Underground Greenwich (1) Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Island Gardens end of the Foot Tunnel from a window of The Admiral’s House

A word to the wise.

Never try to walk South through Greenwich Foot Tunnel around 8.00am or North around 6.00pm if you want to live.

This is because it will be being put to its original use – as a conduit for workers to reach the Isle of Dogs and you will be very much going against the flow. Of course the workers themselves have changed – not too many cheeky cock-er-ney dockers these days – much more likely besuited bankers making their way to Canary Wharf, but the sheer momentum of bodies is still just as frightening as ever if you’re trying to move in the opposite direction.

The riding of bicycles is banned, which means you get two different types of cyclist. There are those who just ignore it, putting their heads down and just going for it who are truly terrifying, and those who think it doesn’t count if they stand on one pedal and freewheel. The former is slightly more dangerous than the latter but they are both deadly. There is a very rare third variety – the guy who actually gets off and wheels his bike through. If you see one of these shy, scarce creatures, shake them warmly by the hand and thank them voraciously.

Other dangerous troglodyte-types you might encounter below the Thames include the local teenagers who think it is Greenwich Footie Tunnel and happily kick their footballs straight at you, foreign teenagers who buffet you with their back packs, and the idiots of all ages who think they’re the first people on earth to come up with the idea of hooting as loud as possible to test out the echo.

I suspect it was ever that way.

Before the idea of digging underneath had ever occurred to anyone, there had been a ferry service across the Thames since 1676, but it tended to be rather unreliable and the workers had to pay for the privilege. Largely due to the efforts of the ex-docker MP Will Crooks, it was decided to create a tunnel to get the proles to work.

Sir Alexander Binnie was commissioned to design and oversee the project which would have cost £ 180,000 if the ferry operators hadn’t kicked up a fuss at losing their business. They were paid compensation, which seems like a good deal to me.

Digging began in 1899 – around the same time as huge amounts of new building was going on in East Greenwich and Charlton. The tunnel was opened in 1902, with some rather splendid lifts opening two years later. They were ‘upgraded’ in 1992, but they at least kept the wood panelling. There is a charming cupola at each end – one in Island Gardens, they other on Greenwich Pier, next to the Cutty Sark and Greenwich’s only superloo (yeuch.) Both glass domes are lit at night – the Greenwich side is usually green. Aaah…

For those of a statistical frame of mind of for pub quiz enthusiasts, there are over 200,000 white ceramic tiles lining the tunnel and it’s almost a quarter of a mile long. Statistics bore me, so if you want any more, go to the Pepys Centre and buy yourself an A4 double-sided paper sheetlet with all the number crunches you’ll ever want for 25p.

The Tunnel is regarded as a public highway, so it has to open 24 hours a day, but the lifts only work at civilised times.

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