Archive for the ‘Underground Greenwich’ Category

Subterranean Greenwich Gone Underground

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Hawksmoor's Conduit House in Greenwich Park, just one entrance to the network


Several people have been asking me what happened to the Subterranean Greenwich Blog, which looked at all matters underground in the area – and let’s face it, there seems to be as much going on under our feet in Greenwich one way or another as there is at ground level. The site appears to have gone, er, underground.

I started to look into it but found my work had already been done by one of my favourite bloggers, Transpontine in a post from – gulp – 2012 – which shows you just how long I’ve had my eye off the time-ball.

His tale of cyber attack and disappearing blogs was unnerving to say the least, but there was hope in the comments where Per and Dom reassured us there was a new domain and all would be well. But it’s gone again – I’ve tried all the domains the blog ever had and all the email addresses I’ve ever had for the derring-duo, with no luck.

Dom – Per – if you’re out there, let us know – sundry Phantophiles and my own spectral self are wondering where you and your marvellously comprehensive blog of all things Down Under have gone.

If the site has gone for good, we have lost the best resource there is for Underground Greenwich, or at least the best public resource – they may be documents locked in some gabinetto segreto somewhere, scratched in Name of the Rose-style poisonous ink to ward off would-be nosey-parkers but I don’t know of it.

There are many things of an underground nature I never touched on myself because I’m not one for reinventing wheels, but now I sort of wish I had. It’s certainly something authorities are not keen to explore on an official basis.

But I don’t like to leave today’s post on such a grim note, so here’s my early Easter Egg, a little missive I received a short while ago.

I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve talked about Vanbrugh Castle – there’s no point in my even giving you links – just google ‘Vanbrugh Castle tunnels’ or ‘underground’ within the blog and you’ll find dozens of things people have told me or that I’ve winkled out myself about this creepy, fascinating, nutty – and subterranean – oddity (btw WordPress has an odd way of hiding the next-page tabs so you can’t see them and think there’s just the one.)

So much has been written about the tunnels alleged to be underneath this strange building – do they or don’t they exist etc. – that I was particularly grateful to hear from Gary who attended Vanbrugh Castle when it was a school in the 1970s. He tells me:

I went to Vanburgh Castle School between 1971 and 1973. There are indeed tunnels. Just off the five-a-side concrete football pitch was a wooded area known as the Dell, which was out of bounds. The fence there was damaged and a small boy could crawl under it.

Once under the fence there was what appeared to be a tunnel/ drain? which was barred, but one bar was bent allowing access. This tunnel lead back up towards the school grounds. After a fair bit of crawling it opened into a large room type area – I believe now this was an old air raid shelter. A few of us boys would creep out of bed at night and venture off to the tunnel and spent a few hours most nights in this shelter, by torch light. God only knows what might have happened to us if there had been any flooding/collapse!! We would never have been found. Frightens the life out of me now!

Thank you Gary. Was this just an air raid shelter or do we need to link it to an older room, perhaps the tunnel between Vanbrugh Castle and Vanbrugh House or even something else – a conduit, perhaps that might have stretched across the road into the park to join up with the labyrinth underneath.

I confess I don’t know anyone who lives there now who could verify if they still exist. Maybe someone else does…

Some Interesting Stuff about Greenwich Park’s Tunnels

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

I can’t for the life of me remember where this image came from, I found it while I was looking for a photo of the various entrances to the Greenwich Park tunnels near the Conduit House in the west of the park, which of course I can’t find, but hey, it’s probably more interesting anyway.

Michael was digging around old Freedom of Information requests and found a couple of fascinating reports that he’s sent me.

The first is a general overview of the tunnels in the park which gives good basic information. I don’t think it’s got anything we haven’t talked about many times before but it’s always good to read new documents about things such as this.

The second I found much more interesting, as it’s a 2009 report by a Nottinghamshire-based company (why they didn’t use local experts I don’t know…) who went down to check out the tunnels – presumably as part of the Olympic preparations to check they weren’t going to cave in. I guess it would have been useful and quelled a bit of hysteria if they’d made the fact they were doing it public at the time but hey, it’s an interesting enough read now.

I’m assuming that the photographic reproduction in the original report is a bit better quality than the copy but even with the horrid, grainy pixellated images we have it’s a fascinating read. I love the skeleton of an abandoned wheelbarrow that lies propped up in a corner.

