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…




Here’s to the Ladies Who Bus …

I first came across the Ladies Who Bus in 2012 when I was working as Director of Transport and Mobility at London Councils and one of the things I was responsible for was the Freedom Pass, the concessionary travel pass for older and disabled Londoners.


Starting in 2009, Jo, Linda and Mary (known collectively as the Ladies Who Bus) had been working their way through every London bus route using their Freedom Passes and blogging about what they saw. How we had not picked up on this before I do not know. But once we had, it seemed to me it would be great if we could invite the Ladies into the office and show them the little team in London who run the Freedom Pass.

London Councils is the umbrella body for the 32 London boroughs and th City of London. There is a surprisingly small team to manage Freedom Pass, given there are more than 1.3 million passes. It was just a bit of me plus another manager and then a dedicated team of three, who did all the hard work. The Freedom Passes themselves start out as blank white Oyster cards and are personalised with the holder’s name and photograph by a contractor in Hull. The contractor adds a silver coloured hologram (This is a security device on the front and is not as some people think where the microchip is located). They also enable the cards with the national smartcard system known as ITSO. This allows the cards to be read outside London where the local buses have smartcard systems. The London team deal with queries escalated from Hull, such as people applying for two passes at the same time. There is a public facing contact centre handling phone calls, emails and letters. This is run by the contractor from Scotland but the London team have to deal with the more complex issues, such as authorising refunds where a card had became faulty. The London staff also have to deal with the finance arrangements including the negotiations with Transport for London, the Association of Train Operating Companies and the bus companies who operate local bus services in London outside the TfL network.

But back to the Ladies Who Bus visiting the office. There are three bus routes (344, 381 and RV1) which pass the offices of London Councils which is at the quaintly addressed 59½ Southwark Street – and no this is not some Harry Potter fantasy address. It is a full sized building. It is just the building was between 59 and 61 and someone, many, many years ago decided it would be better to call it 59½ rather than 59A which would be more usual.

Well we were way too late for the 344 as the Ladies had done that route in November 2009, although their posting dates from 4 June 2012 to keep the routes in order. So my colleague, Zara Bishop, the London Councils press officer, contacted the Ladies to see if they would like to come and see us when they got to route 381. They accepted the invitation and came on 15 August 2012. As their post explains, this led to them being on local TV and radio! In fact they hardly had time to drink their coffee, with all the filming and interviews going on!


London boroughs fund almost all the cost of the Freedom Pass and almost all the concession is protected by national legislation. Yet listening to the Mayor (both Boris and Ken) it was often appeared that the Mayor was responsible for ensuring its existence and also paying for it. So in the spring of 2013, Zara suggested that London Councils produce a short video to explain about the Freedom Pass and Freedom Pass – the Movie was born. And who better to star in this but the Ladies Who Bus.

Early one Sunday morning in April 2013, the Ladies trekked along to a small film studios in Wapping to take part. There was a little troupe of Zumba dancers – Zara’s idea. London Councils also hired a big red bus and this plied its way back and forth in Wapping, no doubt confusing the locals who normally only see single deckers. The story of that day’s filming is in the Ladies’ blog “Route Random Wapping”:


And here is what it turned out like:


I was there too, and can be seen as one of the bus passengers (I do not dance!). You can see my name (and a signature) on the opening sequence which is like a British Board of Film Classification screen. And finally, as this was done with economy in mind, I did the voice over (free!).

By the time the Ladies Who Bus got to RV1 in October 2013, I had retired from London Councils. They did pop in and see the team again and although I was invited to join them, sadly I had another engagement that day. Here is that post:


They kindly linked to my blog “Walking London Post Code at a Time”. This is my retirement project. Inspired by the Ladies. They were travelling one bus route at a time – I thought I would walk London one post code at a time. This links builds on my qualification as a City of Westminster walking tour guide and my new part time career as a walking guide:  http://londonpostcodewalks.wordpress.com/

And today, Monday 10 February 2014, they have reached the end of their quest with route X68 from Russell Square to West Croydon and I was honoured to be invited to join them.

Here are few pictures from this historic occasion.

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Geoff from Londonist was there, so there will be a report on their site. Here is a link to his piece:  http://londonist.com/2014/02/ladies-who-bus-riding-the-final-bus-around-london.php?utm_source=Today%27s+posts+from+Londonist&utm_campaign=718439a21a-Londonist+Daily&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_acfd22879f-718439a21a-218210689


That is it then, or is it? They have promised to do the tram and river routes and are threatening to move on to a new project involving the museums of London.

So to misquote Stephen Sondheim:

“I’d like to propose a toast … Here’s to the Ladies Who Bus, everybody rise …”

The sweet taste of the new Tate – the Tate Britain refurb

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new areas of Tate Britain before the formal opening on 19 November 2013.

