Earlier today, people queued up outside Rotherhithe Station for a rare chance to walk through a railway tunnel under the Thames. Yet next to them ran another tunnel, also under the Thames and also equally rarely walked through.

Yet it is open every day and any one can walk through — if they are foolish enough to do so, for this is the Rotherhithe Tunnel and it is a smoky realm of noxious fumes and carbon monoxide monsters.

When the much older Thames Tunnel was opened in 1843, the original plan had been for it to be used by horse and cart for cargo deliveries between the two sides of the Thames. That never happened as they never raised the money to build the huge ramps needed. So, in 1900, as the need still existed, another tunnel was dug, and it opened in 1908 as the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Used for horse and cart as intended, it has long since been superseded by the motorist with significantly greater horsepower than their predecessors could have imagined possible.

There used to be four routes into the tunnel for pedestrians, but two were sealed off during WW2, leaving just tile covered staircases at either end.

One of those staircases happens to be just across the road from Rotherhithe Station, so while excited people went into the railway station, I cross to the otherside and descended down to a very different environment.

The road tunnel runs over the railway at this point, and you can just about see the iron supports for the railway as it ducks under the road.

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Down here in the cutting the cavernous mouth of the tunnel looms large, yet few motorists probably even notice the decoration on the frontage nor the grand text above announcing the equally grand opening of the tunnel.

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Going within though, now you are within the realm of the motorist. A narrow pavement runs along the tunnel. Always for pedestrians, who lead their horse and carts to market down these tile lined tubes, and now more often used by cyclists.

It’s probably the only place where cyclists are encouraged to cycle on the pavement, as I once learnt on a cycle down here, the motorists really do not like you to be on the road. Really, not at all — the road is too narrow for them to overtake you.

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One of the quirks of the tunnel is that it isn’t a straight line from one side to the other, but regularly turns corners — allegedly so that horses going inside wouldn’t see daylight at the other end and bolt down the tunnel to escape.

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It is at these corners though that you can also find some of the hidden marvels of this Edwardian era tunnel.

Here is a giant ventilation shaft. Driven down from the surface in much the same way as the earlier Thames Tunnel, there are in fact four such shafts along the tunnel length.

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Wandering along the pedestrian path, the occasional face could be seen in cars passing by looking quizically at the strange sight of a pedestrian in the tunnel. In fact, I nearly worried about the venture myself, for about a quarter of the way along I started to feel really quite light headed and queasy, but a moment of composure, and on with the adventure.

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For it the second of the shafts within this noisome tunnel that is the first of the most interesting. Yes, that is an ornate staircase running up, and indeed, when originally opened, this was one of the two since closed ways into the tunnel.

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Two red-brick round buildings next to the river on either side of the Thames were decorative structures and offered a spiral staircase down to the tunnel below. They were closed following damage during WW2, and thanks to the displacement of pedestrians below by the motorcar, there has seemed to be no incentive to restore them.

Photo from the Illustrated London News

Photo from the Illustrated London News

Back down below, the staircase has also been blocked off with a steel door, and a curiously positioned sign warning not to loiter due to traffic fumes. Are the fumes any worse at this location than elsewhere in the tunnel?

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However, despite the warning sign, this little remnant of a staircase is one of London’s hidden wonders and rarely noticed by the thousands of motorists who pass it every day.

The second of the shafts past, we are only now finally entering the long straight length of tunnel that runs under the Thames itself. A long unremittingly dull walk. Footstep after footstep of dull grimy tile cladding monotony.

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Yet down here is also the half way mark, although not marked at the exact half way point.

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But, visual respite eventually comes, in the third of the shafts, and the northern counterpart to the spiral staircase we passed an age back. Again the staircase is sealed off, although you can get a bit closer to this one as the metal fence is either missing, or never put in place.

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Here the tunnel also takes on a new aspect, almost as if the Northern side wants to be different from the Southern. Where that was several straight lengths with sharp corners, here all is long winding curves.

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A long undulating curve to the left that ducks under The Highway and leads to the last of the ventilation shafts, and one designs solely for that purpose. And then a wide arc of a curve to the right, and at last you can start to see daylight in the distance.

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And eventually, out into air that is as polluted as London air is, yet feels a blessing of sweet countryside freshness by comparison to what has been endured within.

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An estimated 20 people per day walk down this tunnel, and hardly any more could want to.

It’s noisy, dirty, unpleasant, polluted… and therefore, quite obviously, every Londoner should do walk though it at least once.

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18 comments on “Walking through a Tunnel under the Thames — Part 1
  1. Edwin Chappell says:

    Well done for being that brave (or mad) and showing us all this walk.

    I am fascinated by the fact that 20 people walk this tunnel each day. Who had the exciting task of sitting there and counting them I wonder!

  2. Penny says:

    Is the pedestrian pavement really as narrow as it looks? I would be worried about fast cars driving close to me

    • Ian N says:

      It has average speed cameras at either end now that ensure the traffic all drives below 20mph. Did used to get some numpty driving in there before the cameras went in.

