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Tower Subway | The story behind London’s lost underwater railway

This short-lived river tunnel provided a test run for the engineering used to build the world’s first deep-level railway, aka London’s tube.

Tower Hill Subway © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The 1920s reconstruction of the subway entrance on the Tower Hill side

Situated just a few hundred metres from the Tower of London is a remnant of a lost transport system. A short circular building near the junction of Petty Wales and Lower Thames Street commemorates the former Tower Subway, which briefly transported passengers under the river in the 1870s. Although it closed 150 years ago, this 20th century reconstruction of its northern entrance reminds us of a pioneering piece of Victorian engineering.

The population of London swelled hugely during the Victorian era, prompting widespread building of bridges and transport to move the masses around the capital. The Thames Tunnel, which originally opened to pedestrians in 1843, was converted to train use by 1869. Meanwhile, the first tube, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863. Keen to capitalize on the growing demand for these new transport methods, London-born engineer Peter W Barlow (1809-1885) patented a new method of tunnelling, in the hope of creating a network of tunnels to carry people under the city. City bosses were wary of the cost after the spiralling budget, deaths in construction and the 18 years it had taken to build the Thames Tunnel. However, Barlow’s pupil James Henry Greathead (1844-1896) said he could make the first cylindrical tunnelling shield (patented by Barlow) and use it to build a transport tunnel system under the Thames for £9,400.

Greathead’s project kicked off in February 1869, with the cast iron shield used to dig through the London clay – the first time this construction method had been used. The tunnel was 1,340 ft long, connecting Tower Hill on the north of the River Thames with Vine Lane near Tooley Street on the south. Inside the tunnel was a 2ft 6in gauge railway, which carried up to 12 passengers under the river in a cable-hauled wooden carriage in about 70 seconds. The lifts from street level to the tracks, as well as the cable car, were powered by a 4hp stationary steam engine on the London Bridge side of the tunnel. The rapid construction proved the tunnelling shield was a success and it was later used to build the City and South London Railway, the world’s first deep-level underground railway.

The Tower Subway carriage in the Illustrated London News 1870

The tunnel was completed in less than a year with it taking its first passengers in February 1870. It appeared to have a ‘soft launch’ in April 1870, before being opened to the public four months later. Robert Miles commented in the British Almanac that the brief journey wasn’t exactly pleasant: “The temperature of the Subway is certainly rather high, but it only has to be borne with for a brief space. The passage is somewhat rough, the movements of the omnibus being jerky, especially at starting.” Initially, there were plans for similar tunnels at Gravesend, Woolwich and Greenwich, Cannon Street and Borough. However, by 7 December that year, the Tower Subway cable car ceased after the company ran into financial problems. Just a few weeks later, the tunnel was converted for pedestrian use, with customers paying a halfpenny to use it. The lifts were removed and replaced by a flight of 96 stairs, with gas lights being placed throughout the tunnel. At the height of its popularity, 20,000 people a week were using the tunnel, despite its reputation for being dark and claustrophobic.

As the end of the century approached, the Tower Subway’s fate was sealed when Tower Bridge opened locally in 1894. The latter was not only free to use, but pedestrians had the choice of crossing the river at vehicle level or by using the high-level walkways – a much more pleasant option than a dark, cramped tunnel. By 1897, the Tower Subway company applied to dissolve the company and closed the tunnel the following year. It sold the tunnel for £3,000 to the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC), who used it for power mains.

The original Tower Hill entrance to the Subway was later demolished, with the LHPC building a reconstruction in 1926, with lettering commemorating the original construction date. The tunnel was damaged by a Nazi bomb in December 1940, but amazingly its lining wasn’t penetrate and it was able to be repaired. Meanwhile, the original Vine Lane entrance on the south side of the Thames was later demolished around the 1980s-1990s.

  • Tower Hill Subway, Tower Hill, EC3R 5BT. Nearest station: Tower Hill, Fenchurch Street or Tower Gateway.

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Totally Thames 2020: Celebrate the capital’s lifeblood with an outdoors and digital festival

This year’s festival will feature a mix of online and socially-distanced outdoor events.

Aïcha El Beloui Totally Thames

Moroccan artist Aïcha El Beloui took part in the Rivers of the World project at this year’s Totally Thames festival

Although many popular London festivals have been postponed until next year, one of my favourite ones – Totally Thames – is fortunately returning in September (its usual slot). However, the 2020 edition of the annual festival will be a mix of digital and outdoor events, so people can take part safely through social distancing or the comfort of their own home.

