Woolwich Foot Tunnel and Ferry

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Life has fallen into a sort of pattern in the last week or two.  I get up in the morning and have breakfast, and then sit for an hour or two staring at lists of Russian verbs, or trying to remember how to say "It's getting late, I must go home." (For the record: становиться поздно. Мне пара домой. Of course.)  Then I take a break, and have a run, or something to eat, or do a few errands, and then I decamp to a nice café for a brisk session of conjugating verbs and so on.  And can I just say how much I appreciate the alternate keyboards that are available on iDevices?  I've had the Russian keyboard set up on my phone and iPad for a while now and it's great.

Russian Keyboard
See?  And the best part is, I actually kind of know my way around that mess now.

This leaves a decent amount of time for doing blogworthy things, and I took advantage of that on Wednesday with a trip out to Woolwich, in the Far East, to check out two things that have been on my list for a while: the Woolwich Ferry and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel.  The weather has finally turned nice here, so I've been cycling a lot, and I figured that the ride out to Woolwich would be a nice one, and not much further than my regular ride out to Blackheath which can be accomplished in a pleasant 45 minutes.  In reality, Woolwich turns out to be quite a bit further than Blackheath, and much of the ride was on rather busy roads past grim industrial estates with me regularly checking my progress on my phone only to find I'd covered a dishearteningly short distance since the last check.  Nevertheless, I eventually arrived with a plan to walk across the river through the tunnel, return on the ferry, and then escape for a cup of coffee in a nice café somewhere, since sitting in nice cafés occupies about 73% of my waking time right now.

I was a bit sweaty and dishevelled when I finally arrived at the ferry terminal and started searching for the entrance to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel.  These sorts of tunnels are normally marked out by a lovely round brick edifice that covers the entrance, so I was expecting to see this:

South Foot Tunnel Entrance
The south entrance to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Instead, I wandered around fruitlessly behind a hideous leisure centre bouncing back and forth between a sign pointing west saying "Foot Tunnel Entrance" and a sign pointing east saying "Tunnel Entrance" with very little evidence of a tunnel entrance of any kind in the intervening space.  I almost gave up until I finally followed the east-pointing sign along a series of bright blue plywood barriers, beside a chunk of Herris fencing, and towards an extremely nondescript and well hidden set of concrete steps and down to... Voila!

Is this where you would have looked for the entrance to a turn of the century pedestrian foot crossing? Or is this perhaps where you might look if you wanted to discard an old sofa and not pay the tipping fees?  It turns out the entire lovely round brick edifice is positively festooned with scaffolding and barriers, making it mostly invisible.  It may as well have been "stuck behind a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware the Leopard.'"

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel was designed in 1912 by the excellently named Maurice Fitzmaurice, the Irish-born engineer who's also responsible for the Blackwall and Rotherhithe Tunnels.  An Olympics colleague and I have a soft spot for old Maurice Fitzmaurice, since we endured many late night trips through the Rotherhithe Tunnel on the way home from Opening Ceremony rehearsals.  In fact, the tunnel became a sort of touchstone of the journey.  It started with idle confusion about the distinction between the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the Thames Tunnel, which was cleared up with a quick bit of googling, leading to the discovery of the hero of our story, Maurice Fitzmaurice.  He was quickly characterised in our imagination as a straight-talking, no-nonsense type whose only line in our little drama was something like, "Come on lads, let's dig it long, and let's dig it deep!"  But back to our little foot tunnel...

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel was constructed to allow workers from the docks on the north side of the river access to the pleasant residential areas on the south, and it still serves essentially the same purpose.  At one time there were apparently quite lovely wood panelled elevators at either end, but those have long since been taken out of service.  In fact, the tunnel has undergone some major renovation in the last few years, which, judging by the state of the entrance rotunda, are still underway.  I think most of the money has been spent on safety issues like, for instance, ensuring the Thames doesn't flow impertinently into the tunnel at inconvenient moments. In this respect, the renovations have been a success, because I was able to traverse the whole length of the tunnel without getting my feet wet.

The entrance stairs are wide and wrap around for about a hundred and thirty steps.  Also pictured, the disused lift entrance.

