Underground Greenwich (17) – Preserving (Or Not) The Conduits Of Greenwich Park

Dr Per Von Scheibner, of the splendid blog Subterranean Greenwich, has prepared a fascinating document as part of his objections to the current Olympics proposals.

Whether or not you’re into the Olympics in the Park, it’s really worth a read. It’s full of history, insight and wonderful photos, as well as an impassioned plea not to even consider the euphemistic ‘preservation by record’* of this medieval and Tudor warren of conduits, some of which are so beautiful they could have been made as passages the main Greenwich Palace – indeed it’s one of the only bits of the old palace left. I mean – who would think about giving an underground water system Gothic arches these days?

I have worried about this from the very start, even before I knew the full extent and beauty of the passages (as much as anyone can – they have not been fully explored even now) and I am even more concerned that no one seems to be bothering to bring in archaeologists to excavate this vital part of royal history in anything but what seems like piecemeal fashion.

Of course to find the full extent of all the tunnels would create far too much damage to the park, but surely a team should be brought in to discover just how serious a danger the system would be to life and limb, and, vice-versa, how much danger the heavy vehicles needed to create the Olympic course would be to the tunnels.

By rights, any such team should be led by Dr Scheibner and his cohort-in-caving, Dominic Clinton, who, since the conduits have been closed to the public for longer than anyone alive can really remember, probably know most about them.

I don’t get why this isn’t a Number One priority, paid for by the Olympics as part of this legacy we keep being promised. The choice of discovering some really important, unique, medieval palace remains or a few bits of outdoor gym equipment in parks? Hmmm. Tough decision…

I mean this is (for the moment at least, until we mess it up just that little bit too much) A WORLD HERITAGE SITE. Why aren’t LOCOG being forced by UNESCO to do the right-thing-by-heritage here?

In Phantom Fantasy Land, Royal Parks would be excavating, preserving and cleaning those passages easily found without serious further damage, so that sections could be opened to the public for a small fee – like the Catacombs in Paris or the Sottorranea in Naples. Not seriously discussing the possibility of ‘preservation by record’ as a viable way to treat a World Heritage Site.

Whatever your views on the Equestrian Events at Greenwich Park, I urge you to take a peek at Dr Scheibner’s document. It makes compulsive reading for any lover of Greenwich.

*In case you haven’t come across this term before, it means taking photos of, then destroying artifacts – a similar proposal was made for the Durnford Street buildings by Greenwich Hospital Trust with their plans for the redevelopment of the market, happily quashed (unanimously) by Greenwich Council, who found some balls at the eleventh hour.

15 Comments to “Underground Greenwich (17) – Preserving (Or Not) The Conduits Of Greenwich Park”

  1. Pedro says:


    The VIIth Marquis du St Empire?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yes, hurrah for Dr Per! Will it make any difference? Tessa Jowell (who perhaps wasn't properly briefed)says the decision was made and cannot be unmade, all for the sake of a few days of "backdrop" TV. Could't they do it on the heath and splice in the odd shots of iconic Greenwich and the Park?

  3. Kat says:

    I guess because the heath is a rather flat space Anonymous and wouldnt be much of a trial for cross-country horse riding.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Dr. PvS marvellous summary of the actual risks involved. This cannot be allowed to proceed without further investigation. Indeed, how will future generations, who have long since stopped benefitting from the short term revenue benefit of olympics 2012 think of us if we let one of the most intriguing and mysterious features of greenwich' incredibly rich industrial history be destroyed?

  5. RogerW says:

    Sheesh, sounds like these ice holes can be really dangerous.

    Particularly the ones like Tessa Jowell…

  6. Anonymous says:

    The heath is easy to dig out into the long-time humps and bumps – it was just back-filled with WWII rubble.

  7. Kat says:

    Aren't there plague-pits under the heath? Consecrated ground that cant be cultivated/built-upon and all that. Or am I getting my wires crossed?

