As hackneyed phrases go, 'incredible feat of Victorian engineering' is right up there with 'ailing pontiff' and 'medical breakthrough'. But it’s time to dust off (and there's another one) that old cliché once again as the Brunel Engine House announces guided tours of the remarkable Wapping to Rotherhithe tunnel. As part of Architecture Week, various bits of this incredible feat of Victorian engineering will be open to the public over the next two weekends.
Construction on the tunnel, from Wapping to Rotherhithe, began in 1825 and took 18 years to complete under direction of the father and son team of Mark and Isambard Brunel. (Incidentally, our spellchecker doesn't recognise the words 'Isambard' or 'Brunel', but has no problem with 'Condoleezza'. Bloody Microsoft and its parochial multinationalism.) When the tunnel opened in 1843, more than 50 000 people are thought to have walked through it in the first two days. It was used for all kinds of surprising purposes, from funfairs to banquets. Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing in 1855, gives a good insight:
"All along the extent of the corridor, in little alcoves, there are stalls of shops, kept principally by women, who, as you approach, are seen through the dusk offering for sale…multifarious trumpery."
Sadly, all that multifarious trumpery didn't last long. The tunnel was soon bought by the railways and now forms part of the East London line. To mark the rather curious 162-year anniversary, visitors can get up close and personal with the bits of the tunnel that won’t electrocute them. The adjoining museum also offers insights into the, literally, groundbreaking work the tunnel represents:
"Watercolours, peep-shows, and models, explain this epic feat of engineering, and tell the story of the men who worked in the dark, dodging flames and showered with raw sewage."
Visitors in the first row, you may get wet.
Tickets cost £5. Meet at Rotherhithe Tube ticket hall on 18, 19, 25 or 26 June at 13:00, 14:00, 15:00 or 16:00. The journey includes genuine Victorian frugality, so you’ll have to meet the additional cost of a Zone 2 tube ticket to complete parts of the tour.