Ladies and Gentlemen – To Science!

Whilst reading up about the Greenwich Foot Tunnel recently, I came across a curious ‘fact.’ It must be true because I found it in a school test-paper by the Oregon Department of Education, and it quotes the seminal work of one Jearl Walker, The Flying Circus of Physics. But enough of the sources – onto The Science…

At the Foot Tunnel’s inauguration on 4th August 1902, a large celebration was in order. Sundry dignitaries and bigwigs bowled up to make speeches and cut the ribbon of the fine new tunnel under the Thames to get the hoi-poloy to work at the docks. So important was the event that champagne was laid on down inside the tunnel.

But then tragedy struck. The champagne was as flat as the proverbial pancake, due to the difference in atmospheric pressure 15.2 metres underground to that at surface level.

“Phooey!” shouted the bigwigs – and drank it anyway. It was only on their return to the surface that they realised they should have paid more attention in their physics lessons. As they climbed the stairs, the atmospheric pressure changed, re-animating the bubbles. A witness said:

“The wine popped in their stomachs, distended their vests and all but frothed from their ears…”

It was all very embarrassing. One poor sod had to be rushed back below to undergo champagne decompression.

Is it true? Personally I doubted it – but there was only one way to find out. So on Saturday a bunch of us, some dressed in Victorian garb (complete with waistcoats to distend, of course) took a large amount of different kinds of bubbly down to the lowest part of the tunnel to test it out.

Of course we didn’t know much about the original event – what kind of champagne it was, how long it had been down there, how long it had been opened (had they opened it before the Mayor’s – naturally interminabl – speech, for example?) or even how long they were down there before returning. And I confess it wasn’t what you’d call a ‘controlled’ experiment (no one wanted to be the one who didn’t drink champagne) but I did ask everyone to avoid eating baked beans, Jerusalem artichokes and Brussels sprouts for a period of 24 hours before the experiment.

We all trooped down, where there was, handily, a nice big red cupboard to use as a bar. We were relieved to find that champagne drinking was not included in the long list of things you’re not allowed to do in the tunnel – but was this because the people who wrote the rules had not heard the salutary tale of the opening ceremony?

It was with slight disappointment that the first bottle popped very nicely indeed, thank you. We put it down to having carried it about with us all the way from Theatre of Wine and nobly drank it anyway. It was very nice – but also very bubbly. The second bottle had come on the tube and DLR from North London, and had a similar fizzy nature, though the third had began to calm down, despite its having arrived from Roehampton. We tried a couple more bottles just to make sure. An intrigued family of American tourists joined us, giving them another story of eccentric Brits to add to their cannon of tourist tales.

Some latecomers to our party ensured yet another bottle being opened, but by now it was clear. I can reveal, with, I admit, equal quantities of relief and disappointment, that no wine popped in anyone’s stomach, no vests were distended and it’s perfectly safe to drink champagne in The Greenwich Foot Tunnel. The Blackheath Fireworks afterwards however, seemed very loud and bright indeed after all the ‘scientific experimentation…’

But the nagging doubt remains. Shouldn’t we have done this properly? Maybe we needed to make sure we were all dressed appropriately, that we appointed ‘a Mayor’ to make a speech and had kept the champagne down below for a longer time? It could be that we needed a proper scientist with a clipboard and a white coat to oversee things (I did invite one but he was busy ‘holding a party for the arrival of a new washing machine in his flat’ – I don’t know – he could have just said he was washing his hair…)

Perhaps in my excitement to test this as soon as I read about it I missed that the atmospheric pressure would be slightly different in the heat of the summer? I guess there’s only one thing to do – repeat the experiment – properly this time, on the exact 106th anniversary next August…

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