Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 12 March 2010


One doesn't expect to be asked to put on surgical gloves to enter a tube station, particularly not one that's just coming out of a long and expensive sprucing up.

But today, it wasn't the station that was the focus, rather the tunnel: between Rotherhithe and Wapping runs the world's first tunnel under a waterway, and today was the first chance in over 140 years (and the last for who knows when) for pedestrians to visit and walk through, before the East London Line is reopened after its refurbishment and extension. So health and safety required a degree of protection, in case any of us should happen to touch the grimier parts of the walls or any of the water than still drips into the tunnel; and there were cheery handouts about the symptoms of leptospirosis to explain, in excruciating detail, exactly why.

The tunnel took the best part of twenty years from original conception to its full opening, beset as it was by financial problems, lack of trust in the methods proposed by Brunel father and son for its construction, and the sheer difficulty of tunnelling, with the water breaking in on several occasions - and don't forget that in the early to mid-nineteenth century the Thames was an open sewer. As the tunnellers advanced, the air got worse; at times, if the water wasn't breaking in, pockets of methane were igniting - and sometimes both at the same time. Besides the deaths in accidents and flooding, many miners fell victim to the poisonous air underground, and disease; the strains of the job must have contributed to Marc Brunel's stroke and heart attack, and his son Isambard was nearly drowned more than once.

When it eventually opened, the tunnel was never the handy means of shifting cargo from one side of the river to the other that had been envisaged, and became instead a pedestrian walkway, with the arches you can see above used for shops and souvenir stalls. After twenty years it was taken over for a railway tunnel, which it has been ever since, and will soon be again.

But for today, what took twenty years to build took us twenty minutes to walk through, however cautiously we might be watching our feet. Here and there the original render and brickwork have been left exposed, and make a sharp contrast with the shiny new station decorations.

There was just as great a contrast between the heroic efforts of construction, and the unheroic profiteers who occupied the tunnel after its opening (a million people visited in the first fifteen weeks of opening - at a penny a time). The guide regaled us with the tale of Queen Victoria's impromptu visit, a stallholder's gallant protection of her footwear from the mud with the handkerchiefs on his stall, and his subsequent success in selling off the handkerchiefs "as trod on by the Queen" - only, after the first few, the footprints got suspiciously bigger. And then there were the ladies of more doubtful reputation who were seen to take advantage of the gloomy gas light...

As we came back to the station exit, it was hard to believe this otherwise prosaic-looking piece of track had taken so much to build - or that, as a PR stunt, the young Brunel had hosted in the tunnel a grand dinner for the great and good. No surgical gloves for them - and yet they survived.

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