Party like it’s 1843

The Brunels' Thames Tunnel has reopened one of its access shafts as a visitor attraction

Atmospheric space, parties welcome – the Brunels made this, now Tate Harmer has opened it up again.
Atmospheric space, parties welcome – the Brunels made this, now Tate Harmer has opened it up again. · Credit: Raftery+Lowe

Go to Rotherhithe, on the south side of the Thames. There’s a convenient Overground station there, although at this point the Overground is underground, and there’s a historic reason for this, as the adjacent Brunel Museum makes clear. This is the south end of the twin-bore Thames Tunnel, built with enormous trouble, expense, frequent flooding, gas outbreaks and loss of life between 1825 and 1843 by the father-and son engineering team of Marc and Isambard Brunel. The younger Brunel himself only just escaped drowning here. This was the world’s first tunnel beneath a navigable river and a lot of the problems stemmed from the fact that it didn’t go deep enough beneath the river bed. Still, it pioneered the technology of the ‘tunnelling shield’ among much else, and finally it was finished.

Why am I telling you this? Because once complete, the Thames Tunnel was used as a visitor attraction – plans to build horse ramps to allow wheeled traffic through were never implemented – and now, despite the Overground trains that run through there, it has become so again. Thanks to the Brunel Museum and architect Tate Harmer, its southern access shaft is now quite the party space.

The Brunels sank broad brick access shafts on the Thames’ north and south banks from which they struck out horizontally to dig the tunnels that were interlinked by cross-passages. These shafts became the access points for the public, with staircases zig-zagging down the interiors of the drums. The drums themselves are interesting, being built above ground, tensioned with built-in horizontal chain rings and vertical rods, and then sunk into the ground as the clay was dug out beneath them. Rotherhithe was the first one, getting stuck at first because it was not tapered: the Brunels learned their lesson and put a slight taper on the northern shaft so that the bottom was a bit wider than the top. 

  • What lies beneath – Tate Harmer's axo explaining the space....
    What lies beneath – Tate Harmer's axo explaining the space....
  • . ....and how they explained it in model form.
    . ....and how they explained it in model form.
  • Going down, things are going down – the Grand Entrance Hall in full swing.
    Going down, things are going down – the Grand Entrance Hall in full swing. · Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Wheelchair users – and others – get a grandstand view from entrance level.
    Wheelchair users – and others – get a grandstand view from entrance level. · Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • How things were: in fact it got a great deal less genteel than this in Victorian times.
    How things were: in fact it got a great deal less genteel than this in Victorian times. · Credit: Brunel Museum
  • Those Brunels were certainly clever. Here's how they sank the ready-built shaft into the ground.
    Those Brunels were certainly clever. Here's how they sank the ready-built shaft into the ground. · Credit: Brunel Museum
  • But had they put it deeper, they could have avoided disastrous floods like this one.
    But had they put it deeper, they could have avoided disastrous floods like this one. · Credit: Brunel Museum

After some years as a venue for banquets, fairs and an underground shopping mall, the tunnel had become distinctly seedy, and was sold to a railway company in 1867. The northern shaft became access to Wapping station while the southern one, with its stairs removed, served only as a vent shaft next to Rotherhithe station. In the Second World War it was given a jack-arched concrete roof lest bombs destroy the tunnel, and finally, when the line was being converted to Overground use in 2007, it was given a concrete floor slab to separate it from the tracks running beneath.

The Brunel Museum has now turned the shaft into 'The Grand Entrance Hall', a venue for events of all kinds in the spirit of the Brunels. Tate Harmer has done this on a very small budget by leaving the interior exactly as it was, soot-stained with various mysterious pipes running through it. Now you get in by a door through the side of the drum at ground level, and a relatively straightforward but in this context spectacular freestanding steel staircase. All the parts of this had to fit through the new doorway, and cutting this through the very thick, solid, reinforced brickwork took time, effort, and nerve. 

  • As built, the shaft led straight down to the tunnels.
    As built, the shaft led straight down to the tunnels. · Credit: Brunel Museum.
  • The 2007 floor makes it usable once more.
    The 2007 floor makes it usable once more. · Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • What looks like a steel maintenance door leads to a magic (Isambard) kingdom.
    What looks like a steel maintenance door leads to a magic (Isambard) kingdom. · Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Gleam against grunge gives you steampunk space.
    Gleam against grunge gives you steampunk space. · Credit: Jack Hobhouse

It’s a great multi-use space 50ft across and 50ft deep – though apparently you don’t want too much volume for live events or the noise can overwhelm. The stair includes mounting for lighting rigs, and at entry level extends into a platform with glass vision panels in the balustrade so that wheelchair users can access the events. Above your head is a roof garden which the museum uses to grow vegetables and hold popular cocktail evenings: beneath your feet you feel, as much as hear, the rumble of the Overground trains.

To describe this space as atmospheric is an understatement: with the marks of the original stairs still visible in the blackened walls, you get a feel for how it must have been in the mid 19th century when the tunnel was regarded as a wonder of the world.