I’ll not reinvent the wheel(barrow) here – you can read it for yourselves – but it seems to be a pretty thorough report, with a view to wildlife too (no bats, sadly…) and a fascinating read. I love the stuff about the Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Air Raid Shelter.

Something the report does throw up is that the tunnels are pretty sound, which puts me in mind of something that keeps coming to me as a possible money-making wheeze for Royal Parks. Why not do ‘potholing’ expeditions of the tunnels for small groups, led by cavers? I know I’d be straight down there – and I’m sure lots of other people would sign up for a guided tour of the tunnels. After all, the generations before us all clambered about down there. I feel left out.

I guess there are a gazillion H&S forms to fill out and risk assessment stuff a-gogo but hell – so must there be for the sky walk thing over the O2 and that’s going great guns, They must be coining it. I know which I’d rather do.

Michael has put in an FOI request of his own, to see the rest of the report and I’m going to reproduce the request here as I think it’s a great example of how one should be done. Officials must get so many aggressive ‘You’ve clearly got something to hide, you’re a bad person, show me all the documents that prove that my suggestion isn’t true’ requests that a polite, specific ask must be a blessed relief. I know that if I were a weary public servant and got Michael’s request I’d be more inclined to push it to the top of the pile.

I’ll let you know when he gets that speedy reply…

Instructive Rambles in London and the Adjacent Villages

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Okay, this morning I am indebted to Andy who told me about this extraordinary ‘book of its time’, a volume I had heard of but was unaware had anything much to do with Greenwich. Thanks to Andy I’ve had a fascinating couple of hours and am extremely behind with Real Work.

First published in 1798 Elizabeth Helme’s Instructive Rambles… was ‘designed to amuse the mind, and improve the understanding of youth.’ I’d challenge most 9 to 11 year olds to actually understand the language today.

Helme had high hopes – ‘to blend instruction with amusement’, ‘ shew the necessity of all evil propensities being crushed in infancy,’ to inculcate a love of study, industry, charity, duty to parents &c. has been my wish; and to equally to discourage idleness, dissatisfaction with our situation, vanity, falsehood, and arrogance.’

One look at the chapter headingss will tell you that we’re not just going on a sightseeing tour of London and Environs, but we are to be instructed too. Here are some of my favourite bits:

  • The beggarwoman’s story – the disadvantages of a Bad Character.
  • A Roman incampment, Queen Elizabeth alarmed by Beggars – a meeting with two sailors.
  • Idleness punished.
  • The Longevity of a Tortoise
  • The Inconvenience of Too Much Money
  • A Ramble to Westminster Abbey (presumably in 1798 one could still ‘ramble’ to Westminster Abbey…)
  • A Skill in Needlework Necessary to Females
  • Of a dwarf
  • On the Courage Necessary For Females…a Good Disposition to be Preferred to Genius or Aquirements


So. The basic story is that of Mr Richardson, a ‘considerable merchant of the City of London,’ who, a year ago, lost his wife to some unnamed illness. His children, Charles, 11, and Mary, 9, have been placed with a Mrs Bennett in Reading but, it would seem, he’s started to get a bit worried about their moral wellbeing, and he’s finally come to claim them.

This Mrs Bennett is, I can only assume, a prototype of another Georgian Mrs Bennett. She is a lady ‘well meaning but a woman of weak understanding,’  educated with Mr Richardson’s late wife but unlike the dead woman who was a veritable paragon of virtue – ‘reflective and domestic, an affectionate wife, a tender monther, beneficent friend to the poor’, etc etc., has ‘an inclination for gaiety and expence,’ is  ’thoughtless and fond of pleasure, which she knew not how to procure, execpt in the dissipation of the great world’.

Mr Richardson gets there only just in time. Charles is ‘reflective and serious’, but needing instruction and becoming proud. Mary – oh, Mary. Mary is ‘lively and volatile,’ needing  not only instruction but the ‘curb of restraint’. Without Mr Richardson’s intervention, she looks as though she will turn into the weak-minded horror that is Mrs B. There’s nothing for it. Mr Richardson will have to take his children on some instructional walks – and what better schoolroom than the great metropolis?

The book is in two volumes. Chapter XV – An Excursion to Greenwich – A Visit to the Cavern at Blackheath is in the second. You can get it as a POD volume, but Andy told me to search for it on Google Books.

