Brunel can still make an en­trance

New venue in the weird­est place

The Wharf - - Front Page - Giles Broad­bent

High in the wall of a Rother­hithe tun­nel shaft, just above the world’s first tun­nel be­neath a river, just to the left of a mod­ern elec­tric junc­tion box is a small black grill gate.

Through that gate, so the story goes, a man was res­cued from the rag­ing wa­ters be­neath that had breached the tun­nel dur­ing its con­struc­tion in 1828. Six men drowned. Two had made it to the stairs but were sucked back down by the force of the wa­ter.

But the res­cued man was sent to Bris­tol for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. That young man was Isam­bard King­dom Brunel who, along with his fa­ther, Sir Marc, had brought the “eighth won­der of the world” into be­ing – the Thames Tun­nel, first tun­nel be­neath a river.

That cham­ber, so long in­ac­ces­si­ble, has now been opened as a uniquely evoca­tive mu­seum ex­hibit – the walls are still black with soot – and a per­for­mance space.

Brunel Mu­seum di­rec­tor Robert Hulse, said: “This huge cham­ber, which weighs 1,000 tons, was built above ground and sunk un­der its own weight into the soft earth. So it’s like a mas­sive pas­try cut­ter but to en­gi­neers it’s the world’s first cais­son and Brunel was the first per­son to un­der­stand that the best way to build be­low the ground was build above the ground and sink it.

“Isam­bard King­dom Brunel be­gan and al­most ended his ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer in this cham­ber.”

Brunel, ever the show­man, made the most of his engi­neer­ing mar­vel lay­ing on the world’s first un­der­wa­ter con­cert – and so it is fit­ting that the sound of mu­sic will once again echo round its black­ened walls.

Mr Hulse said: “This cham­ber opened as an un­der­wa­ter ban­quet hall, an un­der­wa­ter shop­ping ar­cade, an un­der­wa­ter fair­ground, an un­der­wa­ter multi-cul­tural fes­ti­val and a un­der­wa­ter knock­ing shop. And th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties – ex­cept for the last one – are all ones that you find down here in the years to come.”

The space now has a free­stand­ing stair­case and its shadow crosses the line in the wall where the orig­i­nal worked its way down to the tun­nel be­low where the trains rum­ble through to this day.

RAFTERY + LOWE

In­side the new Grand En­trance Hall to the Thames Tun­nel

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