diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 13, 2010

Thames Tunnel Tour and Fancy Fair

I thought I'd arrive 20 minutes early. It seemed sensible, given that I'd been given a time and no specific instructions other than to print out a piece of paper with a barcode on it and turn up. To the Brunel Museum, which would be fairly straight-forward to reach if only the East London line were running, which of course it wasn't. There'll be no timetabled trains here for several more weeks, and the entire ELL engineering works have had to be suspended for two days to allow these underground visits to take place. All a bit last-minute, all a bit rare, so I guess we'll have to forgive the complete lack of advance publicity and the ruddy useless ticketing system.

Fancy Fair at Brunel MuseumI arrived 20 minutes early, to the Brunel Museum like it said on my ticket. The area around the pumphouse was illuminated, hinting at delights on the terrace behind the fence. Ah, this must be the legendary Fancy Fair, a recreation of subterranean Victorian delights and an opportunity to head down inside the Rotherhithe shaft, how excellent. A bloke in a bowler hat stood near the entrance turning the handle on a barrel organ and playing Beatles tunes, thereby almost adding a bit of period flavour. Stepping through a fake cardboard arch, I showed my ticket to a member of staff. "Have you done the tour yet?" he said. "You'd better do that first. The queue's back at the station."

Back at Rotherhithe station, I joined the queue and waited. A hastily scribbled sign in the window read "sold out", although one jolly man who turned up hoping for tickets didn't spot it and was sorely disappointed. After fifteen minutes we were ushered through into the station ticket hall (now retiled, and reminding me very much of Watford swimming baths circa 1975). I waved my web-ticket again, and had to explain it was for "now" given that nobody had thought fit to print a time on it. By the time all of our group had entered there were, apparently, ten more people present than were actually printed on the official list. Never mind.

There were white latex gloves for all. We looked like the Rotherhithe branch of the Michael Jackson Fan Club, but were really protecting our hands from toxic rat's pee - more specifically Weil's Disease. A health and safety talk followed, warning us about trip hazards underfoot and watching our step, and delivered with a smile which made it all so much easier to take in. And then down the escalators and steps to the platform, and down a mini temporary staircase onto the track. Stand here in two months time and you'll probably be either shouted at or killed (or both). For two days only, this was the start of a unique underwater walk.

Thames Tunnel guided tourEach group was led by a knowledgeable guide whose job was to relate historical facts and anecdotes at various points through the tunnel, and to speed everyone up so they didn't spend too long hanging back taking photos. It was very tempting to take photos of everything - an arch, some cables, another arch, the tops of people's heads - but a far better use of time was actually looking at the amazing structures all around. Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father Marc were the first blokes to dig beneath a navigable river using a tunnelling shield, and it's credit to their engineering genius that their handiwork still stands (and remains functional) into the 21st century.

Only at the Rotherhithe end was the original brickwork still visible. The main section of twin-bore tunnel, the quarter mile that's actually beneath the Thames, was encased in concrete to prevent leaks just over a decade ago. Fret not, it's English Heritage approved concrete, sprayed sympathetically so as to retain the structure of key architectural features. Thus it's still possible to imagine these passages in their original form - as a pair of foot tunnels through which one million Londoners promenaded during the first year after opening. When the crowds moved on, and their money faded away, a cross-river railway then proved the saviour of the project.

It was slightly surreal, and yet rather wonderful, to be yomping six metres beneath the Thames following switched-off train tracks. In the connecting arches between the tunnels, from which hawkers and tradesmen had once sold souvenir trinkets, now were automatic signals, switch boxes and emergency radio beacons. Along each track the central 'return rail' had been removed, replaced along one edge by a different electric rail required by Overground trains. And scattered all along were bits of essential railway gubbins - lamps and signs and bolted-down cables, all of which reminded us that we *really* shouldn't be walking here. Fabulous, eh?

twin bore tunnels at WappingThe tracks curved gently down, and then back up, until we emerged at Wapping station on the northern side of the river. Here our tour guide had further anecdotes and trivia to relate (Queen Victoria's handkerchief, really?) and we had an ideal view staring down both tunnels from raised scaffolding wedged across the tracks. It was difficult to get a photo without people (indeed, it was difficult to get a shot that wasn't blurred and fuzzy to the point of ambiguity), but everybody with a camera gave it a go. And then we got to walk all the way back again, a bit more blasé this time, but with rather more couples stopping off for a commemorative photo of their loved one in front of a unique concrete-blasted arch.

At Rotherhithe, after well over half an hour down under, it was time to exit the tunnels (look back, long wistful stare, smile). Next time any of are here it'll be on a train, speeding beneath the Thames in one minute flat on our way to Dalston or Croydon or somewhere. As the arches rush by, and the faintest glimpse of red signal whisks past the window, we Thames Tunnellers will be the smug ones who remember what it's like to walk the route instead. No more than two thousand of us, all told, the first paying pedestrians to pass this way in 145 years. If you've not already got a ticket for today, you'll not be joining us.

Huge thanks to whoever it was pulled strings to get the Thames Tunnel (briefly) open. Huge thanks too to the TfL and GLA staff who guided, marshalled and shepherded us around this unique underground adventure trail. But absolutely no thanks whatsoever to whoever cobbled together the ticketing website and its woeful lack of important information. By the time I exited from the tunnels the Fancy Fair (and its shaft-visiting opportunity) had packed up and gone home. There wasn't even anybody left to wave my ticket at and harangue, let alone to ask for a refund for the half of the event I never got to see. Ah well, at least the half I did see was priceless.

2-page report (& great photos) from Urban 75
three of my unblurriest photographs
photos from MykReeve, Darryl, Matthew, IanVisits, McTumshie, londonstuff, zefrog, Ryan, the BBC
reports from Peter, Darryl, IanVisits, Caroline and London Reconnections
video tour for those of you who never made it


<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>


click to return to the main page


...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream