Thames Tunnel Tour

It’s not very often that you get to explore the Thames Tunnel, otherwise known as the Brunel Tunnel. So when I found out that TfL were running tours through the tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, I booked my ticket pronto. I was due to take the trip on the Sunday, which turned out to be the nicest day, weather-wise, of the entire bank holiday weekend, so it’s just as well I dislike the sun. I actually preferred the cool, dark atmosphere of the tunnel.

Plaque just inside Rotherhithe station commemorating the tunnel

The tours began at Rotherhithe station. We put on plastic gloves – apparently you get rodents down there, not to mention an interesting variety of diseases, though luckily I didn’t see any rats during my trip. We then descended into the station, heading towards the northbound platform.

On the platform at Rotherhithe, looking into the tunnel

The tunnel is used nowadays by London Overground trains, so these had to be stopped for the weekend. It was incredibly exciting to climb onto the track and make our way on foot between the rails. Our tour involved walking through the tunnel to Wapping station, then coming back the other way. During the tour we had an interesting and knowledgeable guide who told us various fascinating facts.

Inside the former grand entrance hall at the mouth of the tunnel

The tunnel was begun in 1825 by Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel who also helped with the construction. Said to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world, it was a hugely ambitious undertaking, as the first tunnel ever constructed under a major river. Construction used Thomas Cochrane and Marc Brunel’s tunnelling shield technology, and the tunnel took eighteen years to build, with several workers dying during its construction: during one flood, in which six people died, Isambard himself nearly met his end, being pulled unconscious from the water just in time.

One of the arches between the two tunnels

Intended for use by horses and carriages, the tunnel was actually used by foot passengers from the start. From the beginning, shopkeepers set up stalls in the archways between the two sides of the tunnel, selling assorted goods including tunnel souvenirs. Unfortunately, the tunnel also became a favourite haunt of pickpockets, thieves and “ladies of the night”.

Looking ahead into the tunnel

In 1865 the tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway Company for use by the new steam trains. The first few tunnel arches at the Rotherhithe end still bear the legacy of this railway, blackened by years of smoke (the rest of the tunnel was sprayed with concrete during the 20th century to strengthen it and ensure it was still suitable for use). In the space now occupied by Rotherhithe Station, there used to be a grand entrance hall, where a banquet was held on the tunnel’s opening; nowadays, the trains pass through the area frequently.

Contrast between the area of the tunnel reinforced with concrete, and the original soot-blackened tunnel

The tunnel slopes gently downwards until it gets to the centre, then rises up again from that point. It’s easy enough to tell when you get to the middle; it’s an eerie feeling to be standing underneath the Thames right in the centre, in a tunnel that was built nearly two hundred years ago.

Looking into the tunnel

In some ways it was a relief to reach the other side. At Wapping station we climbed up onto a platform like the one at Rotherhithe before descending again to begin the return journey.

Arriving at Wapping station
Looking back into the tunnel at Wapping
View into the tunnel from Wapping

We headed back along the other side of the tunnel, which although it was built for foot passengers, proved perfect for trains in future years; firstly steam trains, then the modern Overground service. I am sure Brunel would be proud if he knew that the tunnel he built with such difficulty back in 1825 would still be in use nearly two centuries later.

Arriving back at Rotherhithe station
The end of the tour: back at Rotherhithe

Saint Bartholomew the Great

Saint Bartholomew the Great is one of London’s oldest churches. It was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1123 and has been in continuous use since 1143. It is an Anglican/Episcopal Church in that part of London known as the City, and I visited on Saturday to see a performance of T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, about the murder of Thomas Becket.

The church is beautiful and has featured in films and TV shows such as Shakespeare in Love and The Hollow Crown.









Saskia Olde Wolbers: ‘Yes, these Eyes are the Windows’


“Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

87 Hackford Road in south London is rather a special address – for a few short months between 1873 and 1874 it was the home of famous Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. A blue plaque marks out the building, which is currently home to an installation by Saskia Olde Wolbers, ‘Yes, these Eyes are the Windows‘.

Saved from demolition when a postman discovered the house’s famous former resident in the 1970s, the house has gone from strength to strength; it is currently empty – has been since 2012 – and Wolbers has taken the opportunity to create a fascinating experience, drawing on the history of the building.

