Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Walking the Thames Tunnel

The letter said ‘no alcohol’ before the tour, so of course we met in the pub on the corner. Suitably fortified, we promptly set off to stand outside Rotherhithe station, along with half the pub’s clientele. It seems we were not the only ones to ignore instructions, and down a quick pint before walking in history’s dusty footsteps.

This is looking at the original section of the tunnel

The gated doors were manned by two smiling tube officials in their fluorescent jackets. Four more laughed and joked inside, which made a nice change considering most of the underground staff I see while commuting look distinctly less thrilled with their lot in life. This alone convinced me we were in for something special.

Once inside, we were ushered to collect latex gloves so we didn’t get mad rat disease. One size fits all was the rule, which meant my gloves mainly flapped in the breeze, each fingertip with its own trailing flag. We then had our health and safety talk, which consisted of ‘stand still if we need to evacuate’. We nodded in faux agreement, stamped feet, and flopped gloves. And then we were off!

Down the stairs to the platform, and scaffolding had been erected for us walkers so we could step down to the tube lines. There is something ever so much fun about standing where you ought not to be. The tunnels stretched with a line of light before us, accentuating the dip and slight incline in the curve of electric. Back in the day this would have been flickering gas light. We were cautioned not to stand on the rails, not because of any power of course as it was switched off, but in case we fell from the slight height. I looked at them in alarm anyway; after years of terrifying public safety films as a child I would rather go outside and lick the road than go near any rails, powerless or not.

Instead of it being one large tunnel, as I presumed from Victorian illustrations, it was two twin tunnels. Strange serendipity means that although the tunnels were built for horse-drawn carts, they are the exact size for current day tube trains. Archways linked each tunnel at strategic gaps, and it was from these small gaps that Victorian traders would sell their wares to the passing promenade. They wouldn’t have been very private for a naughty rendezvous, but that apparently didn’t dissuade the more naughty-minded of the public towards the latter years.

The older style walls of the tunnel have been left at one end to preserve its link with history, as you can see from my top photograph. It was odd to think of all those people who came down here to walk through ‘a wonder of the world’ – six million Victorians made their way down here to gawp and admire, and now two thousand modern Elizabethans to add to the list, with our walking shoes and cameras. I loitered at the back taking pictures, and sauntered along beside a knowledgeable tube official engineer. I sensed he wanted me to ask him some clever questions. But try as I might, I could not think of one clever question to ask him whatsoever. Sadly our conversation went more like this:

Him: This is one of the signal boxes. *points it out*
Me: Ooo. Um. Er. *stares at it* Does it control the signals?
Him (patiently): Yes.
Me: Ah. It’s a nice colour.
Him (contemplates it): Yes, I suppose it is.
Me (striking up bold conversation): So you’re an engineer?
Him: Yes.
Me: Right. Um. *casts around desperately for something engineer-y to say* This rail is shiny.
Him (as if speaking to small child): Yes, it is rather, isn’t it? And this one is greasy.
Me: Yes! That one is greasy. *pleased with discovery like child*
Silence for a bit.
Me: Tunnels are really cool aren’t they?
Him (ponderingly): Yes I suppose they are.

I bet he was really pleased when someone came along and asked him something proper.

This is the newer section of the tunnel - you can see the walls are different

At the end of the day it is just a tunnel, I suppose, but what a great place to point a camera! We clambered back up the scaffolding to the surface, and then went along to the 'fancy fair' at the Brunel museum. Although the fair was good, it was a nearby pub that took our fancy, and we decided to retire with a fine ale instead. Cheers, Brunel!


Eliza said...

I love the conversation with the engineer, that would be me too. Desperately trying to think of something intelligent to say :-)

Plain Jane said...

Hi, Jayne. KarenG from Coming Down the Mountain sent me to your blog. She said I would love it and she is right. I loved your tunnel story, especially the "conversation" with the engineer. Perhaps you were saving your cleverness for your blog, because it is great..."each finger with its own trailing flag." I can't wait to read more.

Fran Hill @ Being Miss said...

I bet no one's commented on the colour of the signal box before! I can just hear him thinking, 'A man would NEVER say that!' Sounds like an interesting trip.

Rose said...

Very cool to see underground London- Brunel was a bit of a dude- thought probably as much of a conversationalist as your engineer friend!

Amy said...

wow, that's amazing that you got to walk through the tunnels. I've read so much about them and would love the chance to explore.

Alexandra Crocodile said...

funny - i hate it when you can't think of anything intelligent to say! But immensly interesting post - i'll be sure to have a look at the tunnel next time i'm in london!

Fran said...

Hi - just to highlight that I've changed my blog address. Hope my new link works for you.

Jayne said...

Hi Eliza. Glad it's not just me!


Hi Jane - aw thank you so much! KarenG is so lovely, and your comment has made me feel very happy - thank you! So glad you like it. :)


Hi Fran. Yes, I got the feeling no one ever said that about the signal box before! And possibly the shiny rails. :)


Hi Rose. I actually don't know much about Brunel - will have to read up about him. Fun to think he would have been as chatty as my engineer mate!

Jayne said...

Hi Amy. This is actually the second time I have been under London, the first time I waded through an underground river - needed more than just protective gloves for that one! I find all this stuff fascinating, there is so much to see in London if you know where to look.


Hi Alexandra. I'm afraid the tunnel is closed again now to pedestrians - the only way to see it now is from inside a tube train. But these odd little interesting things spring up here and there from time to time, so it's good to dig around to see what's happening!


Hi Fran - duly noted! And changed on my blog roll. ;)