Exploring underground Greenwich from above
The key to having a really good sort-of-local blog is, of course, to shamelessly nick stuff from other sort-of-local blogs. So when The Greenwich Phantom mentioned a tour of “underground Greenwich”, I got my best red pen out and marked it in the diary. You might have guessed from the Kingsway Subway stuff that I’m fascinated by what lies beneath our feet. Especially if it’s old and disused. And there’s plenty of that in Greenwich.
It’s a labour of love for tour guide Anthony Durham, who was inspired to fathom out what was below his feet when investigating the collapse of Blackheath Hill in 2002 which hit his business hard. What he discovered caught his imagination – few other places have such a hidden subterranean history. Every now and then, he runs an informal tour to give people an idea of what’s there. Very informal, in fact – Greenwich’s tourist office won’t let him promote his tours there because he hasn’t got the appropriate qualifications. As we scampered across Nelson Road the way locals do, instead of the way tourists do it, I realised this might not be such a bad thing. So news of Anthony’s tours are spread by word of mouth. And blog. Was the Phantom there? “It’s all a ruse…” one walker muttered, insisting that among our number must surely be SE10’s best-known scribe.
To warm the party up, Anthony posed a question. How many tunnels enter the borough of Greenwich from the River Thames? I won’t give you the answer, but it’ll surprise you. (The answer’s not on Wikipedia either, because I’ve just checked and it’s missed at least one out.) And he talked about the coal holes outside some of Greenwich town centre’s older houses – which extend their properties under the roads outside their front doors.
Then next to the King’s Arms, the real talk about digging dirt began – the railway tunnel under Greenwich, which led to naval graves being reinterred in East Greenwich Pleasaunce, although a select few remain in a rarely-open mausoleum at Devonport House. The Royal Observatory had objected to the original London and Greenwich Railway being extended deeper into Kent, so the South Eastern Railway had to take a circuitous route via New Cross, Lewisham and Blackheath, then via an impressively long tunnel to Charlton, with that line opening in 1849. It took nearly 30 years to persuade the Observatory, move Greenwich station, move the graves, dig the tunnel, and plug the gap between there and Charlton.
And then there’s the sewer network, which rises on Greenwich High Road on its way to Crossness – and how that, the mainline railway and the Docklands Light Railway just manage not to collide… there’s a few main sewer pipes passing through this area, and it appears the whiff I get in my nose on a hot day is effluent from Catford passing under my road. Thanks, guys.
Up in the park, we discovered the conduits, much talked-about, but little is widely known about them. Built to carry water, they’re now sealed up, but the odd sign of them can be seen – two covered-up entrances at the foot of the park, for example. We were able to follow one from above, from the Crooms Hill side of the park across to the top of Hyde Vale. It was the first time I’d ever realised quite what those structures were.
We took in the burial mounds, a World War II defence relic, and some of Blackheath’s hidden history before discovering something I’d always wondered about – the infamous Jack Cade’s Cavern. It’s not quite underneath The Point, but sits slightly further down, between Maidenstone Hill and Hollymount Close. Created by 18th century mine-workings, the caves were a popular venue for parties until the mid-19th century. Considered and rejected as shelters during both world wars, council engineers surveyed the mines during World War II before sealing them. A ventilation pipe buried in undergrowth behind a fence at the end of an alley is all that can (not) be seen of the caves now. Then there’s the nearby dene holes, dug to extract chalk – one of these is thought to have caused the Blackheath Hill collapse. Seven and a half years after the hole fell in, the Lewisham Council flats which subsided as a result are still in place, awaiting demolition.
Further down the hill is the site of Blackheath Hill station, on the doomed Greenwich Park railway line. Opened to Blackheath Hill in 1872, and to Greenwich Park (the site of the Ibis hotel) in 1888, the line – which split off from the Victoria/Blackfriars route at Nunhead – was designed to compete with the existing railway to Greenwich. But its fiddly route (30 minutes to central London in 1899) and competition from trams meant the line was a failure, although it did attract some traffic to/from Crystal Palace (another doomed route from Nunhead, which closed in the 1950s). It closed in 1919 and by 1932, the line had been filled in*, although the station buildings lasted for many years after.
It’s possible to follow the route now if you know where to look – the Ibis, Greenwich police station, its car park on Royal Hill, allotments, the newer housing on Blissett Street, the fire station, the “weak bridge” on Lindsell Street, an oddly-placed tarmac football pitch and behind some buildings on Blackheath Hill, a locked door, behind which is what remains of the bridge carrying the road over the railway line. Sadly, we couldn’t get a look inside, although others have managed to sneak a peek.
(The line then passed through what’s now the Orchard Estate, and over Brookmill Road, where part of it remains as a nature reserve. The rest of the route from Nunhead was diverted to Lewisham and reopened in 1929 – if you travel from there to Victoria, that’s the line you use. The old Lewisham Road station, on Loampit Vale, is now a junk shop.)
After that excitement, the walk ended on Diamond Terrace, which has a tunnel story of its very own… and then to the pub, to chat and discover more, and round off a fascinating afternoon for which I’m hugely grateful. I didn’t know Charlton House had a tunnel which ended not a million miles from my place, in what’s now the Springfield Estate, but I do now. I’ll keep an eye out, but Anthony says he’s had a thorough look and can’t see an exit. If you know better, or if you want to know when he’s doing another tour (or can help him put together a website to show off his knowledge), drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch.
(*Some of the information on the Greenwich Park branch comes from train geek/capital history bible London’s Local Railways, by Alan A Jackson.)