Entry is timed: you ring the doorbell when the people in front of you have left the building, and when the time is right you enter and begin to explore, guided by the lights, haunted by the voices that surround you, telling stories of the house and the people who lived there. The house is in a shabby state, with peeling wallpaper, holes in the ceiling, and bits of furniture lying about. Lights, photographs and old newspapers emphasise the history behind the building. It’s an eerie experience, and one which will stay with me for a while.

Shakespeare in Print – Guildhall Library

I popped out in my lunch hour on Wednesday to visit the Shakespeare in Print exhibition at the Guildhall Library. This looks at the history of printing William Shakespeare’s plays, from late sixteenth century quartos to seventeenth century folios, the reworked versions of the eighteenth century and the rediscovery and popularity of the originals in the nineteenth. I wanted to go on a Wednesday as this was the only day of the week on which the Library’s original First Folio is displayed – a facsimile is on view at all other times. This First Folio was acquired around 1760 by William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and purchased for the London Institution in 1806; it was transferred to the Guildhall Library in 1912. It is supposed to be one of the five finest copies in existence.

The First Folio dates from 1623; it contains almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. One exception is Pericles, which was only added to the Second Folio. In addition, several early copies of the First Folio do not contain Troilus and Cressida. The First Folio was the result of Shakespeare’s followers and admirers gathering together several years after his death to combine, edit and publish his plays. This is part of the reason Shakespeare’s works are so well known today: it was uncommon for plays to be printed in the sixteenth century, as it could damage the original company’s profits if another company got hold of a written text and started performing it. Shakespeare himself probably did not authorise any such publication in his lifetime. It’s just as well the First Folio was published, as it is the earliest printed version of around half of Shakespeare’s plays, including MacbethJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Without the First Folio, these plays may have been lost.

The First Folio was followed by the Second, Third and Fourth Folios as Shakespeare remained popular. As plays became accepted as serious literature, other works were published during this time, and the exhibition holds some examples of these, including The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (recently performed at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and the works of Benjamin Johnson.

During the eighteenth century, Shakespeare was often adapted heavily to suit the tastes of the time. For instance, Macbeth was performed with songs (I would love to see this) and as a ‘travestie’ version – a spoof in two acts (I would also love to see this). During the Victorian era, Shakespeare began to take on the iconic status he still has today and theatre-makers began to go back to the original texts and study Shakespeare more seriously. ‘Variorum’ editions of the works – editions including all known variants of a text, including notes – began to be produced, and gift books, such as the ‘Library Shakespeare’ on display, were common.

The exhibition didn’t just contain books: there was also a dress worn by Juliet Rylance in the Globe’s 2005 production of  The Winter’s Tale, which was made by the Original Practices Clothing Archive. Overall, this was a small but fascinating free exhibition and I’m glad I made the effort to go, even though it meant a bit of a rush during lunch!

South London Gallery

The South London Gallery

On Sunday I popped into the South London Gallery in Peckham for the first time. I’d heard about an exhibition called Welcome to Iraq, and thought it sounded interesting.

The exhibition was originally shown as part of the National Pavilion of Iraq in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. Eleven artists, most of whom work and live in Iraq, were chosen to display their contemporary work. There were some very funny political cartoons, interesting sculptures, and two intriguing rooms upstairs full of furniture made out of cardboard.

The best thing about the exhibition was the homemade, relaxed feel, with comfy chairs and tables laden with books to do with Iraq. There were also refreshments available in the form of Iraqi tea and biscuits – free, but with a donation appreciated (which I was happy to make – the tea and biccies were delicious!).

The Gallery shows a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions, specialising in contemporary art. It is free to enter and has a café and a bookshop. It is open every day, and stays open until 9pm on Wednesdays – a good excuse to pop down after work.


Address: 65-67 Peckham Road, London, SE5 8UH


Opening Hours: Tues-Sun 11am-6pm (9pm on Wednesdays)

Prices: Free

Ruin Lust – Tate Britain

Last weekend marked the final weekend of the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain, so I decided to pop along. I am glad I did – it was fascinating, looking at the obsession with ruins that has plagued and surrounded artists for hundreds of years. There was an interesting mix of modern and older artists.

