In Guarded Praise Of The Woolwich Foot Tunnel

By M@ Last edited 9 months ago
In Guarded Praise Of The Woolwich Foot Tunnel
A view along the Woolwich foot tunnel taken at floor level. It is a white tiled tunnel with left and right marked lanes

A walk under the Thames that everyone should try exactly once.

There are three ways to get across the Thames at Woolwich. Most people take the DLR. Those with cars, or the urge to sing sea shanties, catch the Woolwich Ferry (when it's working). The fit and fearless descend into the foot tunnel.

Yes, the foot tunnel. It's been there since 1912, but isn't exactly common knowledge. At least not to those who live outside the area. If you've ever walked through its better-known sibling in Greenwich then you've had a flavour. But the Woolwich version is longer and lonelier, and therefore feels like more of an adventure. Go seek it out... though you might want to bring a friend.

Round the back of the leisure centre

The first challenge is to find the ruddy thing. If coming from Woolwich High Street you have to duck down a semi-industrial access road that wouldn't win any "world's most inviting street" competitions. There is a signpost, but it doesn't go out of its way to attract your attention. Turn right, then right again, and with any luck you'll stumble across a niche cut into the back of the leisure centre. There lurks the entrance shaft — like it's on a fag break or something.

A red-brick rotunda with lots of fingerposts in front of it
So that's where all the signposts went...

This handsome hatbox of a building is of similar species to the one guarding the Greenwich tunnel. It lacks the familiar glass dome and is altogether more timid in its setting, but is clearly of similar form and function. Duck inside (once you've found the entrance; itself furtive) and there's a decision to make: stairs or lift?

You should take the lift because it has an intriguing wooden interior — but also because you'll get a thorough introduction to the steps at the other end, where the elevator has been out of action for some time (I'll come to that in a bit). The lift takes a while to descend into the depths, giving you plenty of opportunity to recall all those viral vids where the lights go out and someone creeps into the lift from a concealed panel.

The interior of the lift

Eventually, the lift doors open to reveal one of the great alt.Insta views in London. Voila!

Looking through lift doors into a long tunnel

And, because the tunnel sees very low footfall, you'll probably have the place all to yourself... which is excellent for photography, not so good for peace of mind.

Historical interlude

A view along the tunnel from roof height

Before we set off, it's worth taking a minute to review the history of this unlikely tunnel. It was designed in the early 20th century by the splendidly named Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, whose CV also included Vauxhall Bridge, the Rotherhithe Tunnel... and the Aswan Dam.

The tunnel opened on 26 October 1912... aptly, the same day that Don Siegel, director of Escape From Alcatraz, was born. The route was well used in its early life. Woolwich and the Royal Docks were still thriving industrial areas at the time, and many people made the crossing. In 1915, a soldier returning to Woolwich barracks fired his revolver into the floor of the tunnel — just for the LOLs. He was apprehended by a passing constable and later fined just 20 shillings thanks to his previous good character. It was a different age.

A warning sign of what you can and cannot do in the tunnel. Smoking and cycling are the main no-nos
Puppet shows, picnics

Cycling has long been outlawed in the tunnel. It's hardly enforced today, but news reports from the early years suggest people were regularly fined for riding under the Thames. Another regulation, dating from 1938, states that "No person shall drive or conduct into the tunnel any cattle, or any animal forming part of a menagerie, or wild animal." It's not clear if the bylaw has ever been tested.

Journey under the Thames

Happily unencumbered by any menagerie, I set off into the tunnel trying not to think about the megatons of water above my head. The passage stretches off like a mildew-bricked road, diving down beneath the river towards a far-off inflection point, beyond which the tunnel's progress is obscured by its own roof. Nobody else is down here. I venture a "hello" but the curved walls reflect no echo. The space is also unexpectedly odourless. I've been down here before, and recall an aromatic mix of piss and damp, but the tunnel has seemingly cleaned up its act.

That may in part be thanks to the cameras. A discreet CCTV hub protrudes from the roof every 50 paces or so. For once, the surveillance is a welcome companion. This long, lonely, linear walk could feel a mite threatening to the solo walker, and it's reassuring to know that someone's (probably) keeping an eye on things from a booth somewhere.

The half-kilometre tunnel is conquered in little more than five minutes. It's a trek taken in almost complete isolation. Only as I approach the northern shaft do other people appear — a group of high-vis-sporting workmen heading over to Woolwich, and an excited toddler with its big person. The ferry is currently out of action, and I suspect a few extra people are using this free crossing rather than pay for the DLR.

A view through the tunnel, with graffiti saying Fix the Lift
Thanks for the offer but... you didn't leave contact details

There's bad news at the end of the tunnel. The northern lift shaft has been out of action for years, thanks to difficulties procuring spare parts. A local campaign group, rejoicing in the memorable acronym of Fogwoft (Friends of Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels) has given up campaigning in frustration. Scrawl on the wall echoes their sentiments. So it's up the 126 steps I go, emerging into the grey, afternoon light of North Woolwich (as the south-eastern part of the Royal Docks is still known — a rare case of a name spanning the Thames).

I can't say it was the most joyous 15 minutes of my life, but it certainly something to try if you enjoy slightly unsettling urban exploration. Tripadvisor ranks the tunnel as the 536th best thing to do in London, which is a travesty as it should at least be in the top 400.

What you do from here is your own business. You might explore the nearby Royal Victoria Gardens with its strange benches and industrial salvage. You could follow the Capital Ring walking route north round the top of the Royal Docks towards West Ham. You might even board a flight from the adjacent City Airport. But whatever you do, you won't find anywhere else quite like Woolwich foot tunnel*

A red brick, drum-shaped building with slope-roofed porch
The Royal Docks shaft

*Apart from Greenwich foot tunnel.

Last Updated 17 March 2023