(Underground Greenwich 14) The Conduit Head

I always meant to return to this peculiar brick conduit head at the corner of West Grove and Hyde Vale, but looking through the archives (and they’re so bloomin’ rambling even I get lost in ‘em these days) I don’t seem to have done so, and since we’ve been talking about the Green Man recently and this wasn’t a million miles from the pub, it feels right to do it now.

The conduit head’s a weird shape – it’s only recently I realised it’s not a complete brick dome; more like a brick dome with a slice cut down it. On the ‘sliced’ side, next to the rather splendid display of pampas grass someone in the flats has planted, there’s an opening with a heavy iron grille over the top. If you peer down, past the pile of accumulated dead leaves, there’s a big hole, which presumably eventually goes down to the famous tunnels that meander down Hyde Vale, Crooms Hill and the park, bringing a water supply to the various buildings that have been at the waterside over the centuries.

Turning to my ever-faithful John Stone, it is described as having been built at the end of Chocolate Row (‘West Grove’ today – bear with me for now – we’ll get to the chocolate bit another day, okay?) near what was then the horse pond sometime around 1696. The National Monuments Record is more circumspect, giving the date around 1710.

John Stone reckons Christopher Wren “had the doing of it,” using the argument that it’s beautifully done, possibly using Tudor bricks (nicked from the old palace, I suspect) but then there were quite a lot of people doing beautiful work around that time. It could have been done by any one of several brilliant engineers knocking around Greenwich – where, of course, everything cutting-edge was happening.

Stone also reckons that Hyde Vale was the where the headquarters of the Master of the Water Supply lived, and he mentions a six-foot walkway between Hyde Vale and the Park that I can’t immediately think of just now. Maybe I’m dim, or maybe he actually means the underground passage itself. Or it could just have been built over. The guy was writing nearly 100 years ago now…

He did take full advantage of a builder’s accident though. In 1906, when some of the houses a little way down the hill were being built, the builders broke into an old tunnel. Our John blagged his way into them and explored as much as he could. Sadly it wasn’t very much, and he concluded that that particular tunnel was just an overflow.

Stone is infuriating at times, though. He says things like “I will not weary you by describing the other tunnels,” mainly (and understandably, I guess) because in the early 1900s roaming around in the passages was one of a myriad ways of entertaining oneself of a Sunday afternoon and his audience would already know them. But for us, a century on, when not one of those tunnels is viewable, John Stone’s account is pretty much all we have. It drives me insane. I want him to tell me more. More, I say.

I’ll give you more of all I’ve got about Underground Greenwich another day. But for now, that’s about all that’s fit to print on the Hyde Vale Conduit. Sorry, guys…

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