Saturday, July 13, 2013

pneumatic tube factory tour part one: atmospheric beginnings

On the 13th June 2013 I was lucky enough to spend a whole day touring the Hörtig pneumatic tube factory in Bayreuth, Germany. I couldn't think of a better way to spend my holidays. I was like Charlie amongst the chocolate, eyes wide, glass elevators of plastic tubing all around me. This is how I got my golden ticket for the factory tour:

The first connection was made in a Thai restaurant in Exeter. The connection was between me, pneumatic tube enthusiast, and Christine, philosopher, sociologist and member of the Hörtig pneumatic tube family. While leaning over to dip my spring roll in sweet chilli sauce during a work dinner, I overheard my colleague Christine tell her neighbour about her family's business making and installing pneumatic tube systems. I almost dropped the spring roll. Many conversations ensued, and the seeds were planted for a factory visit ...

Exeter seems a perfect place for this story to begin, for it is the site of Brunel's pneumatic, or atmospheric railway. Inspired by Irish atmospheric railways, Brunel built a section of atmospheric rail between Exeter and Newton (Abbot) which lasted almost a year, from 1847 to 1848. Imagine buying one of the three shilling one dime tickets to board such a train!

Luckily there seem to have been windows, for this is one of the most beautiful sections of British rail, running along the coast between Starcross and Teignmouth. I travelled almost every day along this train line with my husband last year, as we commuted between Totnes and Exeter. Some days the sea would be roaring against the train windows, other days it was calm. It always changed colour. The water certainly caused havoc for maintaining seals in the vacuum in the atmospheric railway with the leather flaps eroded by salt.

The pneumatic train line is now long gone, although you can see sections of the track in Didcot Pathway, or visit the Atmospheric Railway Pub in Starcross. Or you can just take the magnificent, atmospheric, journey between Exeter and Totnes, and imagine the railway as it was, for yourself.

Image of a section of the South Devon atmospheric railway from Wikipedia, and image of Teignmouth sea wall from Barry Lewis' Flikr photostream.

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