100 years ago today, not-so-deep below the River Thames, the Rotherhithe Tunnel was opened by the future King George V. This mile-long single bore tunnel had taken four years to build, at a cost of two million pounds, and was (at the time) "the largest subaqueous tunnel in existence". There weren't many cars around in the 1900s so the RotherhitheTunnel was primarily for the benefit of horse-drawn traffic and pedestrians. Not that you'd want to walk through its exhaust-fumed portals today. So I've done that for you. Here's what it's like down there...
To Rotherhithe, which is slightly harder than usual with the nearby Thames Tunnel closed until 2010. If I had a car I'd have to start at the Rotherhithe roundabout (take the turning for the A101, no explosives, no flammable liquids). But as a pedestrian I had it slightly easier. There are stepsdown onto the entrance ramp close to Rotherhithe station, avoiding the first few hundred yards past the speed camera. It doesn't look like anyone on foot should be allowed down here, but really, it's still perfectly legal. Only 20 pedestrians a day pass this way, apparently, even though it's the only walking route across the river between Tower Bridge and Greenwich? OK, deep breath (very very deep breath), and I ventured inside the southern portal.
Very quickly the artificial environment of the tunnel took over. Fluorescent strip lights, glazed white tiles and long grey lines vanishing into the distance. Last chance to turn back, or else there was a long slog ahead. Because this is no straight and simple tube. It was designed with horses in mind so it cuts across the river at an angle, allowing gradients to be shallower and easier to climb. And it was also constructed with several sharp zigzagging bends, ensuring that horses wouldn't be able to see daylight at the other end and bolt for the exit. Once I'd passed the first of five curves, the outside world seemed a very long way away.
It's relentlesslybleak down here, especially when the traffic's light. A few 20mph roadsigns, various ventilation units, a two-lane non-super highway, and look at that, two pavements! The circular roof means that traffic can't get too close to the walls, so there's room to walk two abreast on either side. Shame that almost nobody bothers. That's probably why I got several funny looks from the oncoming traffic. What the hell is he doing down here? Has he not yet dropped dead from carbon monoxide poisoning? Shall I mount the pavement and squash him flat?
At bend number two there was an unexpected sight tucked away in a tiled recess - a large iron spiral staircase. This used to be the pedestrian entrance, a shortcut down the airshaft from the banks of the Thames above, but wartime damage closed it off and the steps are now firmly locked top and bottom. I would have stayed to take a photo but there was a big sign saying EXHAUST FUMES DO NOT LOITER so I thought it wise not to. Plus I was expecting the police to arrive at any minute, having observed a suspicious looking white male hanging around near a security camera in a strategic location. Oh it felt so very wrong down there, but no backing out now.
The central straight section was the longest, with millions of gallons of water now suspended somewhere above my head. More locked-off stairs at the far end, and then just two more sharp bends and a gentle curve to go. Round this last curve I was surprised by an approaching cyclist riding on what I thought was the pavement (but probably not half as surprised as he was). And finally, yes, the welcoming sight of North London daylight. It took 20 minutes altogether to walk from one end of the tunnel to the other, eventually emerging almost a mile downstream in deepest Limehouse. By this time I'd probably breathed in more pollutants than the average countryside resident inhales in a year, and shortened my life by several weeks. But hey, even if I don't make it to 100, this crucial cross-London link has reached its landmark centenary in reasonable health. Probably best to celebrate by not visiting.