diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The East London line: Wapping

I could write reams about Wapping (and probably will one day, so I won't go overboard now). As far back as Tudor times this was the heart of maritime London, home not just to sailors but to boatbuilders, ropemakers and a considerable abundance of innkeepers. Over the centuries Wapping attracted considerable amounts of lowlife, with prostitutes something of a local speciality, and convicted pirates were hung from an infamous riverside gibbet. These days you're more likely to see an estate agent on the prowl, but they go about their business unpunished. Most of the old warehouses on the waterfront have been snapped up by the upwardly mobile [photo], although you only have to walk a block or so inland to find rows of rather more down-at heel council apartments. The river remains Wapping's best feature [photo], and if you look carefully you can still discover alleyways which lead through to seaweedy steps down to scrappy beaches on the Thames foreshore. And right where the gibbet used to be, on Execution Dock, now stands a station...

Of all the stations on the East London line, this one's my favourite. Not that you'd guess from outside. The squat station building [photo] looks nothing like Wapping's surrounding warehouses. Brunel's original tunnel shaft has been painted a dull creamy colour and resembles a municipal water tank. The tiny replacement ticket hall tacked onto the front of the building looks more like a misplaced corner shop. But things change once you're through the ticket barriers with a choice of two routes down to the platforms. Just for once don't take the lift, it's dead ordinary by underground standards. But the stairs are something else, twisting fifty feet down inside the cavernous vault of the old tunnel shaft [photo]. The elevator and its machinery takes up much of this dark space, but the original pre-Victorian brickwork still dominates. If you don't stop to admire the view you might reach the bottom before the lift (although it's 84 steps back up so the reverse might not be true).

Two short flights of narrow steps lead down to platform level. For the best views head for the northbound platform, because this faces directly back down the Thames Tunnel [photo]. The railway tracks in the right-hand tunnel are clearly visible dipping low beneath the river, shining in the gloom like two parallel silver threads. Daylight floods in through a narrow opening at the opposite end of the platform, while above your head a curved brick arch stands heavy over the station. Both platforms are particularly narrow, far thinner than would be permitted under current health and safety legislation. Indeed initial proposals for the extension of the East London line called for both this station and Rotherhithe to be permanently shut down (too small for planned volumes of traffic) but thankfully Ken stepped in and scuppered that.

While you're waiting, take a look at the enamelled murals commissioned during the station's last major refit in 1995. Nick Hardcastle's charming illustrations look like meticulous Victorian engravings, with subjects ranging from the construction of the Thames Tunnel to contemporary life inside local pubs. Staring at the walls you can almost imagine standing here in 1869 when the first steam train puffed through, filling the tunnels with acrid billowing steam [photo]. But by now there should be the headlights of a modern electric train visible in the tunnel, ready to whisk you onwards, back into the 21st century. Enjoy your last few moments beneath the Wapping shaft, because there isn't another station quite like it.

Opened: 1869
Annual passenger throughflow: 1.1 million
Note for visitors: If you want to see the historic tunnels properly floodlit, staff at the the Brunel Engine House organise the occasional 'guided journey' for a fiver (including the last two weekends of this month) [photo]

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