Sunday, July 21, 2013

In London, a find unlike any other

LONDON – I went out for a run in East London’s Canary Wharf fairly recently, and I wasn’t in a great mood. I had hoped to run with a friend (hello, Megan!) but she was injured and couldn’t make it. And the area seemed to be surrounded by industrial parks and highways along the River Thames.

Indeed, I started out along the Thames for five minutes before hitting a highway and then reversed course. I hit a few more dead-ends after that, and finally smartened up: I spied another runner and followed him away from the river; local runners always know the best routes. He led me through a warren of narrow streets, until finally I was running along the river again, in an area with a great name:

The Isle of Dogs.

The name alone put me in a better mood. I knew there must be great convoluted history behind it, likely going back centuries (and there is), and kept running alongside working-class-looking apartments that I was sure likely went for a half-million pounds each.

I passed a little park (with a few dogs) and then came upon a mini-brick domed structure, which rose about  three stories high.


It looked like the top of a buried building. As I stopped, a couple of bicyclists emerged from one side of the building. Then a few more came out, and a few more, totaling eight or nine in all.

Where had they come from?

The round building had an elevator with a wide door, as well as an internal spiral staircase. I descended down the stairway.


I went down, down, down, for two minutes, until I reached a landing and then turned a corner.

There, in front of me, was a tunnel!


I realized I was underneath the Thames. So I ran.

I felt like I was entering a time from an earlier century. The tunnel was not high – maybe eight feet at most – and it was dank and poorly lit. It was wide enough – maybe nine or 10 feet – for two lanes. That was a good thing as a string of bikers was headed my way. 

The tunnel descended and then ascended – it must have been a quarter mile long, long enough so that I couldn’t see the end – and I raced through it with the joy of a boy who had just discovered something magical. (And perhaps the fear of a man who can feel slightly claustrophobic.) I reached the end and ran up the spiral staircase and exited on the other side of the Thames. I had to see the view. The brownish river was in front of me, a park behind me, and more bikers headed my way. I reversed course, and ran through the old tunnel again.

Two weeks later, I was telling the story to our neighbors, Gerry and Deb, both Brits. Deb knew about the tunnel immediately, and Gerry pulled out his iPad and confirmed where I had been: the Greenwich foot tunnel.

We learned that tunnel construction started in 1899 and was finished in 1902; its purpose was to replace an “expensive and and sometimes unreliable ferry service” for workers on the south side of the Thames to get to London docks and shipyards around the Isle of Dogs. The person who pushed it through was a politician with the memorable name of Will Crooks.


Thank you, Mr. Crooks. Your long-ago political maneuverings have benefitted many on a daily basis for more than a century, including giving me an unexpected find on a summer morning.

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