SOME YEARS AGO there was meant to have been an attempt by an estate agent to rename Battersea as South Chelsea. People like that need strangling, but this is probably an apocryphal tale along the lines of Streatham being passed off as St Reatham. If it was true, it would be the second instance of a district with a single root name being split in two by the Thames. The other is Woolwich.
Woolwich proper lies south of the Thames and if you don’t live there you may nonetheless have visited because you had to collect a parcel from one of the area’s many industrial estates. North Woolwich is on the other side of the river and consists of housing and patches of ex-industrial land waiting to be redeveloped into ‘luxury flats’ or yet more glass office buildings.
Linking the two across the Thames is the Woolwich ferry and the Woolwich foot tunnel. The tunnel is 100 years old and just over 500 metres long. The lifts at each end don’t work but there are surprisingly few stairs leading down, so the tunnel must lie just under the riverbed.
Few people seem to use it. The tunnel dips down on a gentle slope towards the middle before rising again, so you hear other pedestrians about a minute or two before you see them. Its isolation and gloomy appearance made me alert and a little wary.
A man walked past keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. I made this recording in what I guessed to be the tunnel’s mid-point:
The person approaching must have had a portable radio or else was playing music on a phone. The acoustics down there are tricky and I don’t consider this to be a particularly successful recording because it doesn’t sound like how I remember it.
Back above ground there was a queue of vehicles waiting to drive onto the Woolwich ferry. The ferry is free to use for both drivers and walkers. On board you can wander around the spartan lower deck or sit on hard wooden seats: survivors from the age of tea urns and enamelled tin mugs and do-as-you’re-told, like finding out that your old PE teacher is still alive.
The tone of the engines is unvarying and there’s almost no sense of being in motion. A safety announcement precedes each crossing:
The thought of What if? comes rarely but it’s as well to be reminded of the cold strength of the tidal river, once revered as creator and destroyer.