Thames Tunnel Tour

March 14, 2010

Last week I saw the following come into my twitter feed from @Spoonfed: “Thames Tunnel Reopens for the First Time in 145 Years (link)”

I can’t say that I have an avid interest in really old things with dark, damp, musty holes but this did sound like the kind of thing I may want to do on a Saturday. Brunel is a legend, and the chance to see the first underwater tunnel in the world seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so I of course wanted to go ahead and book a ticket.

Easier said than done.

The post mentions that the tour is available via the Transport Museum and left me a phone number, so the logical thing would be to call it, which I did on Saturday 6th March. Nobody picked up, and I didn’t want to leave a message and assumed there would be a way to pre-book tickets online. There was, but not a simple way.

I eventually found this ticket booking page:, though I’m actually not too sure how I even did that, it seemed to be a random combination of using Google and clicking various links on their site to try and book tickets for another event before finally seeing the Tunnel Tour coming up. Once found I had to decide from 3 different events that I wanted to go to. One was a Tunnel Tour, one was a Fancy Fayre, and one was a Brunel Tour. All were the same price and all had the same description (a safety notice which was of no real use in determining the one I wanted).

Playing it safe I opted for the Tunnel Tour, as though the other two may have been the same, or may have included a few more things for the same price, I was pretty happy to miss out on the others if it guaranteed I would be able to walk the tunnel. I think one may have even been to go down the Brunel shaft, equally as confusing as that’s something completely different.

So, I found the ticket page, established the ticket I wanted, specified the date and time I required – simple from here, right?


The ticket ordering page would not allow me to select the number of tickets I wanted and submit it. Was it sold out? Perhaps, but there was no real indication of this.

Eventually I resorted to that age old trick I do whenever I visit the site produced by a government in a country that has no real technological infrastructure in place, I switch to Internet Explorer.

Voila! Suddenly I could order the tickets without issue. It’s amazing that whoever has designed the page has not made it browser compatible. Chrome I can kind of understand, but surely Firefox comparability is a must nowadays?

I entered my credit card details, crossed my fingers and hit submit.

A few minutes later I received two emails. One with my ticket (or at least, a bar code that would later not be scanned), and a second email confirming my place on the tour (or so I hoped) and designating the time of my tour.

One week later I was set to go. It was about 1pm in the afternoon when I thought I should go ahead and decide how on earth I get to the Brunel museum. Looking at the TFL website I was dismayed to see that the Jubilee line was out of action, so my initial plan of jumping on at Waterloo and getting off at Canada Water was thrown out of the window. I instead contemplated a boat. It’s a rare treat when I use a boat service, but to get there I would have had to either take two boats or just one boat and a 30 minute walk at the other end. That would be okay, but not ideal.

So, taxi or bus? I looked into the bus route and was surprised to see that the 188 goes from my home in Russell Square all the way to Canada Water and only take 30 minutes or so. Result! So I hopped onto the 188 at 3:30 and arrived at the Brunel Museum at 4:10 – hurrah.
Thames Tunnel - Brunel Plaque
There were quite a few people around, and a queue forming to go down a shaft. I popped into the museum to ask where I should go to queue for the tunnel tour and a stressed looking girl stood behind a desk told me to walk down the street until I hit Rotherhithe station and queue there. During the 3 minutes I was in the museum I heard a couple of people complaining about how disorganised the staff are, one particular American raising his voice a little too much and completing about how inept the organisers were – no wonder the poor girl looked flustered if she had had two days of tourists attempting to buy tickets for a sold out event and getting angry that they had pre-booked. And so I trundled off to Rotherhithe station to join the queue, with a fellow from Ipswitch hopefully asking every passer by if they had a spare ticket (I’m pleased to say he was able to get in using a spare ticket from a party that arrived a few minutes later). Again it all had a disorganised feeling, but what did people expect? There people work for London Transport; it’s not their every day job to deal with several tour groups. It’s a shame a lot of people there just liked to complain really.
Thames Tunnel - Rotherhithe Station

Thames Tunnel - Tour Sold Out

At 4:30 I was allowed into the station where my name was ticked off a list and I was told to check my bag in. I removed my additional lens, opting to carry that with me rather than leave it in my bag, and checked it in, and then picked up a sexy pair of white latex gloves which I was told to wear at all times, though wasn’t really told why. I guess it was to prevent the possibility of Wiles disease, and then amused myself for a few minutes attempting to think of a ‘pissed as a rat’ joke that would incorporate the disease and my trip to the tunnel. I failed.