What interests me most about it is what Mr Richardson chooses to take his children to in Greenwich – both things so very 18th Century – to gawp at the poor people in Greenwich Hospital, and a scary trip down a recently-discovered dark hole.

The first trip is to the hospital.

“On their reaching the hospital the children were greatly pleased, and Mary exclaimed, in a rapture, “Ah, papa, you might well call it magnificent! This is indeed a palace! Look, too, at the old men, how clean and merry they appear! I shall always love the memory of King William for this noble generous gift!”

“The institution, returned Mr Richardson, “is indeed higly to the honour of all concerned; for our seamen, after experienceing the hardhsips and dangers of a maritime life, have a just claim to expect to finish their days sheltered from want and the vicissitudes of fortune; and it certainly must be a consolatory reflection to them, that in case of necessity they have such an asylum.”

I can’t decide whether I like best that Mary goes into raptures over old sea dogs,  that Mr Richardson is quite happy to use phrases like ‘vicissitudes of fortune’ and ‘consolotory reflection’ to a 9 year old or that the pensioners appear both ‘clean’ and ‘merry’ in this alternate-universe version of Greenwich.

But there is no time to linger. They spend too long in the park, and have to get a carriage to an inn (no name, sadly), where they eat a hasty meal and then proceed “to view the curious cavern discovered in the year 1780, on the left side of the ascent to Blackheath; and having procured a guide, they entered it.”

This would have been the thing to do, I guess. Only rediscovered eighteen years previously, and, if memory serves, with the added attraction of a bloke with a pair of bellows up the top, puffing air into a special hole to provide some sort of air circulation, after the death from asphyxiation of 19 year old Lucy Talbot, the cave was open to all at 6d a throw.

I’m going to copy the whole visit below. What interests me (apart from the fact that they were going down god-knows-how-many steps to the light of one lanthorn) is what they DON’T see. This is before the days of there being a bar down there, or chandeliers, and before any of the lurid carvings that later writers mention. There’s no way small children – even as prim as these two – wouldn’t notice a giant carved devil’s head. I still see in modern ‘esoteric’ books that this head is automatically ‘ancient’ and therefore proof the cave was used as some kind of ritual ceremonial place. But if it was, it was after this, not in the time of ancient Britons.

But anyway, before I get on my hobby horse again – here it is:

The guide led the way with a lanthorn, down a regular flight of steps composed of chalk, and at least fifty feet from the surface of the earth, at the entrance, and, as the guide informed them, at the extremity of the cavern 160 feet. They then reached the apartments, which are seven in number, and where the guide lighted up candles. Some of these apartments are from twelve to thirty-six feet wide each way and have a communication with each other by archsed avenues.

The sides and roof of these are chalk, the bottom of sand: some of the apartments have large conical domes, upwads of thirty six feet high, supposted by columns of chalk, and in one of them is a well of very fine water, twenty-seven feet deep.

Charles and Mary were not soon weary of exploring this cavern: but Mr Richardson observing the latter shuddered; and complained of extreme cold, desired the guide to lead the way out.

“How amazingly curious!” said Mary, as they reached the top of the stairs, and again beheld the rays of the sun, which was setting as splendidly as possible for the last of October, “yet how gladly do I again see the cheerful light! I shall heareafter consider it with redoubled pleasure; for how dreadful must a dwelling be where it never enters!”

At this point, Mr Richardson sees the opportunity for a little moral instruction:

“Dreadful indeed!” resumed her father. “Yet how many are condemned to labour in the bowels of the earth where no beam of cheering sunshine can ever perfortate to dig for metals and minerals for the use of their more fortunate fellow creatures, who never consider the sorrow and labour they have been produred with!”

Charles is having none of it, following with this delightfully Age of Enlightenment non-sequitur:

“My dear Sir,” said Charles “when I have made myself master of the history of my own country, I know no study that would afford me so much pleasure as natural history.”

“You are perfectly right, Charles,” answered his father. “No pursuit is more pleasant, nor better calculated to improve the mind; I therefore think your intention commendable.


So there you have it. The whole book is fascinating, and I do recommend you take a peek at the (very short) Greenwich chapter. In the meanwhile, I leave you with its end:

Then they entred the coach, which was waiting for them and conversed gaily until they reached town, when it being late, they took leave of their father for the night.