Going in the Millbank entrance (ie the original Gallery entrance) you pass through a very white entrance hall and then you are in a wonderful space with a high domed glass roof. This was always here and was where the information desks used to be. But it seems so much brighter now and, in the four niches, there are artworks. The floor has an interesting scalloped patterns which was apparently what was here back in the 1920s.  Above is the new Member’s “Room” accessed by staircases at the side and below accessed by a new spiral staircase are the new cafe and the refurbished restaurant with the famous Rex Whistler murals plus archive rooms and education spaces.

This scalloped design is cleverly used as it is echoed in the balustrade around the spiral staircase.


Downstairs on one side is the Djangoly cafe (the main catering facility) and on the other is the Rex Whistler restaurant. Unfortunately I could not get any pictures of the Whistler restaurant with its conserved murals. The place was still being set up when I was there but I did get a peek in and I am sure it will be really fanatastic when all the tables are in place etc! Across the way is the main cafe which just feels much more spacious not to mention light and airy compared to the old cafe. Nice furnishings and lights. This has doors which open out so I guess in summer it will be possible to get out into the air and have your tea.


Heading back up the spiral staircase and you get this wonderful view


Then going to the upper level you find the Member’s Room is not really a room at all but is the space wrapped around the rotunda at this upper level. Great views up and down and some really interesting furniture which I carelessly forgot to photograph.

Here though is a picture looking down to one of the niches at the entry level.


Oh and here is one of me at the first floor level, just to prove I was there!!!


Just off the walkway round the rotunda is what is called “The Grand Saloon”. This is the room over the front entrance and apparently used to be the Director’s office. It a nice space and will I am sure be a great place for drinks receptions. It has a lovely ceiling which you cannot quite see in the picture. There are windows to the front and the side. The view below is towards the Clore entrance.


This certainly is a great piece of renovation and at last Tate Britain has a proper space for members, which feels like a destination in its own right.

My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.

So said Oscar Wilde, apparently not quite his last words, when dying in Paris in 1900. Well the wallpaper at The Grange in Ramsgate could well provoke the same reaction in some.


But having spent a weekend in company with Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s own wallpaper in four different colour ways, it kind of grew on me. I think I could live with it. By the way “En Avant” means “Forward”. This was Pugin’s own motto which if you think about it is rather odd as his work harked back to medieval times.  So not exactly forward.

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The Grange was designed by Pugin in the Victorian Gothic style and is a Grade I listed building. Pugin bought the land for the site at West Cliff in 1841. The house was built between 1843 and 1844 by the builder George Myers. Pugin’s second wife died in 1844 and it was only after his third marriage to Jane Knill in 1848 that it became a family home. But the interior of the house was only finally completed in 1850.

The design is very different to what had gone before as form followed function and so the shape of the house is dictated by what rooms needed to be where. It was clearly up to date as it had indoor toilets with water provided from a tank in the tower. The style was influential on subsequent English architecture designed by architects like Edwin Lutyens.

Here is the sitting room. The pictures are copies of Pugin and one of his wives.

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And here is the Library


The Hall has wonderful floor tiles with the Pugin bird (a martlet I believe), which is also on the chair backs in the hall


And the bedrooms are very comfy with three of them having lovely views. Here’s what I woke up to:


Pugin died in the house in 1852 at the age of only 40. He is buried in the impressive Pugin chantry chapel in St Augustine’s Church, next to the house, which was also designed by him and completed by his eldest son, Edward Pugin, who was also an architect. But the house does actually have its own little chapel too and here are a couple of pictures of that.


The house was rescued by the Landmark Trust in 1997 and it has been restored to how it would have been in the late 1840s, but with modern plumbing! It is now available for temporary lets of a few days. The public can see some of the property on Wednesdays and the whole house is open a couple of days a year. But the best way is to splash out and rent it. It really is a comfortable house. Lots of space but very homely and not at all overwhelming. Find seven friends and book it now!

More info from the Landmark Trust



A small well appointed office in town with residential accommodation

Two Temple Place WC2 is an hidden away architectural gem. It was built for William Waldorf Astor primarily for use as his estate office.  This was Astor’s “crenellated Tudor stronghold”. It was his office and it had residential space – it was a home away from home (the United States) where he felt his children would be safer from the threat of kidnapping and a place where he could display some of his art, etc.


Bull Dog sign outside Two Temple Place

Bull Dog sign outside Two Temple Place

Bull Dog sign ouside Two Temple Place

Bull Dog sign ouside Two Temple Place

Weather Vane with boat representing the one which Colombus discovered America

Weather Vane with boat representing the one which Colombus discovered America

Weather Vane with boat representing the one which Colombus discovered America

Weather Vane with boat representing the one which Colombus discovered America

The house was designed by one of the foremost neo-Gothic architects of the late nineteenth-century, John Loughborough Pearson. Astor had emigrated to England in 1891 as arguably, the richest man in the world and no expense was be spared when work began on Two Temple Place in 1892. In addition to the extraordinary, opulent interior, when it was finished in 1895, Two Temple Place contained the largest strong room in Europe as well as two other enormous fortified safes.

