In an event rarer than a sunny London summer, Transport for London opened the dark, drippy Thames Tunnel to the public last week, and Daisy Bowie-Sell was there.
Don’t accept sweets from strange men, eat your crusts and never play on railway lines. Last bank holiday weekend I recklessly ignored the last of those childhood warnings, and had a blast on the tracks. (Don’t worry, mum: engineering works meant there were no trains. And no one offered me sweets.)
For only the second time in 150 years, Transport for London allowed the public into the Thames Tunnel, which now connects Rotherhithe and Wapping on the Overground but was originally a pedestrian underpass designed by Marc Brunel (father of, and presumably person responsible for naming, Isambard Kingdom Brunel). This epic feat of engineering, completed in 1843, was the first passage under a river anywhere in the world. Now there’s some tunnel vision for you.
‘You are visiting the eighth wonder of the world!’ director of the Brunel Museum Robert Hulse exclaims dramatically as we begin our walk down the 396-metre tunnel. Maybe so, but I can’t imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon having 2.5 million litres of Thames water pumped out of them every day. Hulse assures us that this is normal for a tunnel – ‘It’s actually one of the driest’ – but it adds to the general frisson of excitement.
Although it’s a little dingy, we can make out the stately columns and arches that would have made this quite the place to be seen in Victorian times. It was the site of many a society shindig, including the first ever pop-up restaurant and a below-the-river fairground with sword-swallowers and fire-eaters. It was also the place where London’s trade in tourist tat really took off (Thames Tunnel gin flasks were popular). As tastes changed, the fashionable set looked elsewhere for their kicks, and prostitutes and pickpockets moved in. But this subterranean carousal came to an end when the tunnel was converted to rail use in the 1860s.
There are no plans at the moment for another tour but in the meantime you can join weekly guided descents into this masterwork’s impressive underground Grand Entrance Hall. So there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel.
For more tunnel news check out the tunnel being built as part of Selfridges £300 million makeover.