diamond geezer

 Thursday, December 22, 2011

  Walk London
[section 15x]
  North Woolwich to Woolwich (¼ mile)

Just in time before the end of the year, and somewhat unexpectedly, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel has reopened. Hurrah. So I've been back and walked the last bit of the Capital Ring in order to complete my circumnavigation on foot.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel celebrates its centenary next October. But it nearly didn't. Greenwich Council closed it last year for repairs, initially to the tunnel and lifts, but then to the stairs when they turned out to have problems too. They weren't planning to keep the Foot Tunnel closed for quite so long, but it's taken well over a year to finally grant public access again. The press knew, because they merrily published articles about how the closure had finally ended. But if you'd turned up yesterday morning in person, I bet you wouldn't have noticed.

On the North Woolwich side, the circular tunnel portal is still shrouded in scaffolding. Around that is a blue wooden wall, encircling the entire perimeter of the traffic island on which the brick building stands. And on the side of that wall facing the North Woolwich bus stops, absolutely no indication whatsoever that there might be a way inside. Folk alighting the 474 headed for the ferry, as they've had to do since the middle of last year, without a clue that they might now be able to walk to Woolwich again. I had to look carefully for the entrance, on the Thamesward side, almost hidden behind a truck being unloaded by a contractor. No sign, no arrow, just a narrow curving passage lined with plywood leading towards the main entrance. Caution Workmen Working Overhead. No Smoking. And I was in.

If they've renovated the stairs, it's not immediately apparent how. The metal treads looked as eroded as ever, no cracked tiles had been replaced, and the walls could still do with a very very deep clean. There was even a smell of damp that could have been urine, except the tunnel had barely been open a few hours so surely no drunk had yet stumbled within and misused the facilities. The lift is still bang out of order, its shaft boarded up at the bottom so reconstruction can continue within. It'll be a while before the Foot Tunnel is once again bike-friendly and step-free, but in the meantime yomping down 100 or so stairs is definitely better than having no passage beneath the river at all.

And then the tunnel proper, all 502 gloomy metres of it. No bright scrubbed passageway here, this was still the same old dingy passageway I remember from before. There was even graffiti aerosol-ed or scrawled in green pen on the wall, which could have been added that very morning but had more likely been left unscrubbed during the refurbishment. The metal barriers went in a few years back - a series of six chicanes to stop cyclists disobeying orders and speeding beneath the Thames, endangering pedestrians [photo]. I think the only recent changes are overhead, with fresh metal tubing installed throughout, and maybe some new loudspeakers. That might be new lighting too but I'm not convinced, and I wouldn't say any visual transformation has been dramatic.

I've always found the Woolwich Foot Tunnel a lonely and isolated place, but I've never before had the entire tunnel to myself. Normally I expect to pass some kids midway, and three blokes with bikes, and probably some shuffling locals, but this time nothing [photo]. Normally that might be a bit frightening, as if some knife-wielding mugger might leap out at any moment, as much as you can leap out in a long straight tunnel where any approach comes with several minutes advance warning. But this time I felt perfectly safe and secure in my solitude because, if the general public hadn't yet noticed the tunnel was freshly open, then that went for ne'erdowells too. A series of unobtrusive (newly installed?) CCTV cameras kept watch from above, but the police will only ever use them to record crime, they've no hope of arriving in time to catch the perpetrators.

At the far end, up the gentle incline, round another boarded elevator shaft up the south bank stairs. It's the same story here - nothing special, nothing new - so one hopes the majority of the £11m renovation cash has gone on the lift. And eventually a return to daylight, through another narrow plywood passage round the back of the Waterfront Leisure Pool. Again, not a clue, not a hint, that the new entrance has opened. If you were walking by you'd see major scaffolding behind a solid blue wall, plus a tiny sign announcing that the tunnel is "closed to the public for major refurbishment until spring 2012". Wrong. Only if you thought to walk round the corner might you spot the way in, and this down a service road you'd probably never think to walk down anyway.

So yes, the Woolwich Foot Tunnel has sort-of reopened. It's not fully refurbished yet, because those lifts will take considerable further time to fix. And it's not a restoration triumph, nor will it be by the time everything's finally finished. But it is a joy to have this subterranean alternative to the ferry revived and renewed, and without any of its melancholy charm diminished. Darryl's been down under too, and his report is here. Centenary year ahoy.

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