Lessons learned

Really, this one should have been obvious: Never go to anything organised by TFL. If they can’t organise the transport system, they can’t organise anything else either.

However, the Thames Tunnel Walkthrough and Underwater Fancy Fair sounded like good fun, so I booked tickets for myself and my friend Yusuf to go last night. The Thames Tunnel was the first ever underwater tunnel, constructed by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, between Rotherhithe and Wapping.

It was a little difficult to get tickets, as at first I couldn’t find any mention of it on the Transport Museum’s website (this was where the first bit of publicity I received told me I could get tickets), and then when I finally received an invitation with a working link, the link promptly stopped working. The event is still running today but when I clicked the ticket link it was broken entirely. Anyway, I did eventually manage to buy tickets.

I turned up the Brunel Museum to pick up the tickets, and was told to go to Rotherhithe Station for the tunnel tour at 6:50 (the entry time stated on our tickets). I texted Yusuf to tell him I’d be at the station. 6:50 was approaching rapidly so I called him – it went straight to voicemail. I got a text to say he was at the museum. I called again… and again. Turns out Rotherhithe is a mobile reception blackspot. As a North Londoner going south of the river tends to make me twitchy and I was already longing to be back up North. My GPS told me I was in Wapping, but this was no comfort. Hopefully I’d be in Wapping in a few minutes’ time anyway – preferably via the tunnel.

I finally managed to rendezvous with Yusuf and we showed our tickets to a man at the station, only to be told that our tickets weren’t valid. Apparently what we’d been told by the website and the woman who’d just handed me the tickets was all wrong. Our tickets were only valid for the Fancy Fair, which was not in fact Underwater, but at the Brunel Museum. By now there was a bit of a crowd forming, all complaining that they weren’t able to get into the tunnel as that’s what we’d bought tickets for after all.

So back to the museum we went, with the intention of demanding our money back. I stormed past the queue only to be intercepted by a woman in a fluoro jacket, who apologised, offered to give me an email address I could complain to, said that our tickets were valid for the shaft tour which we could go on right now if we wanted, and I found myself apologising to her for being shouty as I knew it wasn’t her fault the event was poorly organised. So in we went. “That woman is an expert at conflict resolution”, Yusuf remarked. “Yes, I want to learn how she did that!” I said. I resolved to be cheerful from now on.

So, on to the shaft tour. Entry was by a crawl-through that really was as close as we got to a tunnel all evening (I was still struggling with the “cheerful” bit), and then down a staircase to a concrete floor that had just been installed over the rest of the shaft, which continued down to the actual tunnel. This was the original entrance to the Thames Tunnel, and you could see where the original spiral staircase had been.



A man gave us an interesting talk about the history and construction of the tunnel. Working conditions sounded absolutely dire. Work was by lamplight, and the lamps had a habit of igniting pockets of marsh gas in the boggy ground. The Thames was used as an open sewer at the time and water was constantly leaking into the tunnel. Men worked until they collapsed (usually two hours) and were replaced by more men. The constructions was supposed to take three years but took eighteen. When it was finished, it was used as an underground shopping arcade, with shops, attractions, and souvenirs for visitors.

We emerged back into the Underwater Fancy Fair. We had been promised Victorian Strongmen, Jugglers, Acrobats and Fire Eaters, Brunel Cocktails and Jellies, and Steam Organs. Let’s see…

The Victorian Strongmen did not disappoint:


They were definitely strong, braving the bitterly cold weather to perform handstands and pick up children.

Jugglers? No sign of any.

Acrobats? Yes:


These girls put on an impressive show.

Fire Eaters? No. Steam Organs? No. And most disappointing of all, NO COCKTAILS! There were a couple of empty stands where it looked as though food and drink should go, but the only refreshment available was tea in the museum’s tiny cafe.

We did get a blurry photograph of ourselves standing in front of a background picture of the tunnel, so if you squint a bit it kind of looks like we were there… but to be honest I can’t be bothered scanning it in.

Was it a fiver’s worth? No.

Having had enough of the bitter disappointment cold we hopped on a bus up to Shoreditch, where we had dinner at Que Viet and the evening took a turn for the better.



Vegetarian starter platter followed by sea bass which had been cut up, deep fried and reassembled. It really was excellent. The restaurant itself was ok. Overzealous waiters kept trying to take away the dipping sauces we had with the starters, even though Yusuf had told them we wanted to keep them on the table. The acoustics of the place were also terrible, perhaps not surprising for a busy Friday night but although there was no music playing (which always encourages people to talk louder) it was very noisy in there. The bill came to £32 including service and two non-alcoholic drinks, which was very reasonable (and the sea bass was the most expensive thing on the menu). I’d go back, but probably on a weeknight.

4 thoughts on “Lessons learned

  1. Oh my goodness – what a nightmare! Thankfully my own experience was slightly better, but in the absence of cocktails, I’m glad I decided to go home after the tour! Although I have to say, buying the tickets was a mission for me too.

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