  3. Greg Tingey says:

    The Tunnel entrances (certainly the North one, anyway) are “Listed Buildings”

  4. Pedantic of Purley says:

    I am planning a walk trough – but not until the only vehicles allowed are pollution free and they have cleaned it up. I hope one day that happens – and that they restore the staircases.

  5. Roger says:

    I drove past you yesterday as you were taking pictures in the tunnel. I did wonder who on earth would do that – I wasn’t even aware that pedestrians were allowed in there….

  6. Ian N says:

    Sad thing is the whole tunnel used to be clad in the beautiful white tiles that are in some of your photos but one-to-two years ago they took nearly all of them off and now there’s just rubbish dirty painted walls. At least when it was tiled throughout it was relatively wipe-clean every so often. Now it is perma-dirty.

  7. Fiona C says:

    I don’t think the walk through the tunnel is all that bad. I’ve done it a couple of times a year over the past ten years. No, it isn’t a life-enhancing experience, and it’s suitable for solo walkers only as you can’t walk two-abreast or conduct a conversation while you’re in there, but I find it less intimidating each time I do it. It gives me the option of walking from Bermondsey to Canary Wharf in 40 minutes instead of the 80 minutes via Tower Bridge, and while I usually go for the prettier route, I’m glad to have the option.

  8. DT says:

    I did attempt a walk through when I lived in Rotherhithe but chickened out as the pavement is not very wide and 20mph seems a lot faster when you’re not in a car. We also attempted to gain access to the stairwell after a night in the Old Salt Quay but didn’t quite manage it.

  9. Gerry says:

    The two riverside shafts (2 & 3) were open to pedestrians until at least the mid-1960s.

    However, bomb damage to the roofs in WW2 meant that the staircases became unsafe because of corrosion from the rain and exhaust fumes.

    The roofs were replaced fairly recently, so now would be a good time to re-open these shafts. It shortens the underground walk dramatically and would promote walking, one of the Mayor’s objectives.

  10. Shane says:

    I am so overdue to walk or ride this tunnel & reading through the many post on here makes me more eager to, I must remember to take along my ear plugs & a respirator mask & camera, I have driven through the tunnel many times & have witnessed the light headed the fumes can case by driving with the windows slightly open for a short while but that has not deterred me to take the walk or ride, I live but 5 mins walk away now, so hoping to walk soon.

  11. Owen says:

    Doing it this on Monday (23-2-15) from south to north, so as to take in The Prospect of Whitby, The Captain Kidd and the Town of Ramsgate, before a jaunt to (and up) The Monument, followed by The Hand and Shears (Smithfield), a stroll around the Barbican, Pie Mash at Manzes, Chapel St. Market, the Island Queen, Noel Road, and finally The Camel, Globe Road. Prior to this, I’ll traverse Greenwich foot tunnel, north to south, stopping off at Goddards, for an initial stomach-lining feast of Pie Mash. Gonna be a good day.

  12. Daniel says:

    Definitely keen for this – as long as someone’s done it before, I feel brave/mad enough to follow. It’s so convenient to get to the parks and canals on the north side of the river, instead of having to meander round to Greenwich or Tower Bridge. I’m a keen marathon runner as well, so my options for routes has just doubled in size. Thanks Ian!

  13. Bobby says:

    I just walked the tunnel this lunchtime – slowly coming down. I started feeling light-headed about halfway through, but my eyes felt the effect of the fumes the most. I went North to South which I recommend because, in my opinion, the area around the Southern exit is much more pleasant to emerge into. The Northern entrance can be a little tricky to locate, though! Highlights at the Northern end are Limehouse Marina and Cable Street. The Brunel Museum is close to the Southern end.

  14. dave says:

    A splendid article, exactly my experience of walking the tunnel in April 2015. Why did i do it ? Because it was there and i was exploring Docklands, an area I know very little of, footloose and fancy free, and it seemed a good idea, and there weren’t any notices saying you can’t ! But about a quarter of the way in I realised it was a very silly thing to do, but determined, no turning back, keep up a steady pace but try not to inhale too deeply. Admiring this masterpiece of Edwardian engineering, that domething that defeated Brunel.but designed for an other age. Certainly glad to emerge at the northern portal and gulp ‘fresh’ London air.
    The ventilation shafts (have I think) extractor fans sucking out the fumes, so they are probably most concentrated at this point.
    Potential business venture, hire your gas-mask as you go in, give it up in exchange for your badge or tee-shirt saying ” I walked the Rotherhithe Tunnel “. If you are daft enough to !”

  15. nigel spalding says:

    why have the white tiles been removed from the southern side? I love those old tiles and now it looks awful without them. who did this and why? surely they should have asked us residents and replaced like with like if there was a need to repair the tunnel.

  16. Yoachim Levey says:

    I’ve cycled through it a few times, really unpleasant. Can just about reach the end with enough energy left in your muscles. It’s actually slightly scary, but very, very relieving when you exit and learn never to take fresh air for granted again!

  17. Bryan Purdy says:

    When we were kids in the Fifties we would take the bus from Stepney (Tower Hamlets) to Rotherhithe and then walk back thru the tunnel after spending time at a local park. The fumes then were terrible, I cannot imagine what they are like today.

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