Now in its 24th year, Totally Thames is a celebration of the River Thames which flows through our capital. Kicking off on 1 September, the month-long festival will include arts events, activities, environmental initiatives, heritage and education programmes. Some of the outdoor events include paddlesports (kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding), angling competition, public art walks, workshops, boat trips, guided walks, art exhibitions and more. Meanwhile, there are plenty of digital offerings, including storytelling, audio and virtual tours, kids’ choir and more.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival is Rivers of the World, with artists working remotely with over 2,000 13 and 13-year-old students around the world to create river-themed art. The participating students created art from home during the Covid-19 lockdown thanks to digital briefs and short films by the artists teaching them new skills and about the importance of the river. The artworks will be displayed on boards and flags by the river alongside the Tate Modern this September.

  • Totally Thames 2020 takes place from 1 – 30 September 2020. At various locations (physically and online) including the South Bank and the Totally Thames website.

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Photo Friday | The Ship of Tolerance for Totally Thames

Take a ‘wade’ on the wild side with Creekside Discovery Centre’s low tide walk

Explore the history and nature of Deptford Creek with the Creekside Center

With the current pace of building in the capital and developers looking to seize every last piece of land to build on, London’s wildlife is being squeezed into increasingly smaller environments. As banks of rivers and streams are absorbed into manmade land and structures, many animals and birds are running out of space to build nests, or even shelter during bad weather. While we need more homes in this overcrowded capital, it’s trying to balance fulfilling demand while protecting the wildlife’s habitats that is a real challenge.

Recently I paid a visit to the Creekside Discovery Center in Deptford, south-east London to join one of their Low Tide Walks. My boyfriend and I were up bright and early on a Sunday (well, by my standards early for a Sunday!) morning to get suited up for our visit to Deptford Creek. We were told to wear old clothes and a hat, with the CDC providing thigh-high waders and a walking stick. The Center itself is a one-storey educational space in a garden full of beautiful, coloured wildflowers. In fact there are over 130 different wildflower species across the site. It was rather amusing to see various memorabilia retrieved from the Creek dotted around like a modern art display, such as shopping trolleys, rollerskates and typewriters. I’m always baffled why someone would find enjoyment by throwing a trolley into a river or creek… perhaps they should get an actual hobby?!

The old lifting bridge, built in the 1830s

The name Deptford comes from ‘deep ford’, with the Creek forming the north end of the River Ravensbourne before it flows into the Thames. We started our two-hour expedition being led down to the Creek by a conservationist Nick. We entered the water – and mud – near the historic lifting bridge. It was originally built in the 1830s for the London and Greenwich Railway, which connected London Bridge with Greenwich, which was incredibly busy at the time due to its naval and royal connections. The railway was the first steam service in the capital and also the first entirely elevated railway. When it came to crossing the Creek, the railway owners realised it was problematic. They couldn’t build a regular fixed crossing as that would have blocked the many ships passing up and down the Creek. Civil engineer George Thomas Landmann (1779-1854) came up with the idea of a lifting bridge, which would allow trains to pass over while in situ, but could be lifted up for passing barges via pulleys, chains and sliding rods with eight men required to operate it. The current bridge you can see today, is a younger replacement, with several bridges replacing the original 1830s one. At time of writing, it’s been out of action for decades and is a listed structure. Read the rest of this entry

City views, Rosé and weekend brunches as Le Pont de la Tour launches La Maison du Rosé summer terrace

© Le Pont de la Tour Terrace

Le Pont de la Tour and Minuty Rosé launch their new rosé terrace La Maison du Rosé this summer

There’s something about a warm summer night which makes me want to reach for a glass of rose. If that sounds right up your street, there’s a special drinking destination by the banks of the Thames this season. French riverside restaurant Le Pont de la Tour is teaming up with the Minuty Rosé brand to launch a rosé terrace for the summer, La Maison du Rosé.

With stunning views of Tower Bridge and the City of London, La Maison du Rosé will be a sun trap on a warm day. Visitors can enjoy the alfresco surroundings while sipping on Minuty’s prized Rosés, Fruits de Mer platters, unique rosé tastings and weekend rosé brunch menus. The terrace will be adorned with pastel pink colours, pink flowers and Insta-ready decorations. Expect an outdoor bar, a decorative canopy and plenty of blossom and flowers.

Throughout the summer, Le Pont de la Tour will offer Rosé packages with a glass/bottle of Rosé with fresh Fruits de Mer platters. The terrace will also host weekly Rosé brunch on Saturdays, which includes three courses and a bottle of Rose. The brunch menu features Eggs Royale or Benedict, followed by Cornish Blonde skate wing with shrimps and cucumber grenobloise and wild garlic risotto with confit hen egg and parmesan crisps and finally, to finish, French toast with salted caramel and vanilla ice cream or a refreshing lemon tart with meringue.

