Walking under Water – a stroll through Brunels’ Tunnel

This weekend was a rare occasion to walk through the Brunels’ Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, so how could I resist!

The Tunnel was a pioneering feat of engineering, started in 1825, using a revolutionary way to tunnel using a shield. But before that they had to build a shaft to get them down to the tunnel level and they did this by building a tower and then letting it sink into the ground! The tunnel was the brainchild of French born engineer Marc Brunel. His now more famous son Isambard Kingdom Brunel started to help out and in 1827 he became the resident engineer.

Tunneling was not easy and there was the first major flood in May 1827. The company held a celebratory banquet in November 1827 to restore confidence but in early 1828, there was a second flood which injured Brunel junior. Money was a continual concern and a share issue failed to raise enough extra cash, so the work stopped and the tunnel was bricked up in August 1828.

After much lobbying and a loan from the Treasury, work restarted in March 1835. And after a few more flooding episodes, the tunnel was finally completed and opened to pedestrian traffic in March 1843, some 18 years after work first started to build the Rotherhithe shaft. Queen Victoria even paid a surprise visit in July 1843.

It was planned to be a vehicle tunnel but there was no money to build the ramps to get the vehicles down. Initially though it was a great success as a pedestrian tunnel. There were all sorts of stalls and even fairs were held down there in the 1850s, but it became a bit seedy.

The solution came in 1865 when the East London Railway was formed to use the tunnel for a railway. This settled down to become the East London line on the Underground, but in 2010 it became part of the London Overground with trains going south to West Croydon and Crystal Palace and north to Dalston and Highbury & Islington.

Our exploration of the tunnel started at Rotherhithe station in SE16.


After being checked in, we are issued with blue “surgical” gloves. Apparently as there are various vermin in the tunnels, we are issued these as a precaution. Here I am modelling the latest addition to my wardrobe.


So we descend the escalator from the ticket hall to  a mezzanine level where there is a commemorative plaque from the (British) Institute of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers.


Then we go down some stairs to platform level.


There is temporary scaffolding bridging the two platforms with steps down. This is strange – walking down onto the track. There is a reassuring sign as we enter the tunnel to confirm the trains are not running!


It is even stranger to hear the sound of water trickling down a gully between the tracks here.


And so we go into the darkness. The Brunel tunnel does not start for a little way and so initially we are in a wide tunnel which can take the two train tracks.


But once we reach the Brunel tunnel the two tracks go into their own separate tunnels with arched arcading between them. The first four arches are the original brickwork preserved at the insistence of English Heritage in the 1990s when the tunnel was being refurbished.

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Then the tunnel changes to a smooth concrete, but with decorative features which echo what would have been here in brick.

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At various points along the way are gradient signs and there is one which shows the lowest point in the tunnel

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And every so often there is also a sign to show how far you are from the stations either way.


As we approach Wapping, the arcades between the two tracks are filled in with concrete, apparently where a bomb hit in 1940. But remarkably the line continue to operate, providing an important link for munitions trains.


And so we reach Wapping where the station is right at the tunnel mouth and when it is open you actually go down the Brunel tunnel shaft to reach the station. And looking back you can see the two tracks in their separate tunnels.


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So having walked all the 1200 feet of tunnel to Wapping along the northbound tunnel, we retrace our steps in the southbound tunnel. Sadly as we are on a late afternoon tour, we too late to go to the Brunel Museum which is housed in the pumphouse by the Rotherhithe shaft. Another thing to go on the list of must sees.

Much of the info on the history of the Tunnel in this blog came from a 2006 booklet called “The Brunels’ Tunnel” published by the Brunel Museum. As I bought it on the day, I got a little commemorative stamp on the frontispiece.


So a big thank you to all who organised these tours. The tickets were quite expensive but the guide said at the end that the sold out tours had raised around £73,000 which would be split between the Brunel Museum at Rotherhithe and a children’s charity.

And finally thanks to my fellow explorers, Julie and Brian, who joined me on this most enjoyable expedition into subterranean London.

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Now my next Underground excursion is going to be the disused Aldwych station where I have tickets for a tour in mid June…




2 thoughts on “Walking under Water – a stroll through Brunels’ Tunnel

  1. Pingback: E19 does not exist as a postcode | Walking London one postcode at a time

  2. Pingback: SE16: Tunnel Vision | Walking London one postcode at a time

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