diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 27, 2020

Urbex, or Urban Exploration, is the exploration of manmade structures, usually abandoned ruins or hidden components of the manmade environment. It can be a bit dangerous, plus it usually involves trespassing by going inside things you shouldn't, so isn't necessarily recommended for the conscientious risk-averse citizen. Dark spaces, head-torches and illicit break-ins aren't for everyone. But you can still get a frisson of excitement if you lower your expectations by venturing inside something mostly unused, still quite gloomy but potentially legal. I call it Mild Urbex.

Mild Urbex - the Abbott Road Tunnel

When the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road was built fifty years ago its dual carriageway severed a thin slice of Tower Hamlets between the A12 and the Lea. Mostly this didn't matter because nobody lived there, but the Aberfeldy Estate was an exception and merited an underpass to help residents access the rest of the borough. Abbott Road was reengineered at its eastern end to include a lengthy ramp down to a short tunnel, beyond which a second ramp rose parallel to the northbound carriageway. Today this shortcut operates in one direction only, is hardly used and has never had a pavement. It seemed the ideal darkspace for some Mild Urbex.

The tunnel's descent into irrelevance began in 2011 when TfL added a set of traffic lights up top on the A12 - the only such lights between the Redbridge roundabout and the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel. This allowed local traffic to cross the dual carriageway without using the underpass, so one lane was hatched over and vehicles restricted to northbound passage only. A decade later very little traffic comes up the ramp so it's easy to wander off the official pavement at the Zetland Street junction and jaywalk brazenly down... on the hatched side, of course.

This ramp's really long, well over a hundred metres all told, engendering an appropriate sense of impending doom as you approach the distant portal. It's not long before you've dipped out of sight of the cars, vans and lorries rumbling above, the isolation becoming increasingly tangible. Beneath your feet the tarmac turns a faded shade of red, a leftover from when this was a contraflow lane for the 309 bus route towards Canning Town. Southbound buses now take the high level route via the new lights and the (possibly jammed) A12, whereas northbound buses continue to venture through the tunnel. A redundant traffic island keeps everyone in their place.

Deep breath... we have arrived.

The tunnel ahead is concrete-roofed, concrete-walled and curved. It's also illuminated by sodium lights, which is useful if you haven't thought to bring a torch but has also given countless generations of pigeons somewhere convenient to perch. Brief crescents of murky white droppings hug the wall at regular intervals, adding a proper Urbex vibe, but are easily dodged. On the inside of the bend a metal grille shields an automatic fire hose reel which looks like it's been here since the tunnel opened. No security cameras are visible, presumably because this entire set-up predates such paranoia, suggesting that your slightly transgressive behaviour is not being recorded.

Against the outer curve are a couple of abandoned traffic cones, one stacked loosely on top of the other. Alongside is a locked door into some mysterious chamber hollowed out beneath the southbound carriageway. A yellow warning triangle is the sole clue as to what might lie inside... that and a power cable of some kind snaking down the wall from above and disappearing within. A visitor intent on making trouble might attempt to force the handle, but this is Mild Urbex so such behaviour cannot be condoned.

After perhaps forty metres of minor peril the unpavemented tunnel emerges into reassuring daylight. The eastbound ramp rises straight ahead, two of the original lanes plainly painted over. A much-extended kerb at the foot of the slope forces any oncoming traffic to keep left, which is fortunate otherwise there'd have been nothing to stop a speeding vehicle hugging the inside of the curve around a blind bend and accidentally running you down. Fear not, the hatched area to your left will eventually merge with the barriers on Abbott Road, delivering you safely into the heart of the Aberfeldy Estate.

You could now attempt to break into the deserted special needs school on Bromley Hall Road, or try to gain access to the demolished gasworks on Leven Road, even nip back through the subway to the Balfron Tower and sneak past the builders to reach the upper floors. But those would be daring escapades worthy of brazen adventurers seeking fresh perspectives on city living, hence proper Urbex, and a brief jaywalk through a forgotten semi-operational tunnel far better encapsulates the Mild Urbex experience.

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