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GES245 - Thames Tunnel, london

London is a city of many wonders, most of them heralding from London's Victorian period, before its and Britain's slow decline in the 20th Century. Many fantastic buildings that lasted the course were built during this time, not least Abbey Mills and Crossness Pumping stations, Tower Bridge, The Victoria Embankment, The Sewer system, The London Underground network, Royal Albert Hall and so on, and so on. There was one place I'd read about that I wanted to see more than any other. It was completed a few years after Queen Victoria ascended the thrown in 1843. The images from the time showed it to be amazing, and it was. In it's first 2 years of opening it attracted 2 million visitors, today it's UNESCO listed.

The Thames Tunnel was overseen by one of the two great 19th Century Engineers, Marc Isambard Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Work started in 1825, and experienced numerous problems. The first act was to sink the a 15m iron ringed shaft which took 9 months, and then the actual tunnelling could begin. The workers used a specially created shield, designed by Marc Brunel and Thomas Cochrane. It would make tunnel building practical and its principles lie behind most modern day tunnelling. Essentially dig a section out, and fit the tunnel wall lining  in behind. While they were digging water dripped in the whole time from the Thames above. This was before the Great Stink, where the River Thames was essentially a large sewer. So one can imagine how awful that would be. The sewage also gave off methane which caused more problems, including the resident engineer William Armstrong falling ill from it. He was replaced by Marc Brunel's 20 year old son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A big problem occurred in 1928, when not only did 6 men drown, but they ran out of money. This lead to the operation shutting down for 7 years until more was found.

In 1837 operations resumed, as more money was found, including from the Duke of Wellington and Marc Brunel himself. One of the first tasks was replacing the rusting tunnel lining. All the usual problem of sewage laden Thames water, gases, collapses and flooding persisted. Miraculously there were no more deaths, and the 400m long tunnel was completed in late 1841. After kitting the tunnel out with lights and stairs in the shafts, the tunnel opened in March 1843. As with a lot of great engineering projects, it didn't generate much income compared to the half million pound price tag to build. It was originally built to shift horse drawn cargo between the Wapping and Rotherhithe docks, however it opened as a pedestrian tunnel instead, costing 1 penny to cross. After a few years when the novelty had worn off, it started to take on a seedier presence, as ladies of the night frequented the tunnel. The investors were able to make some money back, when in 1865 the East London Railway company bought the tunnel to run trains between Wapping and South London. In 1995 the tunnel was Grade II listed and had extensive repairs. It is now used as part of the London Underground network, London Overground.

The first time I ever met GE077 was in March 2010, outside Rotherhithe Station. We had agreed to meet up from an explorer forum and have a look at the tunnel. The tunnel was opened for one weekend to the public, before being put into use on the London Overground network. Unfortunately, the Tunnel is as popular as it was in the 1840s, and was heavily oversubscribed. We ended up being turned away, and went on to explore the Olympic Park that night instead.

Four years later I had seen some photos from down here, and it went on to my wish list. With GE077 we looked at various possible ways in, mainly based around the shafts. This was not going to happen, as a large concrete plug separates the shaft from the tunnel these days. The shaft is now used as an exhibition/theatre space. We eventually dropped the idea for awhile, but it always played on my mind. I went back and travelled through the station as a paying passenger, and eyed up possibilities. I realised that actually there was a pretty easy way in, and put it to GE077. Not keen on the idea, we agreed to meet up and I would go in. If successful, he would follow.

We turned up, and GE077 gave me a foot up, and I was getting in. GE077 decided he would actually join me anyway. So we both got into the station, and tried our best to dodge the cameras, ending up hopping off the platforms and running into the tunnel. This is the start of the tunnel on the Rotherhithe side.

In the arches is where stalls were set up, mostly selling tourist tat related to the tunnel. They sold hairbrushes, broaches, snuff boxes etc with pictures of the tunnel on the top.

A less successful stallholder trying to flog an electricity junction box.

The view up to Wapping, the dip to the River's lowest point can be seen, and the bend at the far end into Wapping station is just visible. Unfortunately the canter of the track makes the image a little uneven.

The wander over, it was time to flee. I wanted to walk down the tunnel, but GE077 wanted a quick in an out job. So I ended up walking back to the station a good half hour to 40mins after I'd arrived. Nervous, as if the cameras had seen us, it would be game over. This is looking up into Rotherhithe station, below where the stairs shaft would have been to the surface.

The station was as empty as it was when we arrived, and it wasn't long before I was walking off into the night with the usual pleasing smile.

If you'd like to know more about the tunnel, and possibly get an authorised trip down here, the Brunel Museum is based next to the old Stairs shaft in Rotherhithe.

The reason we didn't go further than we did, other than the fear factor, is that at the next station, Wapping, the tunnel exit is right at the platform. This picture was taken from Wapping Platform and shows more of the tunnel entrance detail, admittedly hidden behind more recent changes in structure.

Thanks again to GE077. Somewhat fittingly, this would also be one of our last explores together, as GE077 was due to head back to his homeland in the luscious pilsner beer land of Czech Republic for good. Looking to work on his contacts and business plans there. It's been a pretty good four years, and I'm sure we'll meet up when he's figured out Prague's Metro and Ruskie Bunker systems. Cheers for the ride fella.


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