Greensted Church and the Fat Turk

I hope nobody is expecting a story featuring an obese fellow from Istanbul, because they are going to be disappointed.

Greensted Church

Greensted Church

Last weekend took us out to Chipping Onger, a town in Essex that really isn’t very far from where we live. Now despite having lived in the county for about 30 years I had never been to the town before (well except as the terminal point on the Epping and Onger Steam Railway)

Pitchford Hall gets steam up

In Chipping Onger we could smell the coal fires from the railway locomotives

Our main point of interest was Greensted Church, which is a bit outside of the town itself. It’s the only surviving wooden Saxon building in the UK. The nave walls

The stave walls of the nave

The stave walls of the nave and Crusader grave

were erected around 1060, just six years before the Norman invasion, although archeologists found the remains of a much older building dating back to the sixth or seventh century below the chancel floor and the dedication to St Andrew may even suggest a Celtic foundation .

The Leper Squint

The Leper Squint

Much altered through the years and restored in the 19th century by local carpenter James Barlow the church has some interesting features including the Leper Squint by the old doorway, although this is now reckoned to be a tiny window for looking out rather than one for sufferers of the disease to look in!

We hadn’t actually planned to go into Chipping Onger itself, but having taken the wrong turn out of the church car park we found ourselves there

High Street Chipping Onger

High Street Chipping Onger

and decided to see if there was anywhere good to have lunch. We eventually settled on The Fat Turk.

The Fat Turk

The Fat Turk

Where we received a pleasant welcome from the young waiter who showed us to a rustic table

Next time I want one of these booths

Next time I want one of these booths

and handed us the menu. Mab chose Kavurma,

delocious Kavurma

delocious Kavurma

a dish of pan-fried lamb and peppers while I had The Fat Turk Toastie, a sandwhich packed full of sucuk (Turkish sausage), Halim (a cheese not unlike Halloumi), gherkins and salad. Both dishes were absolutely delicious. With drinks our bill only came to £25 which wasn’t bad at all.

The Fat Turk himself

The Fat Turk himself

I liked the Fat Turk and I’m sure we will visit him again.

Classic London Underground Locomotive at the Epping and Ongar Railway

Back in 1994 London Transport closed down the Ongar extension of the Central Line from Epping station, so it wasn’t without a little sense of  irony that we found that the Epping and Ongar Railway, who now operate a heritage railway on the track, had got together with the London Transport Museum to run some very special trains to celebrate the 150th anniversary of London Underground.

Metropolitan No.1 built in 1898

Metropolitan No.1 built in 1898

We’d visited the Epping and Ongar Railway before (read about it here) but the opportunity to ride in a real piece of London’s history was too good to miss. Lots of people had had the same idea and the railway’s fleet of historic buses were all busy moving people from Epping Underground Station to the railway’s start point at North Weald Station.

Classic London Transport RT buses at North Weald Station

Classic London Transport RT buses at North Weald Station

Ready and waiting on the platform wee a variety of historic Metropolitan Line carriages that used to run on the tracks between central London  and stations out in Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Vintage Metropolitan Line carriages

Vintage Metropolitan Line carriages

The star of the show was carriage No.353 which was built in 1892 and ran on the line up to 1906 when it was sold to the Weston, Clevedon  and Portishead Railway.

Carriage 353

Carriage 353

It eventually ended up as a a military tailors workshop before being lovingly restored by the London Transport Museum. We paid a £5 supplement on the day ticket price of £20 to ride in the plush velvet First Class luxury of  what we were told was the Queen’s carriage of No. 353.

Plush velvet interior of Carraige 353

Plush velvet interior of Carriage 353

Taking us to Ongar was an old British Railways locomotive,

British Railways steam locomotive

British Railways steam locomotive

but waiting for us at the other end was Metropolitan No.1, which was going to pull us back to North Weald.

