diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Wapping treat

You've quite possibly passed through the world's very first under-river tunnel. You've definitely been through it if you've ever ridden an East London Line train between Wapping and Rotherhithe. You've not ridden through it recently, however, because the ELL is currently cocooned awaiting rebirth (next month?) as part of the revamped London Overground. And you almost certainly won't have walked through it, not unless you're an engineer or TfL employee. But pre-railway this foot tunnel was once so popular an attraction that over half the population of London had promenaded through it. Opened in 1852 and immediately lauded as the eighth wonder of the world, folk found a lamplit stroll beneath the Thames irresistible.

Now, suddenly, there's an incredibly rare opportunity to follow in the footsteps of your Victorian ancestors. The Thames Tunnel will be open to walkers for one weekend only - next weekend - and you'll be able to stroll along the railway tracks from Rotherhithe to Wapping and back again. The event is a late addition to the East Festival - so late in fact that it's not in the programme and takes place well after the rest of the festival has finished. For two days only (that's Friday 12th and Saturday 13th March) there'll be guided tours beneath the river, plus a special "Fancy Fair" at the Brunel Museum in the evenings. You might even be able to book a ticket.

Or you might not. I've despaired at several online booking systems before, but blimey this one's rubbish. For a start, the webpage you need to use for bookings is incredibly well hidden. The event is taking place at the Brunel Museum, so you might expect some information there. But no, their website is currently a one-screen holding page, seemingly designed by an organisation intent on commercial suicide. The place to go is actually the London Transport Museum website... although there's absolutely no mention of this event on their homepage, nor the What's On page, nor the Events calendar, nor indeed anywhere that any inquisitive visitor might ever think to look. Try the secret page instead, however, and there it is.

Even then, there's almost no detail whatsoever about the event you're being invited to attend. The event description consists almost entirely of a safety announcement (no kids, and wear decent shoes or we'll turn you away) and nothing more. Click on the "More information" button and your browser might display more information or it might not. One of the options is for a "Fancy Fair", not that there's any indication on the website of what a "Fancy Fair" actually comprises. For added ambiguity, another event on the same page mentions a "Brunel Fair" instead, which I assume is the same thing. The fair costs a fiver, the tunnel tour costs a fiver, and a combined ticket saves you £2.50... although there's no indication of this pricing anywhere until it's too late. So far so unimpressive.

Although timed tickets are available from 11am through to nearly 10pm on each day, there's no clue on the website as to which slots are already fully booked. Instead you have to try booking via trial and error, using a non-intuitive selection method ... and only after the final stage might you discover that all the tickets have gone. Hit 'back' and try again, you might eventually be lucky. But don't try booking using Firefox or Opera or any non-Microsoft browser, because the system isn't designed for them. If you're not using Internet Explorer the website breaks, the buttons don't work and you'll never be able to book anything.

Locating tickets is one thing, but paying for them is another. TfL insist that you register with their museum before you can proceed, which adds yet another layer of complexity. I'd already done that, having attended a previous event, and I'd been careful to write down my username and password. Unfortunately my password was deemed invalid because, apparently, customer registration passwords need to be changed at regular intervals for security reasons. Yeah right. I requested a password reminder, and an email winged its way (slowly) to my inbox. The special reset link included an 110-character string of alphanumeric gobbledegook, plus the demand that "You must enter the key exactly as it is shown"), which felt incredibly excessive. And then there there was only the trial of Verified by Visa to go, before a ticket was (eventually) mine. Phew.

My ticket is now printed out and ready to use. Brilliantly it tells me the date of my visit but not the all-important time. That crucial detail is in an email, thankfully, otherwise I almost certainly wouldn't be able to remember which was the lucky timeslot in which I finally found a space. I have to say, as atrocious online purchasing experiences go, this amateurish effort surely scores top marks. But who cares when the prize is a ticket to walk through history? Geeks of London, grab your credit cards and cameras, and see you down Brunel's shaft.

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