Brunel the Gardener, Famous Engineer, Farmer’s Son 

Brunel’s Grand Entrance Hall stands in landscaped gardens, stocked with shrubs and trees chosen by Brunel for his chateau in Devon. Because Brunel was a farmer’s son, the poppies are growing amongst runner beans, strawberries, cornflower and asparagus. The wisteria mingles with grape vines in a potager garden. Just a few hundred yards away, the launch ramps of Brunel’s last ship, the SS Great Eastern. Whilst building his great ship, Brunel was also planting trees in Devon. He spent as much time there as he could, and dated drawings in his sketch book show his mind was on trees in Watcombe in the midst of his problems in London. Our greatest engineer was a gardener…

Brunel was introduced to the landscapes and seascapes of Devon and Cornwall by his English grandparents. As a young man, he fell in love with them, and many years later, formed plans to retire there:

After a good deal of hesitation he fixed upon a spot at Watcombe, about three miles from Torquay… He made his first purchase of land in autumn of 1847; from that time to within a year of his death the improvement of this property was his chief delight.*

Brunel gradually extended his holding until he owned 136 acres on which he planned an extensive arboretum with cobbled-edged drives weaving through the grounds. This was to be his earthly paradise. He would build a great house and retire; here he would ‘draw in his horns and make room for others’. Sadly, his early death aged fifty-three years meant he would not live to enjoy his gardens or complete his Devon chateau.

The gardens Brunel laid out include terraces, carriageways, an Italian garden, a bridge, cascade and pond. Brunel planned it all with a typically meticulous series of drawings and designs. These cover everything from plans for hydraulic engineering contraptions to drawings showing the size of the branches on the monkey puzzle trees he planted.

In laying out the gardens Brunel was helped by WA Nesfield, the greatest tree expert in Britain, advisor to the London parks and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. His head gardener was Alexander Forsyth, a wonderful eccentric, whose chief triumphs were the arboretum at Alton Towers and a recipe for Holly tea. Brunel sketched plans for gardens, and drew meticulously detailed designs for gardening tools, schematics for views and plans for fountains and gas engines for pumping water. There are also plans for seven wells and various water tanks, and even a Brunel recipe for manure!

Assisted by Mr Nesfield, he laid out the property in plantations of choice trees. The occupation of arranging them gave him unfailing pleasure. There can be little doubt that the happiest hours of his life were spent in walking about the gardens with his wife and children, and discussing the condition and prospects of his favourite trees.*

*From the Biography: “The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer” by Isambard Brunel.