Interior of Staircase hall

Interior of Staircase hall

Interior of Staircase hall

Interior of Staircase hall

Stained Glass in Main Hall

Stained Glass in Main Hall

Stained Glass in Main Hall

Stained Glass in Main Hall

Since the Astor family sold the house it has had various owners: Sun Life of Canada from 1922 to 1928, the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors from 1928.  Smith & Nephew also owned the building.

The building was hit by a German flying bomb on 24 July 1944. There was considerable damage to the house but this has been repaired.

Exterior - Two Temple Place

Two Temple Place is now a private house owned by the registered charity, the Bulldog Trust. It is closed to the public except during its annual exhibitions or if you get invited to a corporate event held here, like I was lucky enough to be. The house’s website is:  http://www.twotempleplace.org/

But there are many more wonderful pictures on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Temple_Place

And so to Bankside …

So here we are with 20 or so people from various European cities who are all involved in a European Union funded project to encourage cycling. They are staying in Southwark and about to dine at the Swan restaurant at the Globe theatre. And I am showing them a bit of London most tourists never see.

So where better to start out perambulation that the site of the Southwark Rose theatre. I am sure our guests wonder where they are going when I take them down a staircase off Southwark Bridge Road and down onto a rather grimy Park Street to see a black door and a blue plaque.

ImageBut here over 400 years ago was where people went to be entertained. It is hard to imagine it now, especially when you cannot even go in any see anything, as there are only enough volunteers to open on a Saturday and then you can only see a black space covered in water with some red lights to show where the outline of the 16th century theatre was.

And just  along from here is the site of the original Globe theatre. Unfortunately 6 feet under with a lot under a listed building. Anyhow here is what I could show them.


Not too impressive, huh? And it does not get much better when I walk them down to the Clink prison – nothing much to see here except the modern exhibit and a rather atmospheric railway arch and warehouses.


Now a quick detour via the umbrellas installation (sorry no picture!) and Neal’s Yard Cheese shop to Borough Market, which of course was closed! However it is still interesting to talk about how its charter dates from 1756, how the railways had to built over it in the 1860s, how it reinvented itself in recent years and survived the building of the new Thameslink viaduct over it.



That Shard gets everywhere, doesn’t it? Even peaking out above Southwark Cathedral


Moving on we stopped by the Golden Hinde, which our European friends were disappointed to learn was only 40 years old – it being a replica.


The story of Sir Francis Drake being the first Englishman to sail round round the world (1577 – 1580) is rather difficult to tell when you have Spanish and Portuguese people there as of course they were there first. Magellan (Portuguese) made it part the way round but it was a Spaniard (basque) guy called Elcamino who managed it in the 1520s!

But just here is a great view of the City


Our guests loved the names of the building: the Cheese Grater, the Gerkin and the Walkie Talkie. And I did make sure they saw the monument so that when they saw St Paul’s later they could understand how much was destroyed by the 1666 Fire of London.

We stopped briefly at the remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s medieval palace. Hard to believe how this survived.


And so then passing by the Clink again, we reached the river by the Anchor old riverside inn which claims to date from 1615 but has been burnt down twice since then!

And a brisk walk down the Thames and I left them happy at the new Globe only 15 minutes late for their dinner, but so much more informed about this little bit of London!


BBC Broadcasting House – the view from inside

Yes you can actually go round BBC’s Broadcasting House – if you pay them. You don’t get to see that much, but it is quite fun.

You start in the newest bit and have to go through airport style security and wait in a cafe area from where you can look down into the vast news room area. We then went outside across the courtyard and into the “Peel Wing” where we did see the BBC London studio, which is much smaller than you think it is going to be. Apparently this is just temporary and BBC London will get a proper home soon.Image

Then back into the old entrance hall which have been taken back to how it looked in the 1930s. (hope that woman hasn’t been waiting that long!)


Than we went into the “Artist Lobby” where there is this tapestry thing which was given by the french after the war and got forgotten about – not surprising as it is pretty ugly. However it does fit nicely in the space.


But in the corner is this fab old mike


And you get to have a go – doing a radio play in a little studio – sound effects and all. We particularly liked the champagne cork popping – sadly did not involve champagne or even a bottle.


Then into the balcony of the old radio theatre, which was a bit dull. But we got treated to hearing a sound check for a programme going on later. Do they do that for all the tours?

Back into the new building and again we could look down into the newsroom (but no pictures allowed from this point). And a chance to read the news or do the weather in another mini studio. I volunteered to be a news reader but sadly no picture exists of this momentous event!

And so that hour and a half was over. Feeling the need for some light refreshment we adjourned to the nearby St George’s Hotel where there is a bar on the 15th floor. We finished our little tour with a nice glass of cold white wine and looked across Westminster and tried to work out what the hell those blocks in the distance were. So much for being professional Westminster tour guides! Could we see the Hilton on Park Lane or what it that other Hotel on Knightsbridge. Anyhow to wind up we did look back down to the BBC because we definitely knew what that looked like!