Metropolitan No.1 steams back to link up with our train

Metropolitan No.1 steams back to link up with our train

Metropolitan No. 1 was built in 1898 and it is the oldest surviving locomotive from the age of steam on London Underground’s Metropolitan Line. We had to change carriages as our special red ticket upgrade was only valid one way and our carriage for the return leg had an interior restored back to World War II complete with air raid instructions.

Air raid instructions

Air raid instructions

and a pre Harry Beck (the guy who designed the classic tube map) map of the Metropolitan Railway.

Metropolitan Line Map

Metropolitan Line Map

Arriving back at North Weald we also got to see the other London Transport steam locomotive L.150 as it got up steam to take the train back up the line, before heading off to Theydon Bois for a few drinks at The Queen Victoria and a curry at the Theydon Bois Balti House.

London Transport L.150 getting up steam

London Transport L.150 getting up steam

It was a fabulous day out so a big thank you to the volunteers at the Epping and Ongar Railway and the people from the London Transport Museum who made this trip back into history possible.

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

Daimler Hire Company Garage- Herbrand Street London

Having arrived in Russell Square just a touch to early for my film screening last night I went exploring up Herbrand Street and found this rather magnificent building.

Daimler Hire Building

Daimler Hire Building

Actually it was a rediscovery. I had first come across the Daimler Hire Company Garage six or seven years ago when I emerged blinking into the sunlight from one of those dreadful corporate “fun days” at the Holiday Inn. Having just endured seemingly endless hours of motivational pep talks about why we should aspire to be like Tesco (what’s so great about pricing every independent retailer off the high street?) and having to role play senior managers masturbatory Dragon’s Den and Apprentice fantasies,

I love a bit of Art Deco

I love a bit of Art Deco

discovering the sparkling white Art Deco building with its sweeping curves and verdigris green painted doors and window frames was an instant relief .

The photographs don’t really do Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 1931 building justice, I only had my little Sony Cyber Shot, it was getting dark and it’s hard to frame such a large structure in a narrow London Street. As the name suggests it was at one time the garage for a prestigious car hire firm that supplied luxury chauffeur driven limousines to wealthy customers including Buckingham Palace. In 1958 it was sold to Hertz and ceased trading under the name of Daimler in 1976. The present occupants of the building are McCann Erikson the advertising agency

On the Curve - present owners McCann

On the Curve – present occupants McCann

Architects Wallis, Gilbert and Partners designed several iconic Art Deco buildings including the Hoover Factory in Perivale and London’s Victoria Coach Station.

The Egyptianate way out

The Egyptianate way out

Without such architectural wonders Poirot would be a dull show indeed.

Nearest Tube: Russell Square

 

Baby Birds at Verulamium Park, St Albans

We had lunch at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans on Saturday, it was a very good lunch too, but one of the greatest pleasures of lunch at one of the oldest pubs in the UK is the walk from the car park to the pub through Verulamium Park.  This is because of the huge numbers of water fowl that live around the lake.

Cananda Goose Goslings

Canada Goose Goslings

Most of the birds have broods of young right now, including the coots,

Cootlings

Cootlings

and the Canada geese.

Canada Goose goslings having a wash and brush up

Canada Goose goslings having a wash and brush up

Some families are more grown up than others, as I was shooting the two little guys above this mob came bearing down on us like a pack of velociraptors.

Like a bunch of dinosaurs

Like a bunch of dinosaurs

I’m intrigued by water rails like moorhens

Moorhen

Moorhen

and coots, I think its their big feet.

Coot

Coot

you see both of them are good swimmers, but unlike ducks or gulls that don’t have webbed feet. Instead they have fleshy lobes on their toes that they use to propel them through the water. you can see them quite well on the photo of the coot above.

Unfortunately we didn’t see any baby herons, perhaps the strange weather we have been having this year has messed up their breeding season. We did see some swans, greylag geese, lots of mallards and some handsome tufted ducks though.

Tufted ducks - drake on the right

Tufted ducks – drake on the right

Verulamium was the name given to the town by the Romans. It was one of the first to be settled by them in the south of England following the invasion in AD43. In AD60 the British Queen Boudicca burnt it down along with London and Colchester. Us Brits like to celebrate such heroics while calmly brushing the following 350 years of Roman domination under the carpet!

