There are numerous tunnels throughout London. In fact, due to the nature of the city’s urban landscape, tunnels are an essential feature of the Capital. From the world famous tube to the building of the Channel Tunnel rail link and more, tunnels are essential to the movement of people throughout the city.
To the east of Tower Bridge there are no more bridges until Dartford, way beyond the Greater London border and the confines of this blog. In other words, the remainder of this series will be filled with tunnels and ferries.
But onto the Rotherhithe Tunnel, and to the first of the three tunnels that I will visit on this tour of the River Thames.
Now, this tunnel does not have the historic significance of the nearby Thames Tunnel, nor does it have the traffic reports of the Blackwall Tunnel, but there is one significant fact to note about the Rotherhithe tunnel. It is the only mixed mode crossing underneath the Thames. Every tunnel under the River Thames allows only one form of traffic, be it foot traffic or road traffic or rail traffic. But the Rotherhithe Tunnel is the only crossing UNDER the Thames where there are two forms of traffic. Road traffic and pedestrians. And this is significant as it puts the tunnel on my list of crossings to visit!
(question: Is this could be the only tunnel in the UK where pedestrians are free to wander with cars?)
Yes, I actually did walk through the entire length of this tunnel. From Limehouse on the north bank to Rotherhithe on the south bank of the river. And before you enter the tunnel (on either side) you will encounter these large cast iron rings, acting as gateways to the tunnel. These are spares from the lining of the tunnel wall. These spare shields not only act as ceremonial gateways but as a useful guard against tall vehicles trying to force their way through the river at this point.
Not many people decide to walk through the tunnel. According to TfL, only 20 pedestrians attempt the crossing. And for good reason. The stench! There is no ventilation in the Rotherhithe tunnel, and at just over a mile long the fumes from cars are intoxicating. One thing, I suffer for this blog, for your pleasure. The one mile walk is horrific, but it is not the first time I have attempted to do so. Back in 2005, during the 7/7 bombings, I was stranded on the wrong side of the river. With no public transport, there was only one way to get home, and that was by the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Thankfully in these more peaceful times, I was not stopped by the police for taking photographs in the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Nor could I resist a bit of tagging to illustrate what my lungs would look like once I emerged into the light…
(Oh yes, that’s real soot there, lining the walls of the tunnel and my lungs).
But, I did not want to linger for very long. You see, the police do not have to whisk their overpaid arses to get me out of the tunnel. The danger of asphyxiation was more pressing, so onward I went, under the river towards Rotherhithe and fresh air. Who ever thought that such an unholy place in South London would be associated with the replenishment of my own personal oxygen levels!
The Rotherhithe Tunnel is weird. Oh, let us be honest, virtually every crossing in London is weird, and the Rotherhithe is no exception to this rule. It has some of the most severe restrictions on road users in the city (only Albert Bridge is as poxy to car drivers), yet, its virtue of being one of the few crossing points east of Tower Bridge means that it has the importance of being a Red Route. Its narrow roadway means that the official speed limit is a mere 20mph, yet this is frequently broken by Londoners great and good. The lack of space, the lack of escape routes and the volume of traffic makes the Rotherhithe Tunnel the tenth most dangerous tunnel in Europe. All the more surprising that pedestrians are still allowed to walk through the tunnel. Take advantage of it while you can (and if you have a death wish). One day, the humble walker will be banned from this very funky piece of London…
A little bit of history for you dear reader, lifted from the great and good of wikipedia. Believe it or not, this is London’s third youngest fixed crossing point in this series (after the Millennium Bridge and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel), and although there have been upgrades and newer structures added to many crossing points along the River Thames, the Rotherhithe Tunnel was planned and added to the urban fabric well after most of London had been built up. This is (one of) the reason(s) why the tunnel sharply bends, as it had to avoid the docks that were located on either side of the river in this part of London. The docks have long since closed, and this area has changed much since its opening a hundred or so years ago. However, the Rotherhithe Tunnel still resonates with activity. Horses have been replaced by vans, but Londoners will always be the same. In an almighty rush to get nowhere…
Getting there and away:
There are no longer any buses crossing the Rotherhithe Tunnel, with the 395 getting scrapped in 2006.
So if you find yourself on the North side of the river buses 15, 115, D3 and at night N15, N550 and N551 will take you to the northern portal of the Rotherhithe Tunnel, alongside Limehouse Station. (DLR/National Rail).
On the southern side of the river, bus routes 47, 188 (24 hour), 381, C10, P12 and night routes N47 and N381 will drop you to the tunnel entrance. Also, the soon to be reopened Rotherhithe Station (London Overground) will whisk you there, but that is another blog post away…