I was lucky enough to obtain tickets for a walking tour of the Thames Tunnel, no thanks to the woeful ticketing system used by the London Transport museum website. I won’t dwell on the logistics and coordination between the London Transport Museum, TfL and the Brunel Museum (which left somewhat to be desired), as the event was thrown seemingly thrown together at short notice thanks to the fact that work on the London Overground line is running ahead of schedule. I was just grateful of the opportunity to be able to get down there for what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk through the first tunnel ever dug under a river.
This account won’t cover the history of the tunnel to a great extent, as it has been covered much more eloquently and in richer detail than I could give you. Instead, here are a few photos of the evening, which we started by visiting the ‘Fancy Fair’ before commencing the tour of the tunnel itself.
The Fancy Fair promised to deliver a taster of the type of entertainment and attractions that took place in the tunnel before it was converted for use by trains in the late 1860s. There were acrobats, musicians and people in period costume, including a couple of prostitutes who proceeded to proposition me, much to my fiancée Katherine’s amusement! The strongmen, braving the cold in their outfits, were actually pretty impressive and entertained the crowd with their athletic ability.
There was also an opportunity to have a portrait taken in front of a picture of the tunnel. The strongmen seemed keen to get in on the act.
I think that our tickets for the Fancy Fair also included a brief tour of the shaft used to dig the tunnel, the top of which can be seen in the first photo above. However, a long queue and a pressing appointment to make our tunnel tour time meant that we had to give this a miss.
The new London Overground roundel, branded in Orange like everything else on the line.
There was a fair amount of people waiting to tour the tunnel, but we got in at the time scheduled on our tickets.
Suitably briefed on health and safety – which was surprising not that onerous – we were issued with latex gloves to protect against picking up Weil’s disease and promptly descended onto the newly refurbished platforms of Rotherhithe station.
The entrance of the tunnel.
It felt rather odd descending onto the tracks of a railway line!
Our tour guide stopped at several points along the walk from Rotherhithe to Wapping station and back. He was enthusiastic and told us lots of interesting detail over the construction of the tunnel. Here he paused under the shaft to give us an overview of how Marc Brunel’s tunnel boring process worked.
The two tunnels are separated by supporting columns. The gaps between these columns were used as market stall spots when the tunnel was in pedestrian use.
Our tour guide explained how the tunnel had to be coated in concrete during the 1990s restoration to prevent leaking. English Heritage successfully lobbied for the section near Rotherhithe to be maintained in its original state. The shots of the arches above gives you an idea of the difference between the original and the rendered version.
A signal. Definitely very weird to be walking in an underground railway tunnel!
Looking back along the tunnel from Wapping to Rotherhithe.
Wapping station has also been renovated. The line is due to open in April/May.
The northern portals of the tunnel.
Back at Rotherhithe station. Alcohol hand gel, souvenir book stamped to commemorate the tour, and homeward bound!