Hole Opens in Crooms Hill

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Folks I’ll update this as I hear more – this is being tweeted by Robert Gray and I’m stuck in work, so it will all be very piecemeal for a while.

Apparently a hole has appeared halfway up Crooms Hill by the park. There is a network of tunnels, of course, running between the park and Hyde Vale, so I’m guessing it could be something like that. It’s just about 10″ wide at the moment but on past experience holes on Blackheath and Trinity Grove have ended up horse – and car – sized.

As I can’t get there just now, I don’t know exactly where it is, but I’ll place money on it being here:

which is where the Hyde Vale Conduit crosses the road on its way to the park. Just for bearings, Our Lady Star of the Sea is just above the arrow.

If I were King Phantom I would be using this as an excuse to look into opening these medieval/ 18th century tunnels up as a tourist attraction but my major worry now is that the Olympic guys will panic and fill-in the passageways rather than change their plans. That would be cultural vandalism on a large  scale indeed.

Sadly by the time Ian got to it it had all been filled in. Interestingly it also looks like it might just be a natural hole (Greenwich is a veritable Swiss cheese of a place) as it’s just outside the church rather than further up it, which is where the map would have put it:


Thanks Ian.


The other pictures are from Stephen, thanks very much indeed. Stephen tells me the workmen told him it was about a metre deep and two metres square, which sounds even less like a tunnel.

More news as I hear it…

…though Stephen was unimpressed. He said that it was “Making a Blackheath out of a Crooms Hill. And he may have a point. Sounded exciting while it was happening though.



There’s Gold In Them Thar Rafters

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

A pal of mine, who knows the way to a Phantom’s heart, gave me a rather odd little book for my birthday, a 1964 ‘guide’ to the pubs and taverns of the Thames, carefully selected, as far as I can see, by whether or not the establishments had paid to be in it. For all that, though, it’s full of some really quirky little entries, padded out with odd facts (or, possibly, factoids) about some of our classic hostelries.

Greenwich appears several times – with mentions of The Yacht (Manns) The Cutty Sark (Free House) The Trafalgar Tavern (Manns) – and the one I want to talk about today, The Pilot (Whitbread.)

Of course the Pilot is a Fullers House now, and, I have to say from the photos on its website, it looks like it might be a place to recommend to people who are looking for somewhere to stay on a visit to the O2. It’s certainly less corporate than the Holiday Inn, closer than the central Greenwich venues, and the rooms look pretty decent.

But I’m not really going to talk about the pub today in this post as my eye was drawn to something else in the entry in Riverside Taverns and Inns. It says that the original building dates back to the 1660s (that must be the bit in the middle) which explains why it survived the wholesale demolition on the peninsula – it’s automatically listed - “All buildings built before 1700 which survive in anything like their original condition are listed, as are most of those built between 1700 and 1840″ - English Heritage.  Even if Mary Mill’s reference to it actually having been built in the very early 19th century (in her sadly out-of-print Greenwich Marsh – the Three Hundred Years Before the Dome) is right, it’s still probably listed.

But back in 1964, they had just done some renovating and the book has this tantalising line:

“during recent renovations several gold coins were found lying amongst the old mahogany timbers.”

Now, I have to say I was mildly surprised to think that an inn would have been build from mahogany – but then this was dockland, and all sorts of materials ‘accidentally’ found their way into unexpected places off the ships. Bugsby’s Marsh would have been wild land where anything went. Perhaps the Pilot’s rafters are made from finest mahogany. But gold coins? Cor! That’s straight out of the Famous Five!

And it gets better.

“This discovery helps to substantiate the theory that smugglers used the house and probably hid their spoil in the loft before carrying it through the tunnels which lead from the cellar to the nearby river.”

When I read that I started dancing around with excitement. Of course, when I stopped for breath, I started asking questions – why would smugglers hide their booty in the rafters if they were only going to bring it all down again to lug it through secret underground tunnels?  And, um, surely this was Bugsby’s marsh? Underground tunnels? Why bother? The place was deserted, and the land so low anyway it would be flooded all the time.

But the romantic in me says ‘phooey’. I have written to the current landlords, asking them if they know anything about secret underground tunnels, and if they do, I’ll be packing off the guys at Subterranean Greenwichto do a reccy for me. I’ve also asked the guvnors they know anything about ancient gold coins – and what happened to them if they ever existed.