I Take a Walk with Dinosaurs in London’s Own Jurassic Park

No matter what way you look at them dinosaurs are pretty cool. Let’s face it what isn’t to like about things that are big and dangerous, but have been dead for so long that they could never have eaten you or any of your family!

Gwwwr

Grrrrrrrrr

What I find even more fascinating is how science has tried to make sense of these creatures since their discovery only 200 or so years ago. It was relatively easy to reconstruct the marine reptiles that Mary Anning first excavated in Lyme Regis.

Crystal Palace's Marine reptiles

Crystal Palace’s Marine reptiles

The sediments of the early ocean had preserved complete skeletons of the creatures and in some deposits in Germany even the outline of the animals’s bodies, but it was more problematic with the fragmentary remains of the first terrestrial dinosaurs that were found in the UK. All the early palaeontologists had to go on were the skeletal plans of existing reptiles like crocodiles and monitors, so the early reconstructions were of creatures that scuttled through the undergrowth on splayed legs, dragging their bellies along the ground.

Got any fish? Icthyosaur -Crystal Palace

Got any fish? ichthyosaur Crystal Palace

By the mid 19th century Richard Owen (the man who invented the name dinosaur) had worked out from the thighbones of creatures like Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, that they actually stood upright on straight legs like an elephant or a rhino. These new-found ideas about what these creatures looked like really fired the public’s imagination. So much so that when the Crystal Palace Company decided to relocate the 1851 Great Exhibition buildings from Kensington to Sydenham Hill, they hired the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to populate one of the ornamental lakes with replicas of these prehistoric creatures.

Pterodactyl - Crystal Palace

Pterodactyl – Crystal Palace

Waterhouse worked with Richard Owen to ensure that when his models were finally unveiled in 1854 they were as accurate as possible, although compared to the more graceful creatures that we know these animals to have been now, some of Owen’s reconstructions still look like lumbering beasts.

The mighty Megalosaurus

The mighty Megalosaurus

And as for the horn on Iguanadon’s nose we now know it’s really a spiky thumb,

Iguanadons - Crystal Palace

Iguanodon – Crystal Palace

that might have been used to poke hie enemies in the eye.

In Jurassic Park Dr Alan Grant was rather alarmed when he discovered some of these,

Icthysaurus 5but I think that particular egg may have belonged to one of these present day descendents of the dinosaurs.

Greylag goose - Crystal Palace

Greylag goose – Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace is easy to reach from central London with frequent London Overground services and mainline trains from London Bridge.

All aboard graphic at Crystal Palace Railway Station

All aboard graphic at Crystal Palace Railway Station

Just take a right into the park on exiting the station and follow the path past the athletics stadium to reach the lake.

Labyrinthodon

Labyrinthodon

Amsterdam 2013- Windmills, Cheese and a Fat Cat

You can’t bring someone on their first trip to Holland without showing them a windmill or two or even three.

Windmills at Zaanse Schans

Windmills at Zaanse Schans

On our previous visit we had taken an afternoon excursion from Amsterdam that took in the towns of Zaanse Shans, Marken and Volundam. This time we took one that left at 9.am and it turned out to be a much better trip. We booked the trip (€36 each) at the tourist Information Office just opposite Centraal Station and arrived at our pick up point outside the Tours and Tickets shop at Damrak 34 in time to get a pretty good English Breakfast (€7.45 plus latte for €2.50) at the Allstars Steakhouse next door (Damrak 32). This worked out to be much cheaper than having the breakfast buffet at the Ibis (€16) and it was cooked fresh to order too.

Houses - Marken

Houses with royal changeover bunting – Marken

Hunger satisfied we boarded the bus and within about twenty minutes we were driving along the dyke that links the former island of Marken to the Dutch mainland. Thankfully the weather was glorious and I spotted hares, lapwings, greylag geese and herons on the polder land while on the lake there were lots of great crested grebes. Now one of the reasons the morning tour is better is that it works in the reverse order, so after our demonstration of hand-making clogs on a traditional electric pattern lathe,

Clogs hand-made by machine!

