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Brunel’s Atmospheric Pumping House Totnes

16 Feb
16 Feb
25 feb
25 Feb

10 March 08: we won. English Heritage has now granted the building listed status, which means it can not be knocked down

Brunel icon saved from bulldozer
An iconic building designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel has been saved from the threat of demolition. The atmospheric pumping station at Totnes in Devon was built as part of Brunel’s work to expand the railways. A huge campaign was launched when land owners Dairy Crest said they planned to demolish part of it on safety grounds.
Now English Heritage has granted the building listed status, which means it cannot be knocked down. The council said “people power” had won through.
A Dairy Crest spokeswoman said they had not yet been officially notified of the building’s Grade Two listing. She said the firm had never made a decision to demolish the building but had a responsibility to make it safe. Dairy Crest say it would still knock down the chimney as it is unsafe She said Dairy Crest still intended to demolish an adjoining tower – built in 1935 – because it was unsafe and it would consider what else could be done when it had received the official listing notification.
Adam Wilkinson, Secretary of Save Britain’s Heritage, which helped lead the campaign, described the listing as “fantastic news.”
Richard Gage, Conservation Officer for South Hams District Council, said: “Enthusiasm and passion for our historic built environment can really influence the decision-making process The listing offers these important structures a level of protection which should ensure their long-term future. The town of Totnes and the South Hams as a whole will benefit from the retention of these important reminders of mid-19th Century pioneering and innovative technological development. The decision to list the buildings reflects what ‘people power’ can do and how enthusiasm and passion for our historic built environment can really influence the decision-making process.”

1 March 08: If you feel moved to support us in this, here are some email addresses to send your comments to:

Simon Thurley –
Simon Hoskins, properties officer at Dairy Crest
Dairy Crest’s Press Officer –
Stephen Munday Head of Planning and Building control, South Hams District Council- Current works are subject to Building Regulations and your enquiries are better directed to Steve Sheppard
Contact with offers of help.
1 March: Dairy Crest welcome proposals regarding development: We can confirm that we have been removing redundant plant and equipment in order to prepare the site for development. This includes certain amounts of brown and blue asbestos. Tiles from the roof of the main building have been taken off to facilitate safe and easy removal of plant as well as old pipes with asbestos lagging inside the building. Although most of the roof tiles are slate a certain number do contain asbestos and these also need to be removed.

Although an application has been made for authority to demolish the buildings on the site, this is in common with standard development practice. No decisions have been taken regarding the future of the site and no demolition of the Brunel building will be taking place until these decisions are made. However, inspection of the chimney structure has shown deterioration and movement and this may need to be demolished to make the structure safe. The chimney is not attached to the Brunel building.

25 Feb:  for the pictures taken a week later, showing how Dairy Crest have further damaged the building, despite being told not to by the South Hams District Council ‘enforcer’ Rick Crombie. When I visited the site on the 14th Feb I did not consider the works currently underway to remove asbestos tiles amounted to demolition…).
22 Feb: English Heritage reiterate that the building does not merit listing (last assessed October 07). Bob Hawkins, Heritage Protection Adiser, East Territory did not visit Totnes when asked to review the assessment. The contributions of a building to local history, the local street scene, the local economy and tourism are not relevant considerations.
Lastly, the Secretary of State notes the concern raised by several interested parties that English Heritage were accompanied only by a representative of the owner of the pumping station when conducting the site visit. This is standard practice; the purpose of English Heritage’s visits is to examine the fabric of the building, not to consider representations from any interested parties, including the owner. The Secretary of State considers that English Heritage act objectively in their role as his statutory advisers on the historic environment and notes that no interested parties have identified any significant factual errors or omissions in the assessment of the pumping station to suggest that English Heritage have been unfairly influenced in anyway.
16 feb 08:
One of Totnes’ most historic buildings is being made ready to be pulled apart in the next few days… and nothing, it seems, can be done about it. Heritage Champion, Town Councillor Pruw Boswell, was alerted late last night (13 Feb) that Brunel’s Atmospheric Pumping House by the station on the old Dairy Crest site was being demolished. Contractors were seen removing the slate roof on both sides. TLC has sought to get to the bottom of this. Totnes Museum Administrator, Alan Langmaid, said that developers had to give 28 days’ notice of a demolition, and that has not been done, so they are acting outside the normal procedures. When asked, the site staff said that they were ‘repairing the roof’ but it is common practice for developers to make holes in the roofs of buildings so that the rain gets in and the building becomes unsafe and this makes the argument to demolish much easier. There is no way they are repairing the roof, as there is no scaffolding up. Neither the Museum nor Cllr Boswell appear able to do anything to stop this scandal.

Brunel attempted to introduce a revolutionary new system to South Devon called the Atmospheric Railway in 1847. Instead of trains being pulled by locomotives, they were pushed by air pressure. Stationary engines, housed in sheds called Pumping Stations, were placed every 5 kilometres along the track. Air was pumped along a pipe laid between the railway tracks which moved the train forward when linked to the leading carriage. Trials took place between Exeter and Teignmouth, but the new system proved unreliable. The project had to be abandoned when rats chewed through leather valves along the line allowing air to escape. Brunel built pumping stations at several places including Exeter, Starcross, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Newton Abbot, Torquay and Totnes. The system was in many ways ahead of its time and was a mechanical method of how electricity is now carried by overhead cables on tramways or electrified railroads. The Pumping Stations of the Atmospheric Railway can be compared to modern day Power Stations.

There are few buildings of the Victorian Period in Totnes, and this Pumping Station is of regional importance – so why did English Heritage not list the building, leaving us powerless to stop this disgraceful vandalism. The building is part of a unique experiment – it an asset and the way the contractors are trying to speed its demise is scandalous. Please join in the protest by phoning SHDC Planning Dept. and telling them to take action now before we lose a landmark building in the town.