In the meanwhile. I had a quick chat with Mary, who didn’t seem as sceptical as I thought she might be. She even thinks it’s possible. Certainly she knows a guy who was brought up in a cafe in River Way. He told her there was a passageway under the shop going towards the river. And, she says, “East Lodge, which was the big house on  the riverside, is said to have old stone cellars underneath it ‘like those at the college’.” It is a bit of mystery when East Lodge actually was. In photos, Mary tells me,  it looks 1840ish but most likely dates, like the pilot, from 1802 and there are no buldings shown before that on detailed maps. But there is an account of a burglary in a riverside house earlier than that. 

Hopeful of finding a secret tunnel, Mary pushed for an archaeological dig between the Pilot and the river but despite MOLAS saying yes, it never happened and now, sadly, it appears to have been built on. However, she says there IS something in the cellars of the pub, though she told me to ask the landlord exactly what - which of course I have. I’ll let you know if I ever hear from him/her as to whether it’s a secret tunnel, a crock of gold or the Fearsome Beast of Bugsbys Marsh, entombed for the past eleven years ever since it was captured by Richard Rogers on an early hunting expedition before the birth of the Dome.

I’ll let you know if and when I do, folks. Fingers crossed all this talk of secret tunnels and gold wasn’t just a bit of blarney made up in the offices of The Constitutional Press Ltd to entrance Phantoms and sell a few more copies of Riverside Taverns and Inns

A Salutary Tale

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I owe this story to Dominic from the indomitable Subterranean Greenwich; a slightly scary story he spotted from 1841 which, despite the years, is probably something to bear in mind now, given the Swiss-cheese nature of Greenwich and Blackheath’s geography…

It’s a newspaper report on the inquest of unfortunate 46 year-old John Revell, whose body had been brought to the Sun in the Sands (I assume the public house; I guess it could have been the general area but that feels a bit weird…) where, despite the attentions of the surgeon, a Mr Kirkup, from St Jermain’s Terrace (St German’s, today?) he failed to survive.

The ‘melacholy circumstances’ leading to the demise of Mr Revell are thus. He’d been digging gravel at Frost’s Pits on the heath (I’m not sure I could even guess where they are/were…) and ‘had, with a pickaxe, undermined a shelving to a considerable extent.’

Recognising the tell-tale symptoms of a landslip, the other workers scarpered quickly, but Revell himself suffered the terrible fate of being buried alive beneath 20 tons of gravel.

Everyone rushed to try to dig him out, and thanks to the sheer number of helping hands, he was dragged out in 20 minutes,  immediately taken to the Sun in the Sands. Sadly, Mr Kirkup could do nothing - the pressure of all that gravel had ‘driven the ribs into the heart and lungs of the unfortunate man.’  Revell’s unnamed compatriot, also caught in the landslide, was buried merely up to the waist and escaped with a few bruises.

The jury’s verdict was Accidental Death.

This has a point for all of us though. Dominic says “Health and safety nonsense normally causes me to swear like a sailor at its silliness, but one thing is important – to prop up the sides of your trench if you’re digging a hole.”

It’s entirely possible that someone reading this will, at some point, find a hole in their Greenwich garden. It could be part of an old conduit, a ’secret passage,’ the odd grotto or even a minor landslide caused from the efforts of previous miners, such as William Steers, who was fined repeatedly in the 17th Century for undermining the King’s highway. I dream of such a find, but don’t hold out much hope for Phantom Towers. If you do find such a hole, Dominic and his partner in caving, Per, would love to hear from you and help you to explore it safely. Contact them at

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Air Raid Shelter

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

June asks:

I was born in Greenwich and grew up in Circus Street. I now live down on the coast near Dungeness. I remember my Dad telling me about a tunnel that went from somewhere near the swing park up to Blackheath. It was supposedly used during the war. I have searched on the net but can find nothing about it. Do you know of it at all?

Jack asks:

I have tried everywhere for info about the Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich Park     During the war it was used as an air raid shelter by the local residents my wife being one of those.    Can you help  me please?

I think it’s time to discuss the role of Greenwich Park in the war again… Happily I had a good chat with Dominic of the exemplary Subterranean Greenwich And Kent some time ago about this very subject, and, as luck would have it, Stephen of Blitzwalkers (next Greenwich at Warwalk Sat 18th September, btw) and I were going against Basil Fawlty’s advice and talking about the war just yesterday.

