Selling The Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach

It’s new, it’s groovy and it’s going to solve all your problems. Look – it’s so funky we’ve even done you a cool leaflet in sizzling brown ‘n’ orange, with all kinds of amaaaaazing models and diagrams to show you just how fab it’s going to be. The GLC is getting on down like the proverbial sex machine you always knew we were and we’re going ape

Ok, Flower People. It’s 1971. The Age of Aquarius is dawning and Love is all around. And what better way to promote Peace to all Men than by creating a hip new motorway to link hands across the water, North with South?

The old Blackwall Tunnel, built in 1897, was created at a time when the best it could expect was the odd milk cart or horse-drawn omnibus. Fewer than 1,000 vehicles used it a day. By the Swinging Sixties all those camper vans and minis had forced the building of a second tunnel, opened 60 years after the first in 1967.

I’ll get onto that another day (unless Tunnelbore beats me to it, of course…) for now, I’m more interested in a slim pamphlet that came tucked in between a bunch of guidebooks I bought as a job lot recently. One of those ephemeral leaflets that would have been distributed to houses in the area to let them know what was going on (much as we’re getting – or perhaps not getting, ahem, leaflets about the Olympics) and by rights should have been thrown away. But it wasn’t – and now, though pure fluke, I’ve got it.

It’s a Greater London Council document about the proposed new Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach Road (the A102 to us; Misery Alley to thousands of commuters.) Work had begun in 1967, but this leaflet was produced as an extra clarion call to trumpet the joys of the coming Saviour of The London Motorist.

It’s a fascinating document for many reasons – not least the sheer optimism with which it’s been written. There’s no puff-piece from some councillor at the beginning – it relies on the excitement that such a project will surely imbue in every citizen by its very existence. I mean – who wouldn’t want a new motorway running through their back garden? So it ploughs straight into the technical stuff. It gives, in far more detail than today’s dumbed-down documents, snippets of how it will be constructed and what with.

Charmingly, one of the ingredients is ribbed concrete. Perhaps not your idea of Nirvana, but the pamphlet can hardly conceal its excitement that this is the very same material that had just been used on the new elephant house at London Zoo. In similarly excited terms we are told of exotic materials such as ‘grit-blasted’ and even ‘fair-faced’ concrete. Innovations such as electrical road heating on the Woolwich Road Flyover (blimey…) emergency telephones and traffic surveillance equipment would be installed. Truly a Seventies Dream.
This was quite a departure. The old Blackwall Tunnel approach was (unsurprisingly) Tunnel Avenue. Hard to imagine that that sleepy little backwater was once the artery that led to the gaping maw that is the tunnel today. The leaflet is at pains to describe the new route. It would “begin near the gas holders (note the plural there – TGP) in Tunnel Avenue…and from that point southwards it will take a new route for nearly two miles, bridging over Blackwall Lane and Woolwich Road and passing under the railway by Westcombe Park Station.”

It was all a bit bewildering, especially for the good folks of places like yesterday’s Aldeburgh and Fearon Roads. So they provided maps a-go-go. The one that has the road superimposed over an Ordnance Survey Map didn’t want to scan, so I’ve included (at the risk of getting my head cut off – this is, after all, all Crown Copyright, gulp) a photo instead:

From what I can tell, there was some compulsory purchase and demolition (even today roads such as Farmdale and Siebert and Westcombe Hill feel curiously truncated) but once it got to the Peninsula, it seems to have gone over allotment land (if you look at old maps, there were acres of allotments even thirty years ago) before ducking back down to the old road – where those two once-glorious red-brick buildings now stand forlornly wondering whether there was something their best friends never told them…

But my favourite part of the leaflet is definitely the artists impressions. No computer graphics in those days. Oh no. We got proper drawings then – such as that orange delight of the underpass at Bramshot Ave (above) and proper models, made out of cardboard, sticky-backed plastic, toilet rolls and matchsticks. Here, just for Dazza, is the model of Woolwich Road Flyover, complete with attendant foot and railway bridges. Not quite sure where you’d be on this map, Dazza – probably just off it – but cute, isnt’ it? I love the little trucks, myself.

For anyone on the northern end of Tunnel Avenue, here is the model of the Boord St Footbridge. Puzzled by the name? Boord St (or what’s left of it) is just next door to the Gas Holder (note the use of the singular form – TGP) – I’ll wager it’s the street with the old school on it. Curly, huh?

Whatever this road turned into, they clearly thought at the time it was the end to all Thames crossings ills. It was an age of optimism. An age before Global Warming, OPEC embargos and Environmental Concern. And this leaflet, in its brown and orange livery, is a little part of that optimism. Hell – reading it, even I feel excited. So when’s this all happening then?

One Comment to “Selling The Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach”

  1. Otherwarwickaddick says:

    Sorry to comment on this so long after its publication, but I was living in Boord Street when the leaflet was sent out. There was, as you rightly surmise, a lot of objection from the people living in perfectly decent houses that were demolished. As I recall the scheme was the start of the "London Box" scheme, a sort of Lodon Inner Ring Road which got nowhere in the end.

    For your information the street that has the School in was Dreadnought Street. Boord Street still exists and is now a Lorry Park. It had the now demolished, St. Andrew with St. Michaels Church on the corner, next to Dreadnought School.