La Maison du Rosé will also offer guests the chance to enjoy wine tastings and masterclasses on Rosé from the Minuty vineyards on the French Riviera. The terrace will offer a variety of Minuty rosés including the limited-edition Côtes de Provence 2018.

  • La Maison du Rosé is open now until 31 August 2019. At Pont de la Tour, 36D Shad Thames, SE1 2YE. Nearest station: London Bridge. Rose brunches every Saturday: £150 for four people, three courses and a bottle of Minuty Rosé. For more information and booking, visit Le Pont de La Tour website.

For a guide to what’s on in London in August, click here.

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London Hong Kong Dragon Boat returns to the Thames for 2019

The London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival takes place in Docklands in June
© London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival

One of the country’s most exciting sporting competitions is returning to the capital this summer. The London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival is back at the London Regatta Centre on Sunday 30 June 2019. Around 10,000 visitors from the UK and internationally will be heading to the banks of the Thames for a free family-friendly celebration of sport and culture.

The annual LHKDB Festival offers the chance to experience Chinese culture in London. Over 40 competing club, corporate and amateur teams will be battling it out on the river. Novices will be bravely taking on some of the UK’s most experienced paddlers in the bid to win one of the six cups.

Meanwhile, on dry land, visitors can sample some of the culinary delights at a South East Asian food festival while being entertained by live music, martial art displays and traditional Chinese lion dancing on the East West Festival stage.

Dragon boat festivals date back to the banks of the Yangtze River in ancient southern China around 2,5000 years ago. The 2019 festival is the 24th in London and is organised by the London Chinatown Lions Club and is supported by Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office, The Hong Kong Executives Club and The London Chinatown Chinese Community Centre.

  • London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival takes place on Sunday 30 June 2019 from 10am-6pm. Free entry. At Royal Docks Adventure/London Regatta Centre, Dockside Road, Docklands, E16 2QT. Nearest station: Royal Albert or Prince Regent (DLR). For more information, visit the Dragon Boat Festival website.

For the latest what’s on guide in London in June, click here.

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The river runs through it | Have you spotted the river in Sloane Square tube station?

One of London’s hidden rivers is flowing through one of the capital’s busy tube stations.

Sloane Sq river © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

A 19th century iron pipe (the green) carries a river above Sloane Square station

London is home to many ‘hidden’ rivers. Many of these became subterranean in the 19th century as the capital’s population boomed. A host of tributaries of the River Thames and River Lea have been forced underground and now exist in pipes. While most of the secret rivers aren’t visible to most Londoners today, there is one river you can see (sort of).

Sloane Sq river © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Many commuters have no idea there’s a river running through the station

The River Westbourne was originally named Kilburn – originating from ‘Cye Bourne’, which means ‘royal stream’. It rises in the Whitestone Pond in Hampstead and flows south through Kilburn, Bayswater, Hyde Park and Chelsea, before discharging in the River Thames near Chelsea Bridge. One of the crossings over the Westbourne was the Knights’ Bridge, a name dating back to at least the 11th century. Although the bridge is long gone, its name lives on in the district of Knightsbridge. There was another bridge crossing the Westbourne in the Sloane Square area named Blandel Bridge, later being renamed as Grosvenor Bridge.

The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park was formed in 1730 when King George II’s wife Queen Caroline (1683-1737) ordered the damning of the Westbourne. The river continued to supply the Serpentine until 1834, when it was deemed too polluted, so Thames water was used instead.

London’s population boom in the 19th century prompted widespread development. Increased residential dwellings popping up in the areas surrounding the Westbourne in Paddington, Chelsea and Belgravia, led to the decision to drive the Westbourne underground. The water was directed into pipes in the early part of the 19th century.

Today, commuters who use Sloane Square tube station can see the River Westbourne crossing the platform and tracks in a pipe. A large iron pipe suspended from girders carries the Westbourne through Sloane Square station, which was opened in December 1868. The pipe is the original one from the 19th century and managed to escape damage when the station was bombed during World War II in November 1940.

Sloane Sq river © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The Westbourne was forced underground in the early 1800s

  • Sloane Square tube station, Chelsea, SW1W 8BB. Nearest station: Sloane Square (obviously!).

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Top 10 urban myths about London

The truth behind some of London’s urban legends.

Tower Bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Did an American businessman really think he was buying Tower Bridge?

With 2,000 years of history and 8.1 million residents, it’s no surprise that London has acquired quite a lot of urban legends over the years. Some of these urban myths – or ‘alternative facts’ emerged centuries ago and still circulate today. Metro Girl looks at London’s top 10 urban legends and tries to separate the truth from fiction. However, reality isn’t always black or white and sometimes the answer isn’t so clear-cut.