As we discussed a few months ago, Greenwich Park saw its fair share of action during WWII – and not all of it of the blast variety – the lower part near the Queen’s House was actually rather lovely, turned into allotments. But there were also several buildings in there – could they be used for air-raid shelters?

I guess we have to know a little about the underground geography around the west end of the Park, and even though Dominic has carefully explained it all, I’m still not sure I totally have it. The issue is that there are only so many words for ‘reservoir’ and ‘conduit’ and there appear to be several candidates for their use on the west side of the park (and not a few on the east…)

Dominic and his partner in cavery, Per, have inspected a highly detailed 1700-ish plan of the Standard Reservoir house,  and the underground reservoir immediately behind it. Now I think that that’s what I’ve always thought was the Conduit House, the dour little Hawksmoor building halfway up the hill. This one (as photographed by Stephen):

Dominic says “the building itself is empty and featureless, though under the floor is a reservoir fed by a lead pipe.

A few yards uphill from the building is a very large underground reservoir, which heads across towards the observatory for about 20 yards – it was opened during the war for assessment as a possible air raid shelter (I’ve seen a photo that proves that unequivocally).” I think Dominic means the big round reservoir, which, thinking about its underground nature probably would have been ideal. Apparently the Park’s a bit of a Swiss Cheese at that point, with plenty of tunnels and even another (now lost) conduit building.

It seems, though, that the wartime authorities actually decided on the Hawksmoor building, reinforcing it for use as Public Air Raid Shelter No. 4,  and though Stephens’s not sure where the other three were, (certainly from the Subterranean Greenwich guys’ account of visiting the “hobbit hole” near the children’s playground, that one would have been far too teeny – not to mention wet - to get panicky people inside) he tells me “There were also Trench Shelters over near the Park Vista entrance but given the reputation of these – one in Kennington Park collapsed after a near miss early in the Blitz with over 50 being killed – I shouldn’t think these were used much. As far as I know these were daytime-only shelters – i.e. for use of the public when the park was open – local residents in Crooms Hill for example would all have had Anderson shelters in their gardens.”

So, I’m pretty convinced that the air raid shelter that Jack’s wife and June’s dad remember is the Hawksmoor building – it even has ‘Greenwich Hospital’ carved on the outside. Happily, it never got a direct hit, though it had a very near miss on the night of 21st October 1940 when a bomb fell 25 yards from the entrance…

The picture at the top, by the way, is a total cheat. It’s a Faded Greenwich photo sent to me by Frank, of a fabulous Air Raid Shelter signpost – but it’s nowhere near Greenwich Park, or even Greenwich, though I’m sure we had them all over the place at the time. This splendid example is actually in Deptford High Street.

Underground Greenwich – The Phantom Fantasises on a Tuesday Morning

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Last night I was flicking through some old magazines one last time before chucking them out and I came across this little event. It’s  a guided tour of Exeter’s underground passages, which date back to medieval times. Exeter is so proud of these (fabulous, from the picture) tunnels that they are making a tourist destination out of them.

Of course I’d missed the event, but the photo brought to mind a picture we were talking about just a couple of months ago, taken by the Subterranean Greenwichexpert Per Von Schiebner. I have no idea HOW he took the picture, but I’m mighty glad he did. Take a look at page four of this PDF document. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the Exeter tunnels, don’t you think?

Now – I know that there’s not the cash knocking around that there could be for creating new attractions, but, in a moment of idle fantasising, I found myself once more wishing that Royal Parks, instead of shutting these amazing tunnels up and banning even experts from visiting them, could actually see them as an asset and turn them into a super-soft-adventure historical attraction?

It’s not like it would be the first time – back in Victorian /Edwardian times, right up to the First World War (and possibly beyond)  it seems that everyone used to wander round the secret tunnels from Hyde Vale to the strange little hobbit hole by the kiddies’ playground so often that Professor Stone (frustratingly) didn’t even bother describing them in his 1913 lecture – he just assumed that everyone knew them already and that they would always be open. No health and safety issues then.

I just think it would be a really great thing for all kinds of people to do - from bored foreign teenagers to curious local Phantoms. It wouldn’t have to be the entire network, (even the incredible Napoli Sotterraneacan’t do that) just a few hundred feet of Tudor brickwork, gothic arches and curious steps would do me. In my imagination it would start in the Conduit House, which would also have a little exhibition about the amazing Swizz cheese that Greenwich is, including all the sundry tunnels and secret passages under our feet. And, of course, since this is MY fantasy, Jack Cade’s Cavern would also be open, too.

