I’ll wait for you back at the Murano, because you know, well, life is short and all that.

Find out more about P&O ferries to France

The very first ferries to France


190 three men in a boat by rob gallop

John Hillman looks back into history to the very first ferry crossings between Britain and France

While you are sitting on board your P&O ferry, perhaps reclining in the club lounge with a good book and a pot of tea, spare a thought for all those pioneers who risked life and limb to make such salubrious sailing possible.

149 years before Norwave became the first P&O ferry to cross the channel in 1965, there had never been a steam crossing of the channel, or indeed any other major sea. The year was 1816, it was just after Napoleon had finally been defeated at Waterloo and Britain was tottering on the brink of economic meltdown.

The prolonged revolutionary wars and the sudden demobilization of the entire male population into unemployment lead to depression, riots and political agitation, all of which would eventually persuade Castlereagh, the PM of the day, that the time had come to exit stage left, which he did by the rather expeditious route of plunging a knife into his own throat whilst sat at his desk.

It was a dark period of the 19th century and a long way from the more relaxed and genteel Victorian era for which these times are commonly remembered. But against this background of chaos a great feat of bravery symbolised the start of the spirit of adventure that would come to epitomize the next 100 years; a combination of British engineering and French reckless insanity was fused together to realize the first ever steam crossing of the channel, which paved the way for every modern vessel in service today.

M. Pierre Andriel came to England in 1815 and purchased the steam ship Margery, determined as he was to prove that steam-ships were ocean worthy. Wary of making sure that it was regarded as a solely French undertaking he quickly changed the 70 ton, 21 meter vessel’s name to the Elise and, on 17th March 1816, set out from Newhaven in East Sussex and headed towards the French coast.

Things did not go well from the start. That night the Elise ran into tempestuous high seas and with enormous waves crashing down around their heads the crew threatened mutiny unless the insane captain turned back. But Andriel, being your classic adrenalin junkie adventurer, was having absolutely none of it. He drew his gun and aimed it on his crew threatening death to anyone who disobeyed his orders, whilst at the same time offering 3 bottles of rum to the first man to spot the French coast.

This classy combination of carrot and stick just about did the trick, and 17 hours later they steamed into Le Havre victorious. From here the vessel made its way up the river Seine all the way to Paris, firing off rounds from its two cannons in honour of the Louis XVIII as it entered the city to the sounds of cheering crowds and brass bands. The great era of the 19th century adventurer had begun.

So remember that next time you settle back on the deck of your P&O ferry, casually debating whether to visit the tax-free shop or just stay where you are and order another drink. All these things that we take for granted were won by crazed adventurers, risking life and limb in the name of personal glory and human advancement.

Find out more about P&O ferries to France

The ‘Big Week’ hits Spain


Esperanza gorria by arte sonado

The Spanish party season rolls onwards

For those of you wondering what an entire city looks like when it has had one too many, head out to Bilbao in mid-August for the legendary Semana Grande, or Aste Nagusia – if you want to go local.

More than 100,000 fiesta crazed Basques will fill the city streets and party all night to the sounds of live music and explosive fireworks, transforming this normally picturesque European city into an acutely wild scene from a health and safety officers worse nightmare.

Spread along the length of the Nervion River, with the Pagassari and Artxanda mountain ranges providing a constant alpine backdrop to wherever you happen to be standing in the city, Bilbao has never been the most famous part of Spain. Many people who take the ferry to Santander tend to drive straight past it and on towards more familiar surroundings.

But those who are aware of its existence have often given thanks to the holiday gods that the vast majority of Brits choose to fly straight over it and head to the scorched coastal regions of the south, leaving the delightful pleasures of this intoxicating city to the ones in the know.

Between 16th – 24th August you will struggle to find a better street party anywhere else in Europe, but be warned, this is only for those of you with enough stamina to keep jumping up and down all night, sustained solely on a diet of Rioja and Pinxtos, when you eventually return to reality you’ll be exhausted. Exhausted but exhilarated.

Find out more about P&O ferries to Spain

The Pride of Bilbao (not the boat)


Athletic v Barca by ben bore (rhys)

Spain’s wonderful summer

Like many people around the world I have to say that I have been impressed with Spain this summer. Rafael Nadal’s Wimbledon triumph over Federer was the kind of robust and meaty four-courses-followed-by-brandy-and-cigars-type encounter that was, by far, the most satisfying post Sunday lunch workout I’ve ever had (shouting at the TV during a sporting event counts in my world is ok)

Meanwhile the football team were simply irresistible at the Euro 2008 tournament in Austria, best team by miles in every department.

So Spain gets the old London bus treatment with two massive sporting achievements coming along at once, after having spent years waiting for one. At last they can be proud to rule the waves in some sports that don’t involve sticking spikes in cows whilst prancing about in shiny man-tights.