Clogs hand-made by machine!

we didn’t have too long to hang about in this pretty, but not very exciting town,

Sadly the Duck and Clogtree wasn't a pub

Sadly the Duck and Clogtree wasn’t a pub

before boarding the ferry to Volundam. As we cruised the Ijsselmeer there were plenty of local sailing craft out on the waters of the former bay as well as some massive Rhine cruise ships.

Traditional Dutch sailing boats

Traditional Dutch sailing boats

Disembarking at Volundam we were taken to a cheese factory for a demonstration of cheese making

Cheese Factory Volundam

Cheese Factory Volundam

and more importantly a chance to sample the local cheeses with various jams and mustards. Unlike the cheese factory at Zaanse Schans that we visited last time they were a lot more generous with the samples too. I have to say that the aged cheese goes very well with mustard, if only there had been some beer and old jenever to wash it down.

I don'tthink this fellow is lactose intolerant

I don’t think this fellow is lactose intolerant

Cheesed out we had time for a swift pint before getting back on the coach to Zaanse Schans and the windmills. You can read about them on our previous trip here

Windmills Zaanse Schans

Windmills Zaanse Schans

Of course the object of the trip was to see the windmills, but I could not resist taking a snap of this little fellow,

Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh

Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggggghhhhhhhhhhh

who was sweltering in his fleece or this chap enjoying someone’s dropped ice cream.

Everybody likes ice cream

Everybody likes ice cream

So after a brief walk around the windmills we were back on the bus heading back into Amsterdam for an appointment with a big plate of Old Amsterdam cheese at Cafe Hoppe.

Old Amsterdam Cheese and Bittabalen

Old Amsterdam Cheese and Bittabalen

Lisbon – Some Random Decorative Art

One of the things that impressed me about our visit to Lisbon was the wealth of late 19th and early 20th century decorative art on the shops and other buildings. Perhaps this is because Portugal’s neutrality in World War Two saved them from the destructive power of the air raids or maybe it’s because Portugal has never been wealthy enough to bulldoze as much of its past in the quest for the new as other nations. Either way there is some good stuff on display.  This post is a random selection of stuff I snapped as we wandered around.

Tabacconist's shop front

Tabacconist’s Shop Front

These Art Nouveau shop fronts were shot around the Praca dom Pedro IV.

Art Nouveau Jeweller's windows

Art Nouveau Jeweller’s Windows

Almost a Belle Epoque Cafe

Almost a Belle Époque Street Cafe

This jeweller’s shop was close to the Elevador de Santa Justa.

Another Jewelers windows

Another Jewelers windows

Of course from the Praca Dom Pedro IV you get a great view at the platform that used to house the steam engine on the Elevador with its crowds of sightseers.

Elevador de Santa Justa

Elevador de Santa Justa

While the elevador itself was built to be not only functional, but also beautiful in the Victorian tradition of William Morris who said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Okay it’s not inside anybody’s house, but its Art Nouveau cast iron and wood panelled lift cars are quite lovely.

Detail of cast iron work friom the Elevador de Santa Justa

Detail of cast iron work friom the Elevador de Santa Justa

There are also some fine Art Deco buildings like the Eden Theatre complex

Theatro

Theatro Eden

And of course the grand railway stations are the expected temples to power and movement.

Rossio Station

Rossio Station

Even if they do conceal a Starbucks within in country with otherwise great coffee already. Trouble with stations as with temples, cathedrals or anything really big, is that the wealth of detail is often difficult to capture in its full glory.

Detail Cais de Sodre Station

Art Deco Detail Cais de Sodre Station

Of course smaller artworks are much easier.

Butcher's Van

Butcher’s Van

But often nowhere near as impressive as a whacking great mass of cast iron!

