Emphysema tunnel

Tomorrow marks the 113th anniversary of the Rotherhithe Tunnel, opened by The Prince of Wales who was destined to become King George V less than two years later.

This mile-long single-bore tunnel had taken four years to build, at a cost of £2 million, and was, at the time, the largest subaqueous tunnel in existence.

There weren’t many cars around in the 1900s so the Rotherhithe Tunnel was primarily for the benefit of pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, it cuts across the river at an angle, allowing gradients to be shallower and easier to climb for the animals, and it was also constructed with several sharp zigzagging bends, ensuring that horses wouldn’t be able to see daylight at the other end and bolt for the exit.

The wonderfully named Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, the council’s engineer, designed it, he had been an engineer (with David Hay) for the Blackwall Tunnel, before going to Egypt to work on the Aswan Dam.

We start at the southern end at Culling Circus, appropriately named since you risk life and limb venturing along this mile-long bore.

It doesn’t look like anyone on foot should be allowed down here, but really, it’s still perfectly legal. Only 20 pedestrians a day pass this way, even though it’s the only walking route across the river between Tower Bridge and Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Even after its upgrade a couple of decades ago, it’s relentlessly bleak down here, especially when the traffic’s light. A few 20mph road signs, various ventilation units, and pavements to keep vehicles from straying too close to the circular roof.

In fact, so close does the traffic pass, once just before one Christmas, a transit van and my cab’s mirrors collided at one of the hairpin bends, yes that’s how close you pass.

At bend number two there is an unexpected sight tucked away in a tiled recess – a large iron spiral staircase, this used to be the pedestrian entrance, a shortcut down the airshaft from the banks of the Thames above, but wartime damage closed it off and the steps are now firmly locked top and bottom.

The central straight section is the longest, and here’s a confession, before the upgrade (and average speed cameras) when returning home from nightshift in Bermondsey, I would see how quickly I could travel between these two sharp bends.

Having traversed the tunnel without any leaks cascading down from the millions of gallons of water suspended somewhere above my head, finally the welcoming sight of North London daylight, eventually emerging almost a mile downstream in deepest Limehouse.

2 thoughts on “Emphysema tunnel”

  1. That’s where I am from, and it was a regular walk in my teenage years. I remember the filthy tiles, black from spray and exhaust smoke. When I passed my driving test in 1969, I drove through it and back just to experience that tunnel on four wheels instead of two legs.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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