But in the midst of all this jubilation we should reserve a mention for Athletic Bilbao, the finest football club in Europe. For as the summer rumbles on and we hear the heart-rending stories of Christiano Ronaldo and his ilk, branded slaves by FIFA as they struggle to survive on a meagre £125,000 per week, this little club continues to recruit players only from the Basque region that it represents, and manages to survive in the cut-throat world of professional sport despite the obvious handicaps that such a principled sporting stance creates.

So if you do catch the Pride of Bilbao from Portsmouth to Bilbao this summer, make sure that you take a walk down to the real pride of Bilbao, Athletic’s stadium (the cathedral as it is known locally) and pay your respects to this plucky little football club, the last one in Europe to remember what a principal look like. Amen.

P&O and the ‘Mini Cruise’


Champagne stems by dps

Playing games on a Sunday afternoon

Incarcerated in the pub on a Sunday afternoon, with rain drops colliding against the windows, you can do much worse than initiating a spot of the ‘word-association’ game. It goes like this: I say ‘dog’ and then you say the first thing that comes into your head – ‘cat?’ – Yes- you’ve got it. Then the chain continues until someone says something odd, revealing, ludicrous, disquieting or disturbing. After, this everyone laughs, then shuffles a few inches away along the bench.

Now put the word-association game into practice with the word, ‘cruise’. ‘Hot?’, ‘Suez?’, ‘Mediterranean?’, ‘Fine food?’, ‘Soft music?’ Well, I have gone wrong here for starters. You can only use one word answers, so ‘fine food’ and ‘soft music’ are out immediately. But the point lingers, the word ‘cruise’ is a loaded one. As the psychologists amongst you will have already gathered, I link it with vivid images of slipping through Suez sipping away on a Martini, or anchored alongside a shimmering Italian port observing the driving from a safe distance.

But I’ve got it wrong. Of course all cruises are not like this, just as all Canadians don’t glug maple syrup for breakfast and all Frenchmen don’t cycle off to get a baguette in the morning. It appears that my worldview is a touch one-dimensional.

I discovered this after a little dallying on P&O Ferries’ site learning about their Mini Cruises. They are, and I quote, ‘Just the ticket if you fancy a well-earned break to recharge the batteries – or simply to restock the wine rack.’

In sum, they make quite good sense. Not everyone has the money or the time to conduct vast sweeps of the world’s oceans, stopping off for strolls in each port of note. But that doesn’t mean that people should be excluded from the thrills of a maritime expedition. This is where the P&O Mini Cruises swing, perfectly, into play.

The Straits of Dover are amongst the most evocative stretches of water about. Just think of being waved away by Vera Lynn’s chalky white cliffs, only to be met by the green pastures of the northern continent shortly after they have melted into the horizon. If we are falling into cliché, you can think of the sea air in your hair, the spray jumping out of the waves and all of that. Wonderful.

P&O offer Mini Cruises to suit wallets and timetables alike. From a list of UK ports you can ride the waves to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Bruges, Bilbao and Calais. The entertainment on board is finely evolved to match expectations and there is the opportunity to scoop an hour or two of duty-free shopping which lends itself perfectly to both saving money and stocking up on an inventory of presents.

So, let’s play the word association game again. ‘P&O Mini Cruises’ – ‘Quick?’, ‘Fun?’, ‘Affordable?’, ‘Europe and back in a day or two?’

To find out more about P&O’s list of Mini Cruises visit the P&O special offers page.

Historic Caen


Caen en Julliet by baston

Caen: constantly being bothered by the English

Caen the capital of Lower Normandy is the home of William the Conqueror, so for that reason alone it’s worth a visit just to pay your respects to the people who enslaved your ancestors surely?

But don’t be too harsh on the merry folk of the River Orne, for it was not they who stole ye land and ruined ye livestock; they too had to put up with the insufferable megalomaniac all those years ago ye know.

And did you know that in 1346 the English, under King Edward III, stormed the town of Caen on their way to the Battle of Crecy, killing 3,000 innocent citizens, which in the 14th century was a lot of citizens considering that the entire population of England was less than 3 million.

So when you go to Caen do not glare with bitter sorrow at the townsfolk, instead marvel at the fine Norman architecture, gaze in wonder at the treasures in the Normandy Fine Arts Museum, sup delicately the fine cheeses and ciders for which these gentle folk are so famed, and languish salubriously on the fine sandy beaches at Cabourg and Merville Franceville, whilst raising a toast of finest local Calvados to the Spanish Ship Salvador, sunk just off the coast on its way to invade England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, thus giving its name to this wonderful region.

Yes they have ransacked merry England all those years ago, but let bygones be bygones. Anyway the way those Norman Knights put it about there’s a very good chance that you’re related, so relax, mon ami, relax.

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