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Monday, June 27, 2005

Brunel's Wapping Shaft

Or Carry On Commuting

sign promoting the tourLittle did we realise when a group of us went along to the
Thames Tunnel Tour on Sunday how entertaining it was going to be. If you read this blog regularly you'll have seen that Ian Dolby alerted us to a tour of the oldest underground tunnels on the London Underground between Roterhithe and Wapping. The tunnels were "floodlit" for two weekends so that we could see Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel's tunneling work in all their glory.

I have a small brain and can't recall all of the historical facts we learnt, so you'll have probably have to go to Neil's blog if you want "the science bits". (Neil, Pixeldiva (Ann) and Helene, came along with me).

But I thought I'd give you a flavour of what went on and a few pictures of the day.

It was a pretty sunny day, so I was amazed at how many people turned up for our group. About seventy of us started in the ticket hall and we then had to go outside to collect our yellow stickers. The previous group was equally large and the following group was bigger than ours. It wasn't just the usual geeks (us), anoraks and trainspotters that you would expect. I spotted an old work colleague which was quite bizarre.

Our guide "Robert" appeared repslendant in a Brunel T Shirt and told us what we were letting ourselves in for. Not only were we about to see the "eighth wonder of the world", but the Tunnel of Lurve, the world's first underwater shopping arcade, the world's first tunnel under a river (making it an International Landmark Site), the world's first underwater party venue, the world's first underwater fairground.

Robert waxing lyrical


So we all trundled back down the escalator and onto the platform at Rotherithe, being warned not to do any flash photography "Even though our staff and underground drivers are all very good looking"

Robert gave us some more historical tidbits including an explanation as to why he called it the Tunnel of Love and it was nothing to do with the many references to shafting that followed. Basically, Marc Brunel (Isambard's dad) was born in France, but spent as lot of his life in the States. However, he came to England looking for the English girl (Sophie Kingdom) with whom he had fallen in love in France. He found her in London and they eventually settled in Rotherhithe where Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born and the rest is history.

Robert with Brunel T Shirt in full display


We were told to get onto the next train and try to all squeeze into the first carriage. When the train pulled into the station a woman behind me said "This isn't the train is it?", as clearly after this grand preamble she'd been expecting some Victorian carriage rather than the smelly East London Line stock, with a few shocked Sunday afternoon passengers thinking "WTF's going on?".

The Tunnel of Lurve


At Wapping we were able to see the twin tunnels which were the original Brunel designed ones. They weren't initially built for passenger trains but for cargo, however this didn't work very well as they couldn't get the horses down the narrow winding staircase. So there were loads of shops and arcades and fairgrounds as well with more pedestrians than cargo.

Group at the top of the shaftWe then walked along the platform at Wapping and got into the lift which would take us to the top of this narrow winding staircase. At the top were were greeted by some startled old ladies who went into a bit of a frenzy worrying about whether they'd make it back into the lift by the time we'd all got out. So there was much tooing and froing and shouts of "Come on Gladys" as Gladys "legged" or rather "speed shuffled" it into the lift.

Now thirty five minutes into the tour, and Robert was clearly into his stride. "We are now at the top of French Brunel's Wapping Shaft". Not a titter. "As you can see this is a shaft of enormous dimensions". We started to feel a little uncomfortble. "When erecting the shaft a cap was used to halt the flow...." That was too much and Helene could not control herself and through her hand let out a huge snorting guffaw, only amplified by the vastness of the shaft. This meant that me and Ann were in silent hysterics too. Sorry we're so juvenile as everyone else seemed to control themselves perfectly.

The Triumphant BoreThe rest of the tour was fairly innuendo free, as Robert seemed to have his fill of shafting by the time we headed back to Rotherhithe. We had a quick trip to the Museum just round the corner of the station, where we could buy Thames Tunnel memorabilia such as "double shafted pencil sharpeners", glittery rubbers, the natty Brunel T shirt and the story of the Thames Tunnel - "The Triumphant Bore" - every pun intended.

We headed back to Wapping and The Captain Kidd pub for a post mortem, and were then quizzed to death by Geoff who turned up later. The rest of the evening flowed by with the aid of lots of nuts, crisps and alcohol and discussions which would be more suited on Belle du Jour's blog. A very surprising day - read on for Ann and Helene's and now Neil's take on the event!


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