Shooting Ghosts : Fear and Understanding in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Chairman Meow has started playing trick or treat. When it’s time for dinner, he’s all affection, treating us to loads of cuddles and purrs but if food then isn’t forthcoming, he gets up to all sorts of tricks – Tapping the side of your face with a paw, pushing papers off the desk, running dementedly round the house only to freeze suddenly as if he’s seen a ghost.

The Chairman isn’t the only one getting into the Halloween spirit. Halloween is big business now in the UK : It’s estimated we spend a terrifying £300m on the festival. As a Brit, it’s hard not to feel a little sadness at the eclipse of our native Guy Fawkes, but it’s perhaps unsurprising. Let’s face it, this damp little island really doesn’t have the climate for any kind of outdoor activity in October, let alone something involving significant amounts of combustion: Bonfires and fireworks just don’t cut it in the rain. Halloween has no weather worries, no burnt children, no religious sensitivities, just fancy dress fun for all ages. In fact, it’s fast closing in on Christmas and Easter for popularity; And like Christmas, the festivities are starting earlier and earlier every year. With a fortnight still to go, I saw three zombies cycling past – it seems even the Walking Dead nowadays prefer Boris bikes.

Check any list of London’s scariest spots and you’ll almost always find a mention of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a 370m pedestrian subway under the Thames between Cutty Sark and Island Gardens. Opened in 1902, it transformed the lives of shipworkers south of the river who’d previously been dependent on the overcrowded and often unreliable ‘horse ferry’ to get to work in the docks on the Isle of Dogs. It was a magnificent piece of Victorian engineering but more recently, it’s fallen on hard times. Although there’s ongoing work to give the tunnel a much needed facelift, it remains dirty, seedy and crumbling. As the excellent Secret London Guide puts it “At times of low traffic, it feels like the loneliest, most desolate place in London.”

Greenwich Tunnel Ghosts

With Halloween just round the corner, it seemed like the perfect excuse for a visit but as I descended the staircase and stepped into the tunnel, my first feelings weren’t of fear but bitter disappointment. Shabby and decaying yes, but frightening? Hardly. For a start, it was just so busy. It never occurred to me it could be this crowded (clearly naivety on my part: I’ve since found out more than 1.5m Londoners use the tunnel every year and it’s almost at capacity!). Far from being a sinister highway, this was more like the fast lane on the M25. As wave after wave of people dashed past, there were certainly some scary sights, but none of them remotely supernatural.

Still, I was here now. No point in rushing off. I might as well make the most of it and take time to explore. It’s funny how the human brain works but the longer I spent in the tunnel, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. Maybe it was the humidity, the stale, slightly foetid air; Or perhaps the echoes, which danced all around and disorientated the senses on a rollercoaster of sound. When a group of lads came through on skateboards I genuinely (ie embarrassingly) panicked, imagining it was the roar of 50ft of river-water suddenly bursting through into the tunnel. The Greenwich Tunnel isn’t a frightening place, it’s a place where you bring your own fears and watch them fester and multiply in the dark corners of your mind.

Halloween is full of ghost stories to inspire fear, but maybe the real ghost is fear itself, that lingering memory of negative experience which haunts us throughout our lives. Even faced with our obvious unhappiness in the country, for months we couldn’t make the decision to return to London for fear of the past – fear of our former shoe-box lifestyle, fear of the cost of living, fear for the Chairman. In the end, it was only the realization that our marriage was more important that put those fears into perspective and gave us the courage to act.

So why did I finally flee the foot tunnel and scuttle back to the surface? They say the only thing you have to fear is fear itself but when an enormous spider suddenly starts crawling towards your leg, I’m happy to make an exception.

Getting Your Goat – A Visit to Mudchute City Farm

October is Stoptober here in the UK – Give up smoking and drinking for one whole month and raise a little money for charity at the same time. I have nothing but respect for those taking part – not just because it’s all in a good cause but knowing me, I’d probably end up a chain-smoking alcoholic if I ever tried. The moment I’m told I can’t have something, it suddenly becomes my object of ultimate desire : During my one and only (disastrous) attempt at a diet, I actually started dreaming of Mars bars. I don’t even like chocolate for heaven’s sake!