  • 1. The ‘Coco Chanel’ lampposts

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Coco Chanel… or just City Council?

Around the Westminster council district, you may have seen lampposts with an interlinking CC, which look remarkably similar to the Chanel logo.

French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel famously had an on/off love affair with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster for around a decade in the 1920s-1930s. However, the aristocrat failed to make Chanel one of his four wives.

The story goes, the Duke attempted to prove his love for Coco by having her initials embossed in gold on lampposts around Westminster. Each lamppost features a grand ‘W’ nearby – which many assumed were for the Duke.

True or false? False. Sadly, the truth isn’t so romantic. The W does stand for Westminster – but the council, not the Duke – while CC stands for city council. Despite their traditional look, they only got installed in the 1950s – two decades after Chanel and the Duke’s romance hit the skids.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.

  • 2. A rich American bought London Bridge by accident.

The capital has had many London Bridges over the centuries, the first one dating back to Roman Londinium in the 50s AD. Despite its iconic name, many would agree the current 1970s creation isn’t the most attractive of London’s river crossings.

In 1968, US businessman Robert P McCulloch bought the previous Georgian-era ‘New’ London Bridge for just over £1million. It had been put up for sale by the City of London as it was sinking into the Thames and wasn’t suitable for modern vehicle traffic.

After being purchased, it was taken apart and shipped across to Arizona to be rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, where it remains today.

However, the story goes that McCulloch thought he was buying the more ornate Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Many tourists visiting the capital today still think Tower Bridge is London Bridge because it’s one of London’s most recognisable icons.

True or false? False. City of London council member Ivan Luckin, who was the one who suggested selling the bridge and was heavily involved in the sale, has firmly denied misleading McCulloch and insisted the American knew exactly what bridge he was buying.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.

  • 3. There’s no flowers in Green Park because of a cheating King.

Green Park is one of eight royal parks in the capital. It was established in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles II.

Unlike the rest of London’s royal parks, it is noticeable for its lack of flowers and lakes and only having a few monuments and is mostly grass, trees and pathways – hence the name Green Park.

Legend has it the park was full of flowers in the 17th century and Charles II used to venture from nearby St James’s Palace to pick flowers for his wife Queen Catherine.

However, Charles was famously unfaithful to his wife and fathered at least 14 illegitimate children. It’s been claimed Catherine found out her husband was picking flowers for other women so ordered every flower bed to be removed from the park.

True or false? Maybe. Green Park has no formal flowerbeds, although there’s around 1 million daffodils that bloom every spring.

Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more about Green Park.

Green Park © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Green Park famously has no flowers

  • 4. Vampire in Highgate cemetery

The myth of a vampire roaming Highgate cemetery first appeared in 1969 when some young people interested in the occult claimed to have seen a ‘grey figure’ lurking amongst the graves. After it was reported in a local newspaper, many people wrote in, each giving a different account of spooky goings on.

One man had a theory that a Medieval Romanian ‘King Vampire’ had been brought to England in a coffin in the early 18th century and buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery. He claimed modern Satanists had ‘woken him’.

By March 1970, there was a media hysteria with a mob of ‘vampire hunters’ arriving to track down the Highgate vampire. One man was jailed in 1974 for damaging memorials and interfering with dead remains in Highgate Cemetery.

True or false? False (probably), but it all depends on if you believe in vampires.  Read the rest of this entry

Thames Rockets review | See iconic London sights at 35mph on a thrilling boat trip

Tower Bridge and Shard Thames Rockets © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

A view of Tower Bridge and The Shard from a Thames Rocket boat

Thames Rockets boat © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

One of the Thames Rockets departs London Eye Pier

I’ve long recommended a boat trip down the River Thames as a ‘must do’ to friends and family visiting London from abroad. It’s a great place to get an overview of the capital and some of its most iconic landmarks. such as the Tower of London, the London Eye and Cleopatra’s Needle. Personally, I’ve been down the river many times over the years on the Thames Clippers, party boats or the tourist cruises. However, the one Thames experience missing from my personal history was a speedboat ride… until now.

I had occasionally seen Thames Rockets on the Thames over the years as a pedestrian on dry land. Finally, last week, I got the chance to experience a trip on a Rocket myself. The company, which launched in 2006, offers six different experiences, ranging from a 15 minute ‘Thames Taster’ to the 80 minute Thames Barrier Explorers Voyage. I was on the Ultimate London Adventure, which aims to provide a “fun-filled adrenaline-fuelled 50 minute” journey. Ahead of my trip, I was intrigued how they would combine a sight-seeing tour and speed.