It's a bit disquieting, the tunnel.  It's cool and damp and when I was there, quite deserted, which gives one pause.  At a bit more than 500 metres in length, it's a long way to run for help if you're set upon by some ne'er-do-well.  Then again, you get a lot of advance warning of someone approaching because the whole thing echoes quite magnificently, as demonstrated in this video:

The tunnel slopes up slightly at either end, so you can't see the ends from the middle.  
Like I said, a bit disquieting.

I strolled the whole length and it was largely uneventful.  I met one or two people coming the other way, but mostly it was just a long cool walk past half a kilometre of glossy white tile. Then again, I'm not sure I'd want it to be part of my regular commute.  It's just a bit too... inescapable.  Nevertheless, I emerged unscathed on the north bank through another scaffold-bedecked rotunda and made my way over to the dock for the Woolwich Ferry, my ticket back to the sunny south.

The Woolwich Ferry began operation in 1889, though there's been a ferry crossing at more or less the same spot since about the 14th century.  The army established its own ferry in 1810 to service the Woolwich Arsenal, and various other companies have run ferries as well.  The current service was established by the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had taken over operation of toll bridges in West London and removed the tolls.  The ferry was also free when established and still is today, for both foot and vehicle traffic.  It provides a useful alternative the nearby Blackwall Tunnel (Maurice Fitzmaurice, of course!), but sometimes the queue for the ferry backs up far enough that it's quicker to make for the tunnel.  The nearest downstream crossing is at Dartford, and includes the easternmost bridge across the Thames.

Vehicles and foot passengers boarding the ferry on the north side.

It's a funny old thing, the Woolwich Ferry.  Very utilitarian.  Two vessels operate at a time (though there are three in the fleet) and they basically spend their whole working day switching places.  One boards vehicles and passengers on the south and chugs over to the north, while the other starts on the north and goes south, covering a mere 400 metres each way.  Then they switch places again, doing so about every fifteen minutes.  I can't help but think its not the most glamorous maritime career available.  It must be the nautical equivalent of driving an airport shuttle bus between terminals.

The Ernest Bevin, chugging away.

The foot passenger area is below decks and ridiculously vast for the number of people it serves.  The licensed capacity of the boat is 500 foot passengers; on the day I traveled I was accompanied by six other people.  This left lots of room to wander around and take pictures of the decidedly basic but still somehow charming decor.

Long, empty corridors, lined, incongruously, with Olympics-related artwork

Very nice wooden benches

In contrast with the crossing via tunnel, a ride on the Woolwich Ferry on a sunny afternoon is a lovely and life-affirming thing.  You get a nice view of the Thames Barrier, with Canary Wharf and The Shard behind it.  And it's breezy and warm and thoroughly enjoyable, as you can see by my thoroughly contented expression here.

Me, with the north ferry terminal in the background and a blue sky above.

The aforementioned view

When the ferry docks on the other side, the entrance/exit ramp moves up and down to meet the boat, which means the fixed bit on the shore can adapt to the height of the tides.  This is accomplished with a really nice set of rack and pinion gears that moves the entire end of the ramp up and down and which, naturally, I took pictures of, because I knew Karen would want to see them. (There are more pictures of my day here at Flickr.)

Approaching the south side terminal

Nice rack!

Once I'd disembarked and found my bike again I pedalled off to Blackheath, which again turned out to be further and sweatier than I was expecting.  You may recall that I'd planned to find a nice café to sit in, but it quickly became clear that was simply not going to be sufficient.  Really, there was only one reasonable choice.


And so life continues, in a sort of odd, anticipatory, suspended kind of way.  I'm still waiting for the paperwork I need in order to apply for my Russian visa, which leaves me wondering whether I should be packing, or sitting tight, or searching for short term work or what. Theoretically I should be on a plane to Moscow in, er, six days.  I reality, I have to think that schedule is becoming more and more unlikely.  I which case, I guess I just continue my quest to remember the genitive, dative and accusative form of вы and my search for the for perfect flat white coffee and keep my fingers crossed.  All I can say is... stay tuned.

1 Comment:

Karen said...

Of course there were gears!

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