Tag Archives: Rotherhithe

Footballers: the new aristocracy

A few years ago, on a train coming back from Wales, I fell into conversation with the chap sitting next to me. He was a former professional footballer who now worked in the strange world of ‘player services’, which meant he was employed by a large London club to hold the hands of footballers. He helped them find a house, pay their utility bills, run the car, deal with cleaners and nannies, liaise with solicitors, represent them in court after unfortunate incidents with air rifles – basically all these annoying bits of life that most of us have to deal with but would probably rather we didn’t.

He told me a story about an African player who moved from London to a smaller club outside the capital. They who did not employ anybody in ‘player services’ but the footballer managed to get himself a new house easily enough. However, some months later he was astonished to discover his electricity and gas had been cut off.

It turned out that he hadn’t paid any of his bills. He thought that once you forked out for a house that was it, everything else – the lighting, heating, phone line etc – was taken care of. He’d stuck all his utilities bills unopened in a drawer and forgotten about them.

I recalled this splendid story recently when reading about the adventures of Jessica Mitford. Jessica was the Communist Mitford, an aristocrat who moved to Rotherhithe in the 1930s so she could live among the proles. Mitford seemed happy, even if she noted that ‘the locals were a shorter and paler race of people than the inhabitants of the West End. In appearance, dress and speech they form so radical a contrast as to give the impression of a different ethnic group.’

Mitford looked forward to a life of May Day parades and pie and mash among ‘the rough children of Rotherhithe’, but sadly it didn’t work out that way. Her daughter died of pneumonia, and the disconsolate parents fled to Corsica for three months.

When they returned, the problems continued to mount. Mitford and her equally posh husband, Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, had never been told they needed to pay for utilities, and so ‘lights, electric heaters and stoves blazed away day and night’ in their house overlooking the river.

A gargantuan gas bill built up. Soon the gasman began to pay regular visits to try to get it settled, so Romilly took to wearing a false moustache as a disguise. Eventually, though, it all got too tiresome for words, and the couple fled back across the river to the sanctity of Marble Arch, where people were so much more understanding about the foibles of landed gentry.

Under the Thames in the Brunel Tunnel, or how I became a moleman

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?

 *I would just like to point out that while I didn’t use the joke here about certain Premier League footballers, that doesn’t mean I didn’t think of it.