Feb
10
2010

Can I walk under the River Thames?

Greenwich Foot Tunnel (photo by victoriapeckham CC-BY)

Greenwich Foot Tunnel (photo by victoriapeckham CC-BY)

The River Thames flows through London and there are two tunnels which you can walk through between the south and north banks. First, a little about the history of foot tunnels under the Thames.

The first foot tunnel constructed under the Thames was the Thames Tunnel opened in 1843. Construction had started in 1825, but flooding, noxious fumes and financial problems all contributed to the delay in its construction. Intended for foot passengers and carriages (although never used by them), it ran from Wapping to Rotherhithe. At 75 feet below the river, it was dug through 1300 feet of London clay using the new technology of shield tunnelling.

The tunnel became very popular with pedestrians, but as a novelty rather than a useful commuting link between the two river banks. In 1865 it was sold to a railway company and closed to pedestrians. It now forms part of the London Underground.

In 1870 another tunnel was opened between Tower Hill near the Tower of London, and just off Tooley Street on the south bank. Originally designed for a small train which was not a financial success, it was converted into a foot tunnel for toll paying pedestrians. The construction of Tower Bridge just a few hundre

d yards away and its free access meant that by 1898 it was closed. Today the tunnel is used for water and telecommunications.

In 1902 the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was opened, and in 1912 the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. Both of these are still open to pedestrians, although at the time of writing this article they are undergoing a £11.5m refurbishment programme.

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel runs from Greenwich, near the present Cutty Sark and University of Greenwich, under the Thames to Millwall on the Isle of Dogs. Some of the London docks were situated on the Isle of Dogs and the tunnel gave easy access to them for dock workers from Greenwich.

It is 1,217 feet long and lies about 50 feet under the river. The walls are lined with 200,000 glazed white tiles and there is a lift at either end. It cost £127,000 to build.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel is of similar style and design to that of Greenwich. It was built to offer pedestrians an alternative to the Woolwich Ferry which for a number of years had found its service interrupted by fog. As with Greenwich, access to the docks in North Woolwich being important for dock workers from Woolwich on the south bank. At 1,635 feet long, it cost £79360 to build. Again there is a lift at either end.

Edit to address the comment:
Thanks Mike for the comment below. I hadn't included Rotherhithe for exactly that reason. I wouldn't advise anyone to try and walk the 4,860 feet on a narrow pavement with cars and lorries roaring past me.

For completeness, the Rotherhithe was opened in 1908 and runs from Rotherhithe to Limehouse. It was designed for vehicle, cycles and pedestrians.

(Thanks to Myo for the article suggestion.)

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1 Comment

  • Mike Scott says:

    You can also walk through the Rotherhithe tunnel (not the same as the Thames tunnel, which is also in Rotherhithe), which is mainly for cars but has a pavement for pedestrians. I don’t recommend it though, due to the exhaust fumes.

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