It’s not very often that you get to explore the Thames Tunnel, otherwise known as the Brunel Tunnel. So when I found out that TfL were running tours through the tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, I booked my ticket pronto. I was due to take the trip on the Sunday, which turned out to be the nicest day, weather-wise, of the entire bank holiday weekend, so it’s just as well I dislike the sun. I actually preferred the cool, dark atmosphere of the tunnel.
The tours began at Rotherhithe station. We put on plastic gloves – apparently you get rodents down there, not to mention an interesting variety of diseases, though luckily I didn’t see any rats during my trip. We then descended into the station, heading towards the northbound platform.
The tunnel is used nowadays by London Overground trains, so these had to be stopped for the weekend. It was incredibly exciting to climb onto the track and make our way on foot between the rails. Our tour involved walking through the tunnel to Wapping station, then coming back the other way. During the tour we had an interesting and knowledgeable guide who told us various fascinating facts.
The tunnel was begun in 1825 by Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel who also helped with the construction. Said to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world, it was a hugely ambitious undertaking, as the first tunnel ever constructed under a major river. Construction used Thomas Cochrane and Marc Brunel’s tunnelling shield technology, and the tunnel took eighteen years to build, with several workers dying during its construction: during one flood, in which six people died, Isambard himself nearly met his end, being pulled unconscious from the water just in time.
Intended for use by horses and carriages, the tunnel was actually used by foot passengers from the start. From the beginning, shopkeepers set up stalls in the archways between the two sides of the tunnel, selling assorted goods including tunnel souvenirs. Unfortunately, the tunnel also became a favourite haunt of pickpockets, thieves and “ladies of the night”.
In 1865 the tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway Company for use by the new steam trains. The first few tunnel arches at the Rotherhithe end still bear the legacy of this railway, blackened by years of smoke (the rest of the tunnel was sprayed with concrete during the 20th century to strengthen it and ensure it was still suitable for use). In the space now occupied by Rotherhithe Station, there used to be a grand entrance hall, where a banquet was held on the tunnel’s opening; nowadays, the trains pass through the area frequently.
The tunnel slopes gently downwards until it gets to the centre, then rises up again from that point. It’s easy enough to tell when you get to the middle; it’s an eerie feeling to be standing underneath the Thames right in the centre, in a tunnel that was built nearly two hundred years ago.
In some ways it was a relief to reach the other side. At Wapping station we climbed up onto a platform like the one at Rotherhithe before descending again to begin the return journey.
We headed back along the other side of the tunnel, which although it was built for foot passengers, proved perfect for trains in future years; firstly steam trains, then the modern Overground service. I am sure Brunel would be proud if he knew that the tunnel he built with such difficulty back in 1825 would still be in use nearly two centuries later.