The Brunel Museum manages to be both small and in Rotherhithe. In terms of square footage, I’m pretty confident the living area of my flat is bigger. There’s a television in the lower corner, running a film on Marc Brunel and his tunnel. There’s a mezzanine level with a gift shop and tea bar. And there’s an upstairs bit with some diagrams about how the tunnel was built. Out the back, there’s some benches. One of them has a model of a train in the middle of it:
Perhaps more interestingly, the original south-side shaft of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel is right next to the museum. I was fortunate enough to climb through a hatch, down some scaffolding, and arrive at a newly installed concrete floor about twenty feet down. The shafts were built above ground and the ground below them was removed, allowing them to sink. The north-side shaft now forms a part of Wapping station on the London Overground network. If you’re stood at the foot of the stairs, by the lifts, just look up.
The Thames Tunnel, now allowing trains traveling between Rotherhithe and Wapping to traverse the river without getting wet, has something of a chequered past. It flooded twice during construction, killing six and delaying the project for seven years. The original intention was to allow goods to cross the river with speed and ease. Alas, Marc Brunel wasn’t as much of an accountant as he was civil engineer. That’d be how he got himself into the situation of running out of money before building approach ramps. Whoops.
Plan B: put spiral staircases in the shafts, lease pitches in the tunnel to merchants, cash in on the novelty of it all. The path of the original spiral staircase can still be seen in the south shaft:
But that didn’t really work out, either. Ne’er-do-wells and purveyors of the original profession made the tunnel a place to do business. Many of the stall-holders didn’t renew their leases and, once more, Brunel was stuck.
So he sold it to the East London Railway, completing a series of firsts. It was now the first tunnel to pass under a navigable river. It housed the first shopping arcade in a tunnel. And now it was the first under-river tunnel on the railway, before becoming the first under-river tunnel on the world’s first underground railway. It was also the first, and last, project Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked on with his father.
More photos over on flickr.