Elevador de Santa Justa

Elevador de Santa Justa

Lisbon – Breakfast, Trams, Cakes and Ruins

As they say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but no matter how nice the Holiday Inn Lisbon was there was no way that we were going to pay €10 each for a chain hotel breakfast with rubbish coffee. Just around the corner in Rua de Dona Filipa de Vilhena  we discovered the delightful Pasteleria Filipa de Vilhena.

Pasteleria

Pastelaria Filipa de Vilhena

The lovely ladies who run this little cafe don’t speak much English, but through a combination of mime, pointing and Spanish (Well I guess it is the country next door) we managed a selection of pastries, coffee and juice on both of our full days of exploring Lisbon, for an average of about €17 for all four of us. I particularly liked the one which sandwiched a layer of compressed bacon, egg and cheese in sweet pastry that tasted a bit like a French croissant and the coffee was excellent.

For our final full day in the city we had decided to do some exploring by tram so we walked down to Alameda Station to catch the Metro to Martim Moniz where we could pick up the no 28 tram, which would take us up to the Cathedral. Now I’m a bit of a sucker for Art Deco and on the way to the station I could not resist snapping this rather nice window belonging to the Ministry of Statistics.

Art Deco windows - Ministery of Statistics

Art Deco windows – Ministry of Statistics

Although we had already recovered the €39 cost of our Lisbon Cards over days one andtwo we still had a whole 24 hours freedom to ride Lisbon’s public transport network as we waited for the tram to turn the corner.

Trams waiting for the off at Martim Moniz

Trams waiting for the off at Martim Moniz

With the scream of metal wheels on metal rails we were soon off careering through the city’s winding streets, avoiding oncoming traffic, pedestrians, parked cars and even the sides of buildings by what seemed a matter of millimetres.

Squeaking past buildings by millimetres Lisbon's ancient trams

Squeaking past buildings by millimetres Lisbon’s ancient trams

We got off by the castle to enjoy the view and a beer.

view from the castle

View from the castle

Lisbon’s Se Cathedral was initially built after Dom Alfonso Henriques liberated the city from the Moors back in 1147. Built in the Romanesque style it has been reconstructed a number of times following earthquakes.

Se Cathedral, Lisbon

Se Cathedral, Lisbon

I was struck by how plain and simple the dark interior of the cathedral was, after the opulence of the church at the Mosteiro dos Jeronmos in Belem that we had visited the day before. The cathedral’s first bishop was the English crusader Gilbert of Hastings.

Not far from the Cathedral is the Museo do Thetro Romano. This place is quite deceptive at first. the ground floor has a few artefacts, but you have to climb up a few flights of stairs, past the gallery and an open air terrace with a fantastic view before leaving the building and crossing the road to find the actual ruins  of the 1st Century BC in another building.

Remains of the 5,000 seater Roman theatre

Remains of the 5,000 seater Roman theatre

Back on the trams to downtown we spotted this place, A Brasileira (Rua Garret 120).

A Brasileira

A Brasileira

Inside it looked even better

Inside A Brasileira

Inside A Brasileira

And the food was excellent. We chose a selection of pies and pasties from the counter and enjoyed them with some very good coffee. The chicken and olive pies were delicious as were the bachalhau.

Chicken and olive pies, so good we ordered more

Chicken and olive pies, so good we ordered more

Each of the food items cost about €1.50 so the four of us enjoyed a very filling lunch for a bargain €30.

From A Brasileira it was just a short walk to Lisbon’s main square with its fountains and monuments.

Fountain Rossio

Fountain Rossio

Known as Rossio its official name is Praca Dom Pedro IV and pride of place goes to a statue of the King at the top of a column, only there is some doubt over whether it is really him.

Dom Pedro IV of Portugal or is it?

Dom Pedro IV of Portugal or is it?

Rumour has it that Pedro is in fact the Mexican emperor Maximilian who was executed while his statue was en-route from France, so Lisbon’s city fathers were able to negotiate a special price to take the statue off the sculptor’s hands!

