I never had much interest in London’s subterranean bits until my Dad took me on a tour of Victoria station’s hidden depths. This was the late 80s, and he was then a contractor working for London Underground to improve station facilities. Together, with a big bunch of keys, we went to those parts of the station that commuters never see. Mysterious doors on platforms were opened to reveal networks of corridors filled with machinery or left damp and abandoned. In one room there was a massive well, dank, dark and dripping. Another had walls covered in thrillingly pornographic graffiti. And every now and then our adventure would end at a closed door, for which nobody had the key and everybody assumed was part of the government’s clandestine tunnels. Secrets within secrets! I was hooked.
Since then I have been under the skirts of the city a number of times. In the crypt of a convent at Marble Arch; in the vaults of the Bank of England; underneath Tower Bridge; in the deep-level Tube shelter at Chancery Lane, built for Blitz protection but later requisitioned by spooks; under Waterloo Station for immersive theatre that reminded me of ‘Doom’; in the Fleet sewer; in Henry VIII’s wine cellar under the Ministry of Defence; and in the old Holborn tramway tunnel under Kingsway. I’m like a ferret, if there’s a hole, I’m in it.*
This morning’s escapade took me – and every other underground/transport nerd in London – to Rotherhithe station for a very rare chance to see inside the first tunnel built under the Thames, indeed, the first underwater tunnel built anywhere in the world.
The Thames Tunnel was started in 1807, abandoned and then taken up again by Marc Brunel in 1823, who had invented a new form of tunnelling machine modelled on a woodworm. Brunel, accompanied by his son Isambard Kingdom, abandoned work again in 1828 after loss of life due to pollution and occasional inundations, but picked it up 1835, completing the tunnel in 1843. Marc died in 1849. Read a proper history here or here.
It remained a foot tunnel until the 1860s, when it was converted into a railway tunnel for the East London line, linking Rotherhithe and Wapping. This weekend, the tunnel reopened as a foot tunnel for what we were assured will be the very last time in its history, which is just the sort of hyperbole I like to hear on a Friday morning.
The tunnel is now pretty much indistinguishable from any other underground line. The only sense you get that you are heading under the river is that it is rather damp and chilly. Although most of the tunnel’s original brickwork has been concreted over, there are some areas where you can still the original bricks, beautiful but damaged.
Arches bisect the tunnel throughout its length. These were originally used as small shops, as the tunnel became the world’s first underwater shopping arcade. These spaces are tiny, and would have been cramped, dark, cold and damps places to work from. I imagine they are rather like those booth-cum-shops you get along Brixton’s Atlantic Road, where people flog phonecards and reggae from the stairwells of blocks of flats.
Here, though, you can get a sense of the detailing that distinguishes so much Victorian architecture.
And that was it, an entertaining diversion into the depths of history, made all the better for the fact that I happened to bump into fellow blogger Darryl of 853 for the first time and so got the chance to have a good natter about politics and football while walking through a landmark Victorian tunnel several metres beneath the Thames. (Darryl’s post is now up and Annie Mole is rounding up some of the London bloggers who have written about the tour.)
A coda: upon leaving Rotherhithe station, Darryl and I were accosted by a young man from the Southwark News, eager for eyewitness reports of this momentous occasion and then slightly disconcerted that he had somehow managed to approach a pair of freelance journalists masquerading as innocent bystanders. I suggested he choose an alternative career for me; crisp shop proprietor, perhaps?