True to form, we’re back in the city and it’s only now I’ve started taking an interest in farming.  Despite having lived for the past year surrounded by farmland, the extent of my agricultural experience consisted only of fleeing fields of over-friendly sheep. It never occurred to me to visit a real-life working farm but here in London, I can’t get enough of the various city farms to be found all over the capital.

Mudchute City Farm

The first London city farm opened in 1972 in Kentish Town, the brainchild of a local community arts group, the Inter-Action Trust, when they rented a disused timber yard and found the remnants of the old Victorian railway stables. Nowadays, the capital boasts 12 city farms, the most recent of which – Belmont Children’s Farm – opened just last year (The exact number of city farms in London is a moot point depending on your definition. I’ve been strict in my calculations, only including those that have both animals and a London postcode – No offence to Surrey or Middlesex intended!) Most have stayed true to the spirit of Kentish Town and are also run as volunteer community projects. Not only do they help preserve the local environment, but they offer an awareness of agriculture to those in inner city areas, some of whom might never otherwise experience country life.

Of all the city farms I’ve visited, my favourite by far is Mudchute Park and Farm on the Isle of Dogs. Whereas some were just a little too compact and concrete for comfort, Mudchute is set in 32 acres of beautiful, green parkland – In fact, it’s one of the largest city farms in Europe. Back in the 70s, the park was originally destined for high-rise development, but the community fought to save it and created instead the farm you see today. Whatever your thoughts on animals, it’s undoubtedly a magical spot.  Absolutely peaceful except for the occasional ‘baaaa’, you can sit in the shadow of Canary Wharf and while away the hours watching the sheep graze.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

That’s not to say it’s all about the setting: The animals can more than hold their own. There are over 30 different breeds across 20 different species at Mudchute, everything from cute’n’fluffy rabbits to Saddleback pigs and other rare natives and even a few foreign guests such as Llamas and Alpacas: The balance between petting zoo and working farm is carefully struck. All the animals have their own appeal, but for sheer personality, the pygmy goats are hard to beat. I still haven’t figured out whether they think I’m Mum or a Michelin starred meal – sometimes it’s all affectionate cuddles, at others they’re far more interested in eating my camera bag (For something far more appetising, check out the Mudchute Kitchen:  It’s one of London’s best kept secrets for weekend brunch, partly I suspect because the TimeOut website claims it’s closed. Not true, but it is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 9.30am to 4pm).

It’s estimated around 3m people a year now visit the UK’s city farms. Whilst some are more obviously aimed at children, Mudchute seems to attract a far wider range of visitors than many – Maybe it’s the location or the fact there’s a busy equestrian centre on site.  I’ve seen everyone from school kids to OAPs, local families to Japanese tourists.  I’ve even watched a woman, still in her city suit, contentedly feeding the sheep, totally oblivious to her stilettos sinking into the mud. It was a crazy, comic moment and one which sums up perfectly why I love this little bit of countryside in the city.

It costs nothing to visit the Mudchute.  Like most Londoners, I’m pretty cynical when told ‘the best things in life are free’ but in the case of Mudchute Farm, it might just be true.

Practicalities

Mudchute Park and Farm is open everyday from 9am – 5pm. However, do go early if you can as many of the animals are in bed by 4pm. The nearest station is Crossharbour DLR. There is no parking on site.  For more information, see the Mudchute Park and Farm website


Infinite Possibilities : The Reasons for Returning to London

If you’re tired of London, are you really tired of life? To be fair, if you’re tired of anything, it’s probably that quote but leaving that aside, I’m still not convinced. Our life out of London wasn’t a half life – on the contrary, it had many magical moments – but it was a more defined life. There were things we could do and things we couldn’t.

I used to think our decision to return to London just boiled down to basic maths : What we’d gained didn’t add up to what we’d lost.  Yes, we had a beautiful house and garden and a view to die for – everything in fact we’d longed for from the confines of our one-bed flat – but I missed London’s restaurants, the museums and galleries more than I could have imagined. A more reliable rail link into London might have helped: If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone thinking of moving out and commuting, it’s to check, check and check again the statistics for your line. It’s no exaggeration to say I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of non-disrupted journeys I had during our time in the Village. Whenever we tried to go out, the worry of whether we’d ever make it back was always there. In the end, we stopped trying. Space, it seems, doesn’t buy you happiness, it just gives you more bedrooms in which to mope about the house.