I know it’s a financial thing as much as anything, but there also seems to be the lack of any political will to do anything about these tunnels. As far as the Olympics are concerned, the Officials seem to be pretending the tunnels aren’t there and keeping their fingers crossed about any sudden unscheduled water jumps that could appear, but to me they should be actively celebrating these wonderful, creepy, exciting pieces of Greenwich Heritage, rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist.

If Exeter can do it, surely Greenwich could? I bet there’s not a Phantomite reading who wouldn’t pay sixpence to have  sneak down there, guided, of course, by Dr Schreibner himself.

While we’re on the subject of Olympics and Greenwich Park, Methers points out that there is still some unfinished business to be dealt with. Whilst the battle to remove the Equestrian events from the park was lost, there was at least a whole bunch of planning conditions that LOCOG would have to obey. They have now applied to have at least some of those conditions overturned. Quite which conditions they are I don’t know (yet) but I’m guessing that NOGOE will have something to say about them.

Of course, NOGOE could always play the financial card. It MUST be cheaper to put the events somewhere there are already facilities?

Archaeology (1) How It SHOULD Be Done

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

I’m excited today, folks. I’ve just heard that the University of Greenwich is to begin a proper archaeological excavation of the Stockwell Street site. After so much heartache last year with the death of the village market, at last something good is happening – something that has been hotly anticipated ever since John Stone called for a dig in his seminal 1914 lecture to the Greenwich Antiquarian Society.

The university is currently waiting for the bizarrely-monikered Heneghan Peng architects to come up with a plan for the new building – which, if it isn’t truly innovative, exciting and architecturally meritorious, will not only be an embarrassment to Greenwich but a really bad advert for the Architectural School, so I’m holding out great hope.

But before they do anything that means getting out the buckets and spades, they’re going to be doing some pretty exhaustive surveys -geological, ecological, and the one that interests me, archaeological.

Obviously, the current buildings will have to go. Though to lose some of ‘scruffy Greenwich’ tugs at my heart strings – for me over-smartening the area will lose its character – we really can’t save everything. Besides, I’m desperate to know what’s underneath…

So bye-bye to those grungily-fab warehouses, seedily secretive stores and the uber-groovy Bee Gee garage. I didn’t know that was its name – I just thought it was an Esso job – but there it is in the 1976 pic below, courtesy, as above (from 1937) of Greenwich Heritage Centre. I’m not entirely sure what the little arrows are for.) Can’t you just see Barry tossing his layered, golden curls around the collar of his grease-spotted designer overalls before offering you a fill-up, whilst Maurice gives your big end a quick polish and Robin sells you a Magic Tree? Oooh-er, Missus. Sorry. Saturday Morning Fever seems to have struck at Phantom Towers…

They’re not sure if the old petrol tanks are still underneath the forecourt of the seventies supergroup’s day job, but if necessary, an expert team will carry out the clean up.

I’m told that “in order to preserve the streetscape for as long as possible, two large blocks on the frontage of Stockwell Street, John Humphries House and the disused storage unit at number 18-19, will remain standing for the time being.” Now, I have to say that John Humphries House has never really been part of the streetscape that I’ve ever thought worth preserving. If it was up to me, I’d rather look at hoardings than that ghastly, merit-free structure. I mean – it’s not as if we’re not used to hoardings round here at the moment.

Before they can start the fun bit of digging holes comes the boring stuff, like rubbish-clearing buildings surveys, sorting out services such as water, gas and electricity and detailed studies of the area (take one guess as to why the Phantom didn’t become an archaeologist…) They’ve already done much of the really tedious stuff, apparently, and are very nearly ready to start the exciting test pits to look at the archaeology of the site, which has been in use since at least the medieval period. They tell me

“Initial research indicates that building work over the centuries, and war-time bombs, have destroyed evidence from early periods, but the university will pay special attention to what remains of the 19th century maltings, which once supplied ale to the Spread Eagle Tavern.”

Coo-er. I’ve been promised a copy of the initial appraisal of the project, which will include some idea of what they think they might find, with some records of previous digs and some historical maps (they asked if I “might be interested?” Derrr!) They’re also going to be keeping us updated of anything they find – so watch this space.

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

Monday, February 8th, 2010

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.