Brunel’s Thames Tunnel


Yesterday we did the coolest thing!  We saw in the evening paper on Friday that Brunel’s Tunnel was open to the public on Saturday. This was the first tunnel underneath the Thames; construction started in 1825, but didn’t finish for 18 years!  The tunnel was originally intended to be used for horses and carriages, but they never got the funding to build the necessary ramps. So the tunnel was used for foot passengers and as a shopping mall with entertainers and stalls selling souvenirs. Unfortunately, over time it also became notorious for thieves and prostitutes. There were over 1 million visitors to the tunnel in the 19th century before it was closed in 1865.

As the world’s first tunnel underneath a navigable river, the tunnel had a lot of engineering problems. During construction many of the workers died due to flooding, lack of oxygen, and pockets of methane gas (note that the British say MEE-thane, instead of the METH-ane). There were big problems caused by the regular dredging of the Thames, since there is only 14 feet of earth between the top of the tunnel and the river bed. Apparently this is still a problem, as not too many years ago a dredging boat exposed the bricks of the top of the tunnel arch!

When the tunnel closed in 1865 it was sold to a railway, who laid track and opened it to trains in 1869.  The line became part of the London Underground in 1933, and became known as the East London Line.  It has been closed since 2007 for refurbishment as the tracks are being transferred to the Overground services. The tunnel extends from Rotherhithe Station on the south bank to Wapping Station on the north.

It was a really amazing opportunity for us to walk this stretch of track. Normally you go through on a train, and then so quickly that you don’t realize or can’t appreciate the details. Having a guided tour was amazing.  We almost didn’t make it into the tunnel, since you had to buy tickets (which we didn’t know). We decided to wait in the “just-in-case-people-don’t-show-up-we-can-take-their-place” line. And luckily for us, we made it in!  Here are a few pictures from our trip!

In the trackbed at Rotherhithe Station.

Beginning the descent (looking back at Rotherhithe).

This section, with the beautiful arches and columns, was repaired with concrete in the 90s. But the architectural elements remain true to the original appearance of the tunnel. The original bricks are exposed in other places.

It was a long walk in the cold and dark!

The original arch on the Wapping side.

We were told to wear these gloves to protect us from the dirt. But really, the tunnel was quite clean! No rats to be seen!

At Wapping. A nice picture of the dual arches that make up the tunnel. In 1827 a lavish banquet was held in the tunnel, complete with musicians and performers.

So you know which way to run if there's a leak!

This is a section of the tunnel where they left the original brickwork exposed. It's kind of hard to see, but apparently there were elaborate frescoes painted on the brick. It's too bad there isn't any way to know what they looked like!

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Posted on 14/03/2010, in Exploring the UK, Transit, Within London and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Amazing! It boggles my mind to imagine how this was conceived and constructed. Wonderful pictures. Valerie

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