Have you been stumped as to whom exactly did our finest living Shakespearean, Kenneth Branagh, play during yesterday’s Opening Ceremony? Perhaps you wondered why Abraham Lincoln was quoting Shakespeare in London? 🙂 Well, wonder no more, because this surprising appearance gives me a chance to introduce or remind you of arguably the Greatest Briton Who Ever Lived: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Things like this only happen in London: you go out to buy some organic veg, you end up in the first ever tube tunnel.
There was a Christmas Market at the Finnish church in Rotherhithe last Saturday. I’m not big on Christmassy stuff, but the Finns always sell the best stuff during the market – rye breads, Fazer sweets, frozen bilberries – so we decided to make a short walk from our usual Maltby St shopping (and coffeeing 🙂
(by the way: recession? what recession? judging by the way all of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe are being built up with new developments, one would be excused to think we’re in the middle of the greatest real estate boom in history)
As I have a recent obsession with the Brunels, we’ve decided to drop by the Brunel Museum nearby. It’s a very tiny place, in an old pump house for the Thames Tunnel – a few photos, a souvenir stall, a tv with Brunel’s bio and some artefacts from the digging of the tunnel. And they don’t charge much, just £2 for a walkaround.
But this time was different. The man selling tickets asked us – ‘are you here for the Christmas Special?’
Three pounds extra. It starts at 2.
Okay, why not.
Five minutes before 2pm, a crowd of some 50 people gathered outside the museum. Obviously, something big was going to happen. We were led down a tiny, tiny entrance (had to crawl for a few feet) down a rickety, scaffolding stairway, into a vast, empty, circular underground chamber.
The grand entrance hall to the Thames Tunnel.
Looking rather less grand now. The railway company tore down the wooden staircase and all the decorations for fear of fire.
‘You are among the first people to have entered this place – after 145 years!’ announced our host, and began to tell us the story of the tunnel. Its many firsts. The first ever to be born under water. The first ever use of a tunnelling shield. The first ever underwater shopping arcade – after it turned out the tunnel entrance was too narrow to carry cargo, the only way for the passageway to pay for itself was to sell souvenirs. The first ever underwater dining hall, ballroom, amusement fair. The story went on. All the while we heard trains running under our feet – if the floor was glass, we would see them, speeding between Rotherhithe and Wapping through the still used part of the tunnel. The pumps still pumping water out.
It was, for all purposes, just a big brick tank with some trains running through. But it was the basis for all underground railway systems in the world. Paris, Tokyo, Channel Tunnel – all built based on the same purposes.
And we found it on a random walk.
This is why London is the best.
(because this was such a random occurence, I had no camera with me – just managed these two snaps with my phone. it has a rubbish camera, and it was rather dark inside.)
This site has much better photos of the tunnel itself – still in use, after all these years.