  8. PLJAIKJ says:

    In 1905 Greenwich Borough Council initiated an investigation of the conduits to determine whether any of them were likely to cause subsidence. As the conduits in the Park did not pose a hazard to the road system, they were not reported in detail. Read more here:

    In April 2009 Royal Parks commissioned Irriplan to carry out a visual report of Hyde Vale Conduit, Underground Reservoir and Conduit House. That report can be read here:

    And if you want to read an authentic real life story about a tunnel caving in, read the letter half way down the page here:

  9. Wolfe says:

    Unfortunately, Kat, there aren't any plague pits under the heath, although it would be a much more interesting story if there were – so not consecrated ground either…

    The name Blackheath probably refers either to the colour of the soil or is a corruption of 'bleak heath'.

  10. Dr Per v. Scheibner says:

    Thank you very much for your kind review of our statement regarding the conduits.

    Having read through your readers' comments I would like to give a short reply to "PLJAIKJ" – In his first paragraph he (?) refers to Stone's report. Sure, this report is fascinating – alas, it is a product of its age. Cllr Stone did indeed visit some 5 conduits (I have been in each one of them) – but he did not conduct any work to discover any of the missing ones. Stone only entered voids that were readily open to inspection … One also has to remember that this report is now over 100 years old and especially the Crooms Hill Conduit is no longer in the condition it was then.

    The Irriplan survey mentioned in the second paragraph is first class (apart from the photography) – sadly only half of one tunnel, the Crooms Hill (i.e. Hyde Vale) Conduit, was surveyed … the missing part of this conduit is historically much more interesting. Sadly it is by now structurally damaged and has the resulting voids I am warning of in my statement.

    The letter mentioned in paragraph 3 was send to my associate Dominic Clinton who forwarded it to me. I in turn did send it to NOGOE. It covers the same incident I mention in my statement. More details and photos regarding this nearly catastrophic event are contained in the not yet published appendix to this statement (i.e. 2 newspaper articles from the MERCURY).

    I hope this additional information is of some use. If any of your readers have any information regarding the conduits – or any questions about them – I would love to hear from them.
    Yours Truly
    Dr Per von Scheibner

  11. Tom says:

    "I mean this is (for the moment at least, until we mess it up just that little bit too much) A WORLD HERITAGE SITE. Why aren't LOCOG being forced by UNESCO to do the right-thing-by-heritage here?"

    Because – and fortunately – UNESCO does not have an army. For some reason this bravura and frankly heroic attitude towards archaeology reminds me of Tony Blair's spirit towards foreign invasions. Archaeologists – and I've lived with one for many years – tend to be just a little more normal, and realise a balance needs be struck between what can be preserved and what is necessary for life to go on. Indeed, much of archaeology (until recently) was 'rescue archaeology' – saving historic items ahead of total destruction. The highly conservative attitude that everything must be preserved entirely at whatever cost rarely survives encounters with the real world.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Yes, Tom, not all archaeology can – or should – be preserved, but in the balance between an equestrian event which occurs twenty times every century, and something which is unique(so far as we know) in this country and one of few examples in the whole world, surely the balance is tipped towards preserving the tunnels with all the information they could reveal rather than the transient pleasure of a short-term spectacle.

  13. Indigo says:

    … a short term spectacle that could happen somewhere else, too. Windsor is a far more suitable venue for many reasons.

  14. Tom says:

    "surely the balance is tipped towards preserving the tunnels with all the information they could reveal rather than the transient pleasure of a short-term spectacle"

    that is your judgement, though it's a value judgement based upon information that you have discovered, and which corresponds (I am guessing, but likely fairly accurately) to pre-held opinions. This is not meant to sneer. My point was more general about archaeology and the 'save everything at all costs' approach. I'll leave the fight about the olympics to someone else.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Actually,Black(heath) probably comes from the Scandinavian blek, meaning pale, therefore more related to bleak.