Arriving 15 minutes before departure, I was greeted by the friendly Thames Rockets team, who fitted my lifejacket at the pier just by the London Eye. Next, we were given a safety briefing before climbing in. The Thames Rockets boats are speedboats with seats for about 12 people, each with a driver and guide abroad during your journey. I managed to get a coveted spot at the front of the boat, which was perfect for me as I was planning to photograph and video a lot of the journey. We were introduced to our driver Doug and our guide Bill and prepared to set off.

Tate Modern © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge

The first part of our journey was a musical trip past some of London’s most famous sights, such as Shakespeare‘s Globe, Waterloo Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. We slowed down a bit just before Tower Bridge so we could get some good photos. Soon after we passed under Tower Bridge and passed the River Police Station at Wapping, it was time to crank things up a gear. With this eastern passage of the Thames being wider and less busy than central London, Doug was free to increase the speed. Soon enough, we were holding on tight to the railings as we twisted, turned, and jumped over the waves at speeds of up to 30 knots (35mph). There was plenty of whooping and screaming as the group reacted to the various stunts. Sitting by the port side of the boat, I did get a little wet from the spray, but I was well prepared in a raincoat and it was all part of the fun. As we raced towards Canary Wharf, there were times I couldn’t even see the skyscrapers as the bow rode up in front of us as we leaped over the waves. The side turns were particularly hair-raising and certainly showed our skipper’s impressive skills at the wheel.  Read the rest of this entry

The old pillars of the former Blackfriars railway bridge

The story behind the red columns in the River Thames.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The remains of the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge stands next to the current Blackfriars station

If you walk along the Thames Path, or perhaps cross the River Thames via foot or train on the two Blackfriars Bridges, you may have noticed these pieces of unusual river furniture. Running from north to south are pairs of red pillars, which used to support the original railway bridge before it was dismantled in the 1980s. Rather confusingly for Londoners, there were two Blackfriars railway bridges and various name changes between the current Blackfriars station and another station south of the Thames which no longer exists.

Blackfriars Railway Bridge By James Dredge, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge in 1897
By James Dredge, via Wikimedia Commons

The red pillars we see today are what remains of Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge, which was built in 1864 by engineer Joseph Cubitt (1811-1872) for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR). The bridge brought trains across the Thames between the original Blackfriars Bridge station (south of the Thames) and Ludgate Hill station (closed in 1929). The original bridge was four tracks wide and supported ornate abutments featuring the LC&DR’s insignia. The original Blackfriars Bridge station was located near the junction of Southwark Street and Blackfriars Road.

It wasn’t long before Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was joined by its sister bridge, the St Paul’s Railway Bridge, which led into the newer St Paul’s train station on the north bank of the Thames, aka the current Blackfriars station. St Paul’s station and the new bridge opened in 1886, the latter designed by civil engineers Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836-1918) and Henry Marc Brunel (1842-1903). Wolfe Barry was the engineer of Tower Bridge and the son of architect Charles Barry, who famously redesigned the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, Brunel was the son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, famous for the Thames Tunnel and Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, amongst many other landmarks.

Old Blackfriars rail bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The red pillars used to stand in rows of three, but only pairs are visible

Old Blackfriars rail bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The southern abutment and LC&DR insignia have been restored

When the new St Paul’s station opened, LC&DR decided to close Blackfriars Bridge to passengers, but kept the station open as a goods’ yard. It continued in that guise until 3 February 1964, before it was demolished four years later. The only sign of the station today is the cobbled entrance driveway behind an office block.

Meanwhile, St Paul’s station was thriving and continued to serve trains heading through the City. In 1937, the station was renamed Blackfriars to avoid confusion with the tube station St Paul’s, which had been named Post Office since its opening in 1900 due to its proximity to the HQ of the General Post Office. The same year, Post Office tube station was renamed St Paul’s, as it remains today as a stop on the Central Line.

In 1985, it was decided the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was too weak to support modern trains and it was dismantled. However, the red pillars and the southern abutment remained in situ. Originally the pillars were in rows of three, but the eastern columns were absorbed into the rebuilding of Blackfriars station on the younger bridge in 2011, so only pairs are visible to the public now. During the works, the LC&DR’s insignia was restored as a lasting reminder of a bridge and train company of yesteryear.

  • The original Blackfriars Railway Bridge abutments can be viewed from the Thames Path (south side) and the embankment running alongside Blackfriars Underpass (north side). Nearest station: Blackfriars.

For the history of the Blackfriars area, click here.

For more London history and architecture posts, click here.

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