Looking back, I realise now it was never that simple. For all the times I was confronted by a wall of ‘delayed’ messages at Euston, there were glorious autumn days, woodland walks and slap up pub lunches for less than the cost of a pint in London. It wasn’t a question of having made the wrong or the right choice, what I missed was the luxury of not having to choose at all.

More than anywhere I’ve ever lived, London lets you be all the people you are – career woman, homemaker, socialite, recluse, happy, sad. Life in the Village was perfect as a hot date – superficially attractive and great for a good time just not up to handling my moods. London is a real soulmate – still capable of pissing me off but always there as a support, no matter what.

Inifite Possibilities

London is a place of infinite possibilities. You can turn left or you can turn right, but you can equally meander though life, twisting and turning in every direction just like the Thames flowing through the city. Coming back, what I’ve enjoyed the most aren’t the restaurants, the museums, the galleries – all the things I thought I’d missed – but the unexpected gems, the things I’ve stumbled on and which I never imagined myself doing in million years: listening on the edge of my seat to a story of sailing solo round the world, even though I don’t do boats and get seasick on a river taxi; Meeting Dave who went blind aged 18 and discovering what it’s like finding your way around London without sight; learning about parkour from kids half my age practicing at the end of the street. Arguably I could also have done any of these in the Village if I wanted but then, that’s exactly the point – I’d have to have gone looking for them. In London, they just happen.

London isn’t a fairy tale nor are its streets paved with gold, but life here is richer and more colourful than anything we had before; And even if I haven’t yet made my fortune Dick Whittington style, at least I’ve got the cat!

Putting up barriers – The Annual Closure of the Thames Barrier

Not a morning person doesn’t even come close. Mornings and I fell out at birth (I was due at 6, but didn’t show up until 11) and we’ve barely been on speaking terms since. Had I been Sleeping Beauty,the Prince would never have got away with waking me up, no matter how hard he’d studied at charm school.

Suffice to say, it takes something pretty special to get me up at the crack of dawn especially on a Sunday – something like the annual closure of the Thames Barrier. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Barrier ever since it “rescued” me from a wedding boat party. It was one of those nightmare situations where I didn’t know a soul except the groom. Everywhere I turned, there were dancing dads, drunken aunts and depressed bridesmaids. Suddenly the steel-clad gatehouses of the Thames Barrier appeared. At a time when so much of London’s infrastructure was still brutally functional, the effect was extraordinary. It was so elegant, so beautiful, certainly enough to make the whole torturous trip worthwhile.

Thames Barrier at Sunrise

The Thames Barrier is London’s Knight in Shining Armour. The largest and most important of the capital’s flood defences, it protects around 1.5m Londoners (1 in every 6 of us) from natural disaster: More than  500,000 homes & businesses now stand on the Thames flood plain. Of course, it’s easy just to dismiss it all as the stuff of movies but even if it wouldn’t happen quite like Flood, nonetheless London is at significant risk. If a storm surge forms (as it often does) out in the Atlantic Ocean and moves east past the northern tip of Scotland, it can sometimes be driven down in to the North Sea and funnelled into the narrower waters near the English Channel, so causing dangerously high water levels in the Thames Estuary. If this also coincides with a spring tide, flooding becomes a serious possibility – especially if the river is already swollen by heavy rains. In fact, without the Thames Barrier, there’d be a 1 in 1000 chance of London seriously flooding every year.

The history of London’s floods is as old as the city itself, but in the 1960s the realisation finally dawned something needed to be done. What changed? In 1953, a high spring tide combined with a storm surge and crashed into the east coast of England, causing one of the UK’s worst ever flooding disasters. It was pure chance that London escaped, but hundreds still lost their lives. Then, less than a decade later, Hamburg was also hit by an exceptional spring tide. 60,000 homes were destroyed. The message was clear. A report was commissioned in 1966 and by 1974, work on the Thames Barrier was underway.

Since its official opening in 1984, the Thames Barrier has been used more than 120 times, most dramatically in 2003 when it was closed for 14 consecutive tides. Regular maintenance and testing is essential  (you try telling a drowned London, ‘oops sorry, missed that one. Could we take it again?’!). The barrier is routinely closed for a couple of hours every month but once a year it also undergoes a full tidal test, staying shut for the 12 hour cycle from low tide to high tide and back to low tide again – Hence the reason I now found myself standing in an east London industrial estate, watching the barrier.

