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 advancepublicity and the ruddy useless ticketing system.
I 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 Rotherhitheshaft, 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 Rotherhithestation, 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 thestart of a unique underwater walk.
Each 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?
The 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.