Saturday, July 5th 2014
We are taking a friend to Rotherhithe to show him the Brunel Museum there. We have already visited this museum ourselves (see May Staycation 2013 – Day 7) and exhausted its treasures – at least, the treasures that lie above ground. Today we are hoping to enjoy a more subterranean adventure.
Rotherhithe is on the south side of the Thames and can be reached by taking the Overground train service to its Victorian station, though that’s not how we came here today. We chose to use the buses instead. The station first opened in 1869 when the East London Railway reached here. In the 1880s it became a stop on the then newly built Metropolitan Line, the world’s first underground railway system.
Not far away from the station is the Church of St Olav, a Norwegian church. Designed by John Love Seayon Dahl, its foundation stone was laid in 1926 by its patron’s namesake, Prince Olav, who later became King Olav V of Norway.
On the wall is a plaque to King Olav V (1903-1991), while the spire is topped by a rather fetching model of a drakkar, or Viking dragon ship, a pretty if somewhat sinister reminder of past relations between our two nations.
In Albion Street we found a small street market where all the stalls had tent-like roofs. It didn’t seem very busy but perhaps trade picks up later in the day.
Beside the Brunel Museum, which is accommodated in what was originally Brunel’s engine house, is the shaft that he dug in order to begin boring his tunnel under the Thames. The shaft, a circular hole in the ground lined with two layers of bricks and strengthened with metal supports, was put in place by an entirely novel method invented by Brunel. Instead of digging a hole and lining it with bricks as the depth increased – the method universally adopted up to that time – Brunel built a circular tower on the surface, making it heavy enough to gradually sink into the soft wet soil. A fuller description of the process is given here.
After the tunnel was completed, the shaft, fitted with a staircase, was used for public access to the tunnel. When the public was no longer allowed into the tunnel, the shaft was closed and remained so for about 145 years. It has recently been decided to open it for for guided tours.
We bought our tickets and were asked to wait until the tour began. When we were called, we found that we were at the end of a very long queue of people who had already started to go down. I wondered why progress was so slow but eventually found out: the entrance was not a door but a square-section hole through the thick wall. If you were short and limber, you could probably walk through this passage (about six feet in length) as long as you bent double, but I was too tall to do that and had to go down on my hands and knees and crawl through.
I do have a touch of claustrophobia and had to grit my teeth to get through, telling myself it would be fine once I was inside. Emerging from the passage, I found myself at the top of a temporary staircase built of scaffolding and planks. Looking down between the scaffolding rods, I could see below me a crowd of people seated in rows on chairs. Instead of making me feel better, this for some reason made me feel worse and I seriously thought of turning around and crawling out into the daylight again. However, tickets were a touch expensive and our friend had paid so I felt I ought not duck out.
Arriving down below we found that the tour guide had not waited for us and had already begun his lecture. The acoustics were poor and we could hear what he said only when he turned his head on our direction. My companions only heard half of what he said while I understood nothing at all because of my bad hearing.
I kept thinking of the narrow passage and the length of time it would take for us all to leave the place. What if there were an emergency? I steeled myself and determined to sit here until everyone else had left when I would have a confidence-boosting clear exit.
The lecture, seemingly as interminable as it was incomprehensible, finally came to an end and the audience began to trickle out like sand grains through the neck of an hour glass. Some people hung back talking to the lecturer and asking questions. When the exit at last seemed clear, I made a dash for it, crawling on hands and knees along the passage, gratefully emerging into daylight and fresh air.
If you wonder at the colour of the above photos, this is because technicians were lighting the place with projectors with coloured lights. Why they would do this, I don’t know. If they thought it made the place look pretty, they were wrong. If anything, it gave the place a sinister atmosphere, like a pantomime representation of Hell.
Incidentally, the line you see on the wall snaking its way down from right to left is the trace of the old public staircase.
Although it was a dull day with the threat of rain, I was happy to stand out in the open, breathing fresh air while our friend had a look round the museum. It was at this point that Tigger spotted something odd in a tree in the museum garden. Perhaps you can see it in the photo below.
Tigger asked me whether I thought that the object in the tree was an ornamental wooden bird. It was too still to be a real bird so perhaps it was a model. But why would there be a wooden bird in the tree, in any case? We spent a while amusedly trying to make up our minds about it and then approached closer in order to resolve the question.
No, it was not a bird but just a chance alignment of features of the tree that had no relation to one another (other than that of belonging to the tree). A pure optical illusion.
Near the museum is the 18th century Church of St Mary’s Rotherhithe. The church likes to boast of its connections with the Pilgrim Fathers but the only real connection seems to be a burial in its graveyard. The Mayflower certainly set sail from near here, accompanied by the Speedwell, on the first leg its journey but that’s a tenuous enough link. The Master of the Mayflower was Captain Christopher Jones and he certainly was of this parish and he ended up buried in the burial ground.
Jones was buried here subsequent to his death at the age of 55 in 1622. The monument to him, by Jamie Sargeant, was erected in 1995. Well might the good captain enquire “What took you so long?”
Opposite the church is a compact but handsome house that was once home to St Mary’s School. As the pair of figures set between first floor windows indicate, this was a Bluecoat School. These were charity schools and took their name from the uniform usually worn by pupils, a blue frock coat for boys and a blue dress for girls. (Blue was used for charity as blue was the cheapest dye.)
As the plaque beneath the figures indicates, the school was founded by Peter Hill and Robert Bell in 1613 as a free school, became a charity school in 1742 and moved to this house in 1797. The figures vary slightly from school to school but are always very similar to this pair. Both hold a Bible (or prayer book) in their right hands and the boy holds his cap in his left while the girl carries a scroll. Here it is blank but in other cases it has inscribed on its important dates in the school’s history.
London’s urban burial grounds were all closed in the 1850s and either then or more recently have been landscaped and turned into gardens for the public to enjoy. The burial ground of St Mary’s Rotherhithe is no exception but there remains an important reminder of the days when it was still in use. This small building, now a coffee shop, bears a plaque that identifies it as a watch house and dates it to 1821.
In the late 18th century and early 19th century there was a high demand for corpses to be used for medical research by anatomists. The only legal source of corpses was of people condemned to death and dissection by the courts and demand far outstripped supply. Anatomists could not afford to be too fussy as to where the corpses came from and there grew up an active illicit trade in bodies. In some case, body snatchers murdered people in order to sell their bodies but freshly buried corpses would also be dug up and so the watch houses were set up to guard graveyards. Some of these buildings still exist though now put to rather less dramatic uses.
In one place, the enclosure of St Mary’s burial ground consists of the orphan façade of a small building. Seeing on it the words “ENGINE HOUSE”, I first assumed this had something to do with Brunel and his tunnel, even though it is some distance away. That is not the case, however. The building to which the façade belonged was apparently erected to accommodate a fire engine that serviced the Rotherhithe area. The size of the doorway suggests that it cannot have been a very large appliance.
I took my last photos from Blackfriars Bridge where we bade goodbye to our friend and caught a bus to start out journey home.
So, what of the day? Was it worth the trouble of going to see Brunel’s shaft, despite the inconvenience and annoyance? Altogether, yes, I am glad I went, though I think they could have organized things better. The ticket price was far too high given that we could hardly hear what the guide was supposed to be telling us. I understand that easier access is being planned so that future generations of visitors, unlike me, will not have to crawl on their hands and knees. The important point, though, is that the speaker should wait for everyone to be assembled before he begins and should be able to make himself heard and understood.