Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Walking the Woolwich foot tunnel in 1916

I can’t say I enjoy using the foot tunnels under the Thames.

There would have been a time when walking under the river using the Woolwich or Greenwich tunnel was an adventure.

But then I was only 10 and like the Underground these days if there is a surface alternative I will take it.

It may mean using a bus on a congested road in the rush hour but I prefer it.

Looking back I am surprised I was so nonchalant at the illuminated sign at Rotherhithe warning of “MEN WORKING ON THE PUMPS” and thinking what that meant for the short journey to Wapping.

And the same unease resurfaced when I read that the refurbishment of both the Woolwich and Greenwich tunnels included work to reduce leakage, improve drainage as well as installing new lifts, CCTV communication facilities and signage.

Of course the tunnels are quite safe but at 67 I shall continue to use the ferry or take the longer route and cross by bridge up river.

That said this 1916 image of the Woolwich foot tunnel from the collection of Kristine Bedford perfectly captures how I remember the place.

The tunnel was “built by Walter Scott and Middleton, opened on 26 October 1912 [and offered] a free 24/7 alternative to the ferry crossing, which was periodically suspended during bad weather.”*

Now whenever I used it I was pretty much on my own and that long walk with the echoing sound of my own feet, the light and the stone pavement stretching out for nearly a third of a mile was always an experience.

Added to which there was that slow incline down and the then the slight rise which indicated that the journey was nearing its end.

Once upon a time just before six in the morning and at the end of the day it would have been a much busier place, particularly when the ferry was not running, but this empty scene is how I remember it and given my disinclination to wander underground it will remain a memory.

Picture; Woolwich Foot Tunnel circa 1916, courtesy of Kristina Bedford

*Woolwich Through Time, Kristina Bedford, 2014, Amberley Publishing,

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