Maintenance Tunnel under the Barrier (Sadly not open to the public!)

Maintenance tunnel under the Barrier – Sadly not open to the public

I really had no idea what to expect from the Thames Barrier closure. I knew how the barrier worked – domed gates which normally lie flat on the river bed are rotated hydraulically into position across the river – but that was the limit of my understanding. The biggest surprise was how long it was going to take : Nearly two hours shut the entire barrier (My plans for standard film of the closure were rapidly abandoned in favour of the time lapse footage below!). What good would that be in a real emergency? Actually the barrier could be closed far quicker – even the largest gates can be shut in as little as 8 minutes – but the preference is to slow the tidal flow gradually, closing the gates one by one from the outside in: “it’s kinder to the barrier and kinder to the river”. In any case, modern technology and a network of monitoring stations across the North Sea means you now get around 36hrs notice of any risk of tidal surge.

No less surprising was the silence. In my head, I’d imagined a whirr of machinery, the bump and grind of 3,700 tonnes of  steel gate lifting into position.  The process was so quiet! A faint hum from the hydraulic arms and that was all. Watching this extraordinary feat of engineering glide serenely into action, I suddenly understood why the Thames Barrier has sometimes been described as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’

The nearest most Londoners get to a flood is a leaky bathroom. Thanks to the Thames Barrier, may that long continue.

Practicalities

  • The Thames Barrier Park on the north side of the river is easier to get to (it’s next door to Pontoon Dock DLR station) and offers great views of the western side of the barrier, but there are no facilities.
  • For the more spectacular view through the barrier back towards Canary Wharf, you need to be south of the River. There’s an excellent visitor centre with a canteen at Charlton but it’s quite a trek from Charlton mainline station. If you can face the south London traffic, car parking is available on site (it costs £1.50 so don’t forget to bring some small change). For more information about opening hours and entrance fees – see the visitor centre home page.  You don’t need to visit to get superb views of the barrier but it is a great source of information
  • To get really up close and personal, the river itself is your best bet. The inexpensive River Taxi routes RB1 (Embankment to Woolwich Arsenal) and RB5 (North Greenwich to Woolwich Arsenal) takes you through the barrier. Obviously, this isn’t an option on closure days!
  • For details of the Thames Barrier’s scheduled closures, a monthly timetable is published here

The Hoody’s Guide to English Rain

I’ve never understood the idea of ‘raining cats and dogs’. Dogs maybe, but all good cat owners know no self-respecting puss would be seen dead on a rainy day. Take this morning: It was pissing it down. Chairman Meow took one look outside, let out the grumpiest ‘maaaooow’ you’ve ever heard and marched straight back upstairs. I know how he felt.

Here come the rain again

Winter is well and truly on its way here in the UK. Summer has shut up shop, switched off the lights and gone back home to have a bath: It’s cold and dark and wet. Living in the Village and commuting by car, I never really noticed the weather, but now I’m walking much of the way to work, I’ve got to know it far better than I’d like. English rain, it seems, comes in many different guises, all of them deeply unpleasant:-

Drizzle

That non descript dampness that’s neither one thing nor the other. Like a teenage lad loitering on street corners, it’s probably harmless, but still capable of making you feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s the hoody of the metereological world – not least because a hoody’s pretty handy against it too.

The Shower

Good old-fashioned, proper rain. Definitely nastier than drizzle, but for all Psycho associations, not as dangerous as you’d think. Showers usually come with plenty of warning and rarely last long so you’re in with a good chance of staying safe and dry.

Solid Rain

The rain which goes on for days non-stop and takes over your life: You can’t get away. You can’t go out. Frankly, you might as well stay in bed. Pimp my weather system anyone?

The Downpour

The professional, the assassin, Mother Nature’s hitman. Downpours work alone and come out of nowhere. They soak you to the skin in seconds and even if you have one, you don’t stand a chance of getting an umbrella up in time. No messing around here, this rain deserves your respect.

And as for England’s most wanted? Well that’s easy – It’s sunshine.