I love ruins myself, and when I think of obsession with ruins I tend to think of the Romantic love of crumbling abbeys, as evidenced in, for example, Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. There is a Turner watercolour of that selfsame abbey in the exhibition, as well as moonlit views of other ruins, which I thought were beautiful. I also loved John Martin’s ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ of 1822, which I had seen before, but which has lost none of its impact. Gustave Doré’s engraving ‘The New Zealander’ of 1872 shows an imaginary ruined London.

However, I also liked some of the more modern works, particularly Laura Oldfield Ford’s images of postwar council housing, both outside and inside, covered with graffiti-like marks. The exhibition seemed very quiet, which was a shame – I think it deserved to have been seen more widely.

Bailey’s Stardust – National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting work by photographer David Bailey, and I headed down after work last Friday to check it out. Stardust brings together work from his entire career, which has lasted for several decades.

Bailey is famous for his celebrity portraits, and there are plenty of those here, including images of Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Mick Jagger and more. Most are black and white pictures, taken against a plain white background. Interestingly, I thought, this style of photography makes the images look timeless. Only the ages of the recognisable subjects, and occasionally the clothes they were wearing, gave any indication that they were not taken recently.

Celebrities are not Bailey’s only subjects, however. He has taken photos in East Africa, Papua New Guinea and Australia among other places. Many of these photos are portraits against plain backgrounds, some in black and white. There is a democracy to his images, I think, in that by taking photos of celebrities and of indigenous peoples Bailey is showing how they are all the same.

Overall, an interesting exhibition – worth a visit before it closes on 1 June.

Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? – Hayward Gallery

I nearly didn’t go to see Martin Creed: What’s the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. I’d heard some ‘interesting’ things about it and I wasn’t sure if it was the kind of thing I’d enjoy. However, the exhibition proved so popular that it was extended for a week, and I went to see it on Thursday evening, after work and before I went to the theatre. I definitely advocate going to see exhibitions during late-night weekday opening – the exhibition was really quiet, and the balloon room – which can have queues lasting up to an hour – was nearly empty.

Creed’s work belongs to the category I normally term as ‘crap modern art’, and I found myself asking the question posed in the exhibition’s title – “What’s the point of it?” – rather a lot as I walked around. Which begs the question, why did I go and see it? Curiosity, I suppose.

Creed names his works by numbers and in fairness to him his work is incredibly varied. On the one hand, among the exhibits are a piece of Blu-Tack stuck to a wall, a crumpled piece of paper, and a number of wall protrusions. More interesting to me was the large ‘Mothers’ sign that whirls around your head as you enter the exhibition: the idea behind this is that when you are little, your mother seems big and scary, as does this sign. Creed’s love of order is evident in the Lego bricks piled one on top of the other in size order, and the chairs and boxes piled up in similar ways.

The exhibition even reaches outside, with a couple of works on display on the terraces. One of these is a car which randomly bursts into life, its doors shooting open and its radio blaring, although I was more concerned with how on earth they got the car up there in the first place. On another terrace there was a film of a penis going up and down (the woman standing next to me remarked “I’ve seen better”).

The ‘balloon room’, aka Work No. 200, Half the air in a given space, was the best. The room was filled with balloons taking up half the air, resulting in a really fun room where you wade through tons of balloons with static lifting up your hair. I had so much fun here I thought it was worth the admission price alone.

There were paintings and pictures too, as well as sculptures and installations. The pictures using highlighters appealed to my precise nature, and I really liked the prints made using broccoli! The final work, though, left me completely bewildered. The infamous “sick film” shows people walking in front of the camera, vomiting and walking away, except in one case where a woman walks up, squats down and takes a shit instead. You can also buy this film in the gift shop – I am honestly baffled as to why anyone would want to watch someone defecating or being sick, or if they did, why they would pay £15 for a DVD rather than just popping down to their local high street on a Friday night. Oh well.

Though I remain sceptical of many of the exhibits, I do feel that the exhibition as a whole proved more than the sum of its parts, with interesting things to say about order, space, ambiguity and not taking the art world too seriously. It was more thought-provoking than I had expected and on balance, I don’t regret going to see it – even if I can’t get the image of someone being sick out of my head…