diamond geezer

 Friday, October 26, 2012

One hundred years ago today (oh how I love blogposts that begin like that) the Woolwich Foot Tunnel was opened. It linked Woolwich to North Woolwich, which at that time were both in Kent despite being on opposite sides of the Thames. Hundreds of dockers needed to commute from one side to the other, and they couldn't always rely on the Woolwich Ferry (born 1889) to get them there. The tunnel had been designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, who also engineered Vauxhall Bridge and the Aswan Dam. The Woolwich Foot Tunnel was his pre-retirement project, a glazed tube opened by the Chairman of the London County Council on Saturday 26 October 1912. Centenary visit anyone?

As 100 year old foot tunnels go, it's not in the best of conditions. Greenwich Council have thrown millions at the old girl over the last couple of years, but the contractors missed their deadline and the revamp was terminated partway. What a mess. You'd be hard pressed to spot where any of their money's been spent if you turned up today. Indeed you'd be hard pressed to spot the tunnel at all, so appallingly is it signposted on either bank of the Thames. On the Woolwich side the entrance is hidden round the back of the Waterfront Leisure Centre, tucked in beside the goods entrance and the Riverside Suite. Even then the rotunda at the top of the shaft is wreathed in scaffolding and screened by a blue wall, with the only indication of what's below being a sheet of A4 paper tucked into a plastic pocket. "Tunnel Entrance", it reads, with a red arrow scrawled below in marker pen pointing round the corner to an unlabelled recess. It looks like you're about to walk down into a backyard where tramps piss, but look more carefully and the doors into the underworld are open.

I turned up at the Woolwich end of the Foot Tunnel earlier this week, just before dusk. I can't say the view ahead was inviting. I love a decent bit of urban decay, but even I stepped inside with a certain degree of trepidation. The air was gloomy and the walls thick with grime, as if nobody's given the place a scrubdown in years. Discarded litter lay scattered across the steps - a spicy tuna wrap here, several ketchup-dipped chips there, one empty McFlurry. I followed the staircase down as it wound around the sealed-off liftshaft, for 100 steps or so to under-river level. Woolwich never got the great glass elevators that were installed at Greenwich. Instead the beloved wood panelled lifts were rendered inoperable, seemingly permanently, until someone with money and motivation gets their act together. If you're in a wheelchair, forget it. This former step-free crossing is now the preserve of pedestrians and bike-carrying cyclists only.

As I reached the bottom and looked ahead beneath the Thames, I was surprised. Normally there's somebody else down here, usually more, approaching in the distance or wandering slowly away. Not this time. This time I appeared to be completely alone in the tunnel, which is an unusual feeling fifty feet down, and not the sort of thing which happens in Woolwich's sister tunnel at Greenwich. This was seriously creepy, a pre-Hallowe'en taster, and I was nervous lest some ne'erdowell might interrupt my subterranean crossing. In truth I knew there was nobody there, because approaching humans are very obvious down a straight tunnel where every footstep echoes. But the contour of the footway slopes, sufficiently so that there could have been unmentionable horrors lurking silently beyond the halfway point. From the middle of the tunnel it's a good five minutes back to the surface in either direction, which is plenty of time to be left bleeding in a severed pool on the floor. There may be Help Points installed on the wall at either end but don't think they'll save you - each is taped up and inoperable. This tunnel is for use at your own risk, with no emergency exit.

Banishing any painted devils, I started to thoroughly enjoy my crossing. An entire 500 yard foot tunnel all to myself, that's no everyday experience. I strode ahead beneath umpteen narrow metal pipes and ceiling-mounted boxes, and fresh lamps that have only recently brightened the way. London's great river was above me, perhaps only ten feet away, as I followed in the footsteps of Woolwich's pre-war dockland workforce. And then I saw him - one dark figure walking towards me from the southern side. Damn, this now meant the genuine possibility of thuggery. I carried on walking, not in any way disturbed, probably, no really it's fine, until closer visual scrutiny proved he was no more scary than I to him. Now I was merely bitter that an intruder had wrecked my opportunity to cross the Thames solo. Ah well, it was good to see this cross-river link actually being used, even if passenger numbers were well below even Dangleway levels.

The tunnel flattens out in the middle, then curves back up towards the Newham shaft. It would make a great place for skateboarding, or very fast cycling... which is why Greenwich council have installed several metal chicanes to prevent excessive acceleration. They look a bit ugly, especially if you're going for a longshot longitudinal photo... but then Greenwich Council have also banned the taking of all photographs in the tunnel as well. Flash photography might set off visitors' epilepsy, that's the excuse, and let's have no busking, animal fouling, skating or spitting while we're at it. And no loitering, so bang goes any opportunity of holding a special 100th birthday party down here today. The council want you through and gone with a minimum of fuss, and quite frankly I'm not sure you'd want to linger.

At last I reached the final staircase, and a second dead lift, at which point rush hour suddenly arrived. Five Woolwich-bound commuters appeared in sequence down the stairs, one of them a solo female, two more with bikes. It gets busier here whenever a bus arrives at the terminus up top and passengers don't want to wait to board the Woolwich Ferry. Down they pour, again far fewer than in the tunnel's heyday, keeping the link alive. But it's a wonder any new visitors ever find their way in. The rotunda is scaffolded and boarded off, as on the southern bank. The only entrance is hidden from view, unless you're directly in front of it. There's no pavement access, not unless you're thin and can walk along steps, which means walking instead into the ferry-bound traffic. Nobody seems to be proud of this tunnel, nobody's offering a welcome. Indeed there's not a single notice nor signpost announcing what this riverside portal is or where it might lead. And that's sad.

As centenaries of great London institutions go, this one seems to have been summarily ignored. Instead there's distant talk of a road tunnel at Silvertown and/or a new ferry at Gallions Reach. But Woolwich remains the prime crossing hereabouts for those on foot, indeed the very last crossing for pedestrians before the North Sea. Nobody would build it today, it's not swish enough. But its resilience has seen it through the last century, and one suspects it'll still be here long after the last cablecar has flown. Happy 100th, Woolwich Foot Tunnel, and here's to many decades more.

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