Lisbon – Westward Ho to Belem

Some of Lisbon’s most popular and iconic tourist attractions are in its western suburb of Belem.

Dragon Gargoyle, Mostereiro dos Jeronimos

Dragon Gargoyle, Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

So day two of our Lisbon adventure took us down to Cais do Sodre station where we boarded the train to Belem (and yes it was included on our Lisbon Card Huzzah!). Now before we left the UK we had been given lots of recommendations about the most important thing to do there and it had nothing to do with the region’s history.

Custard tarts and samozas at Pasteis de Belem

Custard tarts and samosas at Pasteis de Belem

No it was cakes. Pasteis de Belem (Rua de Belem) looks like a small pastry shop from the outside, but inside it opens out into a vast cavern of blue tiled dining rooms where locals jostle with tourists for tables. Even at 10am it was packed, but we managed to get a table and were soon tucking in to spicy samosas (a legacy of Portugal’s Indian colony at Goa I imagine) and exquisitely gooey custard tarts with excellent coffee (have to say we never had a bad cup of coffee in Lisbon) and a half bottle of wine. Considering there were four of us the bill came to a crazy €16, how brilliant is that?

Gimme Cakes - Pasteis de Belem

Gimme Cakes – Pasteis de Belem

Suitably fortified we went to explore the Jardim Botanico Tropical. These splendidly decayed botanical gardens were not included on our Lisbon Cards so we had to fork out €2 to get in and explore the themed areas based upon Portugal’s colonial past. Despite the run down appearance of many of the buildings, a peak through the broken window panes of the central greenhouse revealed that research is still being carried out inside. If Dracula had ever wanted to take up horticulture he’d have been right at home here.

The Hammer Greenhouse of Horror? - Jardim Botanico Tropical

The Hammer Greenhouse of Horror? – Jardim Botanico Tropical

By the time we had finished in the Jardim it was starting to get a bit overcast so we made a dash for the Mosteiro dos Jeronmos. Construction of the monastery and church began in 1501 funded by King Manuel I’s taxes on goods from Africa and Asia and the opulence of its late Gothic (AKA Manueline) architecture is testimony of to the wealth derived from the new sea routes opened up to the east by Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama, who is buried in the church here.

Tomb of Vasco de Gama - Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Tomb of Vasco de Gama – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

There is no charge for visiting the church itself, but to get the best view of the interior you have to see it from the balcony that is only accessible from the monastery itself. (admission €7 or free with the Lisbon Card)

Church - Mosteiro dos Jeroniomos

Church – Mosteiro dos Jeroniomos

Within the monastery cloisters there is a wealth of carvings of strange beasts and monsters.

Cloisters - Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Cloisters – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Whether these creatures were derived from reports of the far off lands opened up by the Portuguese merchants or drawn from the inner recesses of the Medieval mind are open to question, but the imaginations of the masons involved must have been quite scary places.

Gargoyles - Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Gargoyles – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

I was particularly taken by the gargoyles, there were all kinds of creatures, including dragons, wild boar, sheep, monkeys and even a grasshopper.

Grasshopper Gargoyle - Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Grasshopper Gargoyle – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Opposite the monastery, on the bank of the River Tagus is a more modern monument to Portugal’s seafaring explorers, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos

Padrao dos Descobrimentos

Padrao dos Descobrimentos

The Padrao dos Descobrimentos was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who bravely stayed in Lisbon while people like Bartolomea Dias did the dangerous sailing over the edge of the world thing. The monument is in the shape of a ship with Henry at the prow.

Prince Henry at the prow - Padrao dos Descobrimentos

Prince Henry at the prow – Padrao dos Descobrimentos

It’s a fair walk along the windy banks of the Tagus to the Tower of Belem (Admission €5 or free with the Lisbon Card).

Tower of Belem

Tower of Belem

This Gothic pile was also built on the orders of Manuel I to protect the river mouth from invaders. The architect was Francisco de Arruda and the tower was completed in 1519. I think the batteries last fired in anger at the French fleet supporting the claim of Maria II to the throne of Portugal during the Liberal Wars of 1828 to 1834. We had a poke around the batteries, dungeons and climbed the tower before heading back towards the station.

