Today the London Underground, the world’s first subterranean rail network, celebrates its 150th birthday. The once unthinkable concept of ‘trains in drains’ is now a celebrated engineering marvel and one of the capital’s most recognizable icons, stretching more than 250 miles and carrying over one billion passengers every year. But it’s not just the capital which lays claim to enviable engineering feats – up and down the country there’s a whole host of engineering achievements to marvel at. From the British Engineerium, which opens for sneak previews in Brighton this weekend, to the fastest car in the world on display in Coventry, VisitEngland takes a look at some of the best.
The world’s oldest underground network, London
Dating back to 1863, the London Underground is the world’s oldest underground network. On its first day of operation, the Metropolitan line carried a total of 40,000 passengers from Paddington to Farringdon in the newly constructed tunnel via Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road (now Great Portland Street), Gower Street (now Euston Square) and King’s Cross. The train took 18 minutes to make the 3¾-mile journey. By 1880 the line was carrying 40 million passengers a year. A range of events and activities is planned to mark the anniversary, including a special exhibition at the London Transport Museum, commemorative stamps, and coins, and a series of steam train runs.
The British Engineerium, Brighton
Steeped in history, the Grade II listed British Engineerium asserts itself as an impressive landmark in Brighton and Hove. The collection of Victorian bricked buildings and imposing chimney demands historical and architectural recognition. But inside this polychrome exterior is where the real action is: the restored Corliss steam engine and 1890s steam-powered fire engine stand proudly amongst an array of gleaming exhibits and nineteenth-century engines. Such grand equipment boasts of engineering mastery and the adjoining workshop indicates the Museum’s emphasis on craftsmanship and invention, breathing life back into British industry. The Engineerium is being renovated and is due to reopen later this year, however, a series of Open Days run throughout the year, starting on 6 January.
The steepest funicular railways in England, Hastings
The East and West hill funiculars are superb examples of Victorian engineering, built to attract tourists and transport people to the glorious hills of Hastings. The West cliff railway, close to the ruins of Hastings Castle, was opened in 1891 and built by the Hastings Lift Company. A 363 feet brick-lined tunnel was driven through a natural cave at an inclination of 1:3. The 500 ft. journey to the top, taking in panoramic rooftop views of the Old Town squeezed between two hills, takes a few minutes and the original carriages are still in use today. The East hill funicular is the steepest of its kind in England. The water balance lift, at a gradient of 78 percent, opened in 1902 – Coronation Day. Today it’s an electric operation and the carriages, new in 2010, are replica versions of the handsome mahogany-framed cars with oak strip flooring and arched roofs. A return ticket costs £2.50.
The fastest car in the world, Coventry
Thrust SCC is the current Land Speed Record-holiday car and is on permanent display at the Coventry Transport Museum. The car was designed and built by an English team headed by the charismatic Richard Noble OBE and was driven through the sound barrier by RAF Wing Commander Andy Green in 1997. Visitors to the museum have the opportunity to experience the land speed record-breaking run for themselves, in the ThrustSSC simulator. This incredible feat of English engineering is still appreciated today: the same team is now in advanced stages of building a new car, ‘Bloodhound SSC’, which it is hoped will break the 1,000mph barrier.
The oldest surviving turning shed in the world, Derby
The crumbling remains of Derby Roundhouse, the oldest surviving turning shed in the world, have been restored into a truly unique learning center. The world’s first railway roundhouse, built by Robert Stephenson in 1839 for the North Midland Railway, contained 16 lines of rails, radiating from a single turn-table in the center. The turntable was a genius invention because it allowed a locomotive to be turned around for the return journey. The Derby Roundhouse was endorsed by the Guinness World Records in 2012 and you can track down Derby’s rich railway heritage on a Roundhouse tour, taking in true-life stories of the men, women, and children who pioneered Derby’s railway industry. Tours cost £6 per person.
The largest bell foundry in the world, Leicestershire
John Taylor Bell Founders has been casting bells in Leicestershire since the 13th century. In 1881 John Taylors cast the largest bell in Britain, ‘Great Paul’, for St Paul’s Cathedral in London. John Taylors are now the largest bell foundry in the world and have a museum which tells a remarkable story of one of the oldest manufacturing industries in the world. Don’t miss the room full of bells from different ages and different founders – this display has a wooden mallet so you can sound the bells and see for yourself which sounds best. Ding dong!
The oldest windmill in Britain, Buckinghamshire
Dating back to 1627, Pitstone Windmill is believed to be the oldest windmill in the country. Pitstone ground flour for the village for almost three hundred years until a freak storm in the early 1900s left it badly damaged. It was later donated to the National Trust and restored. As you walk around, wonder at the way the mill and its machinery balance on the head of a massive wooden post, discover the tail pole the miller had to wrestle with to turn the huge structure to face the wind and explore the surrounding Chiltern Hills with stunning views from nearby Ivinghoe Beacon. Entry costs £2 for adults and £1 for children.
The world’s first passenger train, Manchester
Attend steam school and learn how to ride and operate the world’s first passenger train at the Museum of Science and Industry. MOSI is housed in the original buildings of Manchester’s Liverpool Road station, which was part of the world’s first passenger railway – the Liverpool & Manchester Railway – built in 1830. Once used to transport goods between the port of Liverpool and the industrial powerhouse of Manchester, this huge engineering feat revolutionized travel and is now the oldest surviving passenger railway station in the world. Visitors to the museum should also check out the Revolution Manchester Gallery for more engineering feats, transport revolutions, and the computer age. MOSI is free to enter. The 4.5-hour Steam School experience is run monthly and costs £250.
The longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain, Huddersfield
The Standedge Tunnel, England’s longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel, passes under the Pennines between Diggle and Marsden. Built over 200 years ago, the tunnel is nearly three and a half miles long and took 16 years to build. The final section was overseen by renowned engineer Thomas Telford in 1811. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways and visitors can explore deep into the tunnel on a family-friendly guided boat trip, stop for a bite to eat in the local cafe and let kids explore the wildlife garden. Entry to the tunnel is free. 30-minute boat trips cost £4.50 per adult and £3.50 per child.