A few minutes later and we were good to go, a quick safety notice later and we were led down to the track. As a group we stood at the entrance to the right hand tunnel and were told a few facts about when it was built, how close above our heads the Thames actually was, and a few other things that I have now forgotten. and then we were off down the track on our way to Wapping. It was a leisurely pace, avoiding all of the trip hazards in the way and allowing time to take photographs. With hindsight I should have taken my filter off as it seemed to catch and reflect light which I didn’t want, but I took far fewer pictures than I thought I would, instead my imagination kicked in as I walked down the tunnel, imagining what it would have been like a century and a half ago when it was open to the public, and each archway was filled with a stall of some sort selling crappy touristy items, and where the darker alcoves hid a pick-pocket or a lady of the night. I also wondered what a horse would have thought about being down there, and how badly the whole place would smell.

Thames Tunnel - Old Brickwork

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel - Seeping

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Thames Tunnel

Before long we were at Wapping, I guess it took around 15 minutes to walk from one to the other.

At Wapping we moved over to the left hand tunnel and had time for questions, not that there were many before we started our journey back. I took the opportunity here to switch the camera into record mode and took a 5 minute video of walking down the tunnel. I had no additional light so it’s all rather gloomy and rather echoed, and my attempt to switch to portrait view later on in the video did not have the desired effect (turning the film sideways rather than changing the view – I’ve been using an iPhone too long and expected that change without really thinking about it). It’s just amazing to me to think of the tunnel as it was used in the past, with so many visitors and having 50,000 people making their way through it.

Thames Tunnel – Wapping to Rotherhithe (video)

Ten minutes later and we were back in Rotherhithe and ready to end the tour. I thought away my rat piss stained gloves, and bought a copy of the Thames Tunel book they had on offer before retreating to The Mayflower for a quick pint, and a rather enjoyable bus back home.

All in all the tunnel itself was nothing special. I mean it is a special tunnel. It is exceptional in it’s own way and what it stands for, and without someone, as it was Brunel, doing this one tunnel we would not have the Eurostar today. I just mean that the tunnel itself is similar to other train tunnels. It’s thinking about what it used to be that made it special for me; imagining a million people visiting it at a time when only two million people lived in London. Imagining the banquets that took place, the stalls that were there and the whole Dickensian imagery I get with thinking of old London and a world of pick-pockets, horses and the Victorian era.

Also enjoying the tunnel tour this weekend:
Adam Wright: Thames Tunnel
Ian Visits: Walking though Brunel’s Tunnel under the Thames
diamond geezer: Thames Tunnel Tour and Fancy Fair
853: Inside the Thames Tunnel


4 Responses to “Thames Tunnel Tour”

  1. Wavatar Stevie on March 14th, 2010 1:30 pm

    Love the tunnel shot that is flooded by light. Sounds good, wish I’d heard about i earlier and I would have gone along too. Sxx

  2. Wavatar murphyz on March 14th, 2010 1:33 pm

    Thanks – it took ages to set up that shot…which I did on purpose. No, really, it wasn’t by accident at all 🙂


  3. Wavatar last year's girl on March 14th, 2010 9:50 pm

    Sounds fascinating (despite the initial faff) – thanks for sharing.

  4. Wavatar murphyz on March 15th, 2010 8:22 pm

    It was indeed, though I don’t want to do this kind of stuff too often for fear I become obsessed with the underground and start fixating on which tunnels were built, when and by whom. I’m already rather tedious I don’t need to become more of a bore by doing that!


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