On the way we stopped to admire this replica of the Fairey seaplane the Santa Cruz that made the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922,

Santa Cruz Seaplane- Belem

Santa Cruz Seaplane- Belem

and to have coffee, beer and more cakes at Pasteis de Belem, before catching the no 15 tram back into Lisbon.

The Brunel Museum – London

It’s the London Underground’s 150th birthday today, but one of the oldest bits of tunnel used by Transport for London’s network is even older than that, as you can see from this plaque at Rotherhithe Station.

Plaque Rotherhithe station

Plaque Rotherhithe station

The Thames Tunnel was the very first tunnel to be sunk under a major river anywhere in the world and it was also one of the first major engineering projects undertaken by the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel, though as an assistant to his often overlooked father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. (If you want to find out more about Brunel Jnr see the BBC biography here)

The tunnel had never been intended for trains. Back in the early 19th century this part of the Thames was a very busy shipping lane with ships bringing produce from all over the world to the Port of London. A conventional bridge at Rotherhithe would have needed to allow a clearance of 100 foot for a tall ships mast, so a tunnel was seen as the only practical solution to getting goods from one side of the river to the other. Emigre French engineer Sir Marc Brunel proposed using his revolutionary new invention, the tunnelling shield to bore the tunnel beneath the river bed to the north bank at Wapping.

Pumping the water out from the tunnel was the job of a steam engine which was housed in this engine house which is now the Brunel Museum in Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe.

The Brunel Museum

The Brunel Museum

Inside the museum you can discover how the miners drove the tunnelling shield under the Thames, excavating two inches of soil at a time to be followed by an army of bricklayers who shored the structure up. Conditions were pretty horrible for the miners. In the days before Joseph Bazelgette rebuilt London’s sewers, the water seeping into the tunnel works was little more than raw sewage and the air soon became so feted that men would pass out and need to be taken back outside to recover in the fresh air. Methane gas explosions ignited by the miner’s naked candle flames and flooding were a constant danger. The Young Isambard almost drowned on one such occasion, but eventually in 1843 the tunnel was opened to the public.

Despite its initial success as a tourist attraction it never really took off as a river crossing because the money ran out before access slipways for horse-drawn wagons could be built. Bizarrely it did support an early form of shopping mall even if some of the trading carried out would have required a red lamp!. The tunnel was eventually acquired by the East London Railway company in 1865 and became part of London Transport’s old East London tube line before taking up its latest incarnation as part of the London Overground network.

Train running through bench Brunel Museum

Train running through bench Brunel Museum

It didn’t take us long to look around the museum, so while we were waiting for the guide who was going to take us down the Thames Tunnel’s original access shaft we had a coffee from the very pleasant Turkish cafe on the museum forecourt. I was rather taken by these benches with a  little Victorian train running through them.

Full Steam ahead

Full Steam ahead

There’s even a little Brunel in his stovepipe hat driving it, although I don’t think Brunel ever designed railway locomotives.

We’d paid a little bit extra on top of the £3 admission fee to tag along on the final part of a guided tour that took us down the original tunnel access shaft that Marc Brunel had ingeniously sunk into the soft waterlogged ground using its own weight as more bricks were piled on the top. It was a bit of an adventure getting in.

I descend into the depths

I descend into the depths

A short set of steps led to a tiny door that I had to crawl through on my hands and knees to reveal the smoke blackened walls of the shaft.

Inside the shaft

Inside the shaft

The original access steps had been removed when the railway arrived and the shaft became a huge chimney for the smoke from the locomotives. We had to descend through the scaffolding to reach the floor. OK I know visiting a bloody great hole in the ground may not be at the top of everyone’s list of things to do in London, but this is one almighty important hole where you will feel touched by the history of this great city and the people who shaped it.

The nearest station to the Brunel Museum is Rotherhithe on the London Overground