diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hurrah, I've got another article in Time Out this week. And my last article is now old enough to be shared online, so here it is. Just so that those of you living outside London don't feel like you're missing out.

London Journeys: the Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Woolwich and North Woolwich have long been inextricably linked, despite being on opposite sides of the Thames. And not just in name. Medieval men of Kent inaugurated the first ferry service in the 14th century, upgraded to the famous free Woolwich Ferry in 1889 [photo]. But dockworkers needed to be able to get across the river even during thick fog when the boats were suspended, so an alternative crossing was sought. A bridge was clearly out of the question so councillors turned their attention beneath the river instead, just as they had at Greenwich a couple of miles upstream. And so in 1912 the Woolwich Foot Tunnel was opened. It hasn't changed much since.

If you fancy risking a visit, you'll find the northern entrance to the tunnel in a paved area close to the ferry boarding point [photo]. There's a real feeling of space and isolation outside, with the river estuary stretched out ahead of you and the estates of North Woolwich stacked up far behind. Make the most of it, it's your last chance to avoid claustrophobia before you plunge headlong into subterranean confinement. Two porched entrances lead inside the glass-domed brick building at the top of the shaft [photo]. One leads to a gloomy spiral staircase, 100 or so steps down, the other to the lift. If you get the chance, take the easy option.

There's something wholly unexpected about the Woolwich Foot Tunnel lifts. For a start the fact that the lift service exists in the first place, enabling full accessibility to a little-used shortcut beneath the Thames. Then there's meeting the disinterested lift attendants, doomed to spend their days yo-yoing repeatedly into the Underworld. But mostly it's the shock of stepping back in time into a wood-panelled chamber that almost resembles a miniature Edwardian drawing room. Except for a few very modern touches. A mini hi-fi stands on the floor blaring out some lame R&B and look, there's a can of lavender-scented Glade air freshener tucked away in the corner. The lift attendant's brought his own chair and a selection of tabloids, just to block out the monotony. Meanwhile a video screen on the wall flashes up CCTV footage of the tunnels below, but nobody's watching any of it. When the lift doors finally open 50 feet later, you're on your own.

A long narrow tunnel extends out in front of you, curving downwards beneath the river. A big red sign advises No Cycling, Skateboading, Busking, Spitting or Loitering, not that you'd really want to do the latter [photo]. The walls are tiled in what once was white, now more Grimy Cream, sporadically adorned with marker pen graffiti. Several parallel cables run along the ceiling, one powering an intermittent series of strip lights. There's a dank smell reminding you just how close you are to several millions gallons of river water, but thankfully very little visual evidence of invasive damp. Take a deep breath and stride off into the subterranean gloom. [photo]

After a couple of minutes the curvature of the passage obscures the lift doors and the isolation is tangible . It's a long way back to civilisation, and even further forward. That couple approaching from the far distance are probably perfectly law-abiding, but what if they're not? And is that lively racket echoing up the tunnel behind you just a merry gang of local youths, or something more sinister? It's impossible to dial 999 down here, and by the time anybody reviews the CCTV coverage it would almost certainly be too late to respond. If you thought the London Dungeon was scary, this is the real thing. [photo]

It takes a good five minutes to reach the haven of the southern lift shaft. If you're lucky you'll find the elevator operational, otherwise you'll have to pant your way up the surrounding staircase. Eventually you'll emerge from another domed brick building into a forgotten corner of Woolwich, hidden round the back of the Waterfront Leisure Centre [photo]. It's much easier to find your way out than the way in. Indeed, the signage on the southern bank is so inadequate that it's surprising any Woolwich residents ever locate the entrance to this cross-river passageway, let alone discover it even exists in the first place.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel may be semi-deserted now, but this underwater connection faces an even quieter future. In three years' time there'll be a new tunnel beneath Woolwich Reach as the DLR extends its tentacles further into South London. This journey will be faster and less threatening than a scurry through the Foot Tunnel, even if the convenience comes at a price. One can only hope that the old tunnel survives as a viable alternative until its centenary, and beyond.

Originally featured in Time Out Magazine London [12 July 2006]

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