A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about tourist sites

Underwater at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Crossing under a fair chunk of rock and water between Isle of Dogs and Greenwich

sunny 17 °C
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Greater London is split in two by the River Thames, running through it from west to east as it makes its way to dump its water into the English Channel. Getting from one side to the other has been a large preoccupation of the residents of this area for the past 2000 years. In 50 AD the Romans built the first bridge across the Thames near the site of present day London Bridge.

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The city of London and the city of Westminster have the majority of the river crossings in London, including a number of bridges built in the late 1800s. Those downstream from London though had to rely mostly on boats to take them across the river.

In 1843, Marc Brunel built the world's first underwater tunnel, running between Rotherhithe on the South bank and Wapping on the North Bank. The Thames Tunnel was open for pedestrian foot traffic from 1843 until 1865, when it converted over to train usage.

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The Thames Tunnel was still in use up until late 2007 as part of the East London line of the Underground. It is currently closed, undergoing refurbishment to reopen in 2010 as part of the London Overground network.

While not exactly a success as a pedestrian tunnel, the Thames Tunnel did inspire other tunnels to be built underneath the Thames, including one linking Isle of Dogs with Greenwich.

Originally I wasn't planning on writing a blog entry today, figuring that having written three entries in the past three days was probably enough for even the most voracious of readers. However, when the crack research team here at GregWTravels pointed out to me that today was the 106th birthday of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, well, I had to go and check it out.

(Note: the crack research team here at GregWTravels consists of me reading things like Wikipedia, using Google and reading Londonist Blog Entries).

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel connects Greenwich Pier with Island Gardens.

The crack research team (i.e. Wikipedia) has this to say on the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, "The cast-iron tunnel itself is 370.2 m (1,217 ft) long and 15.2 m deep and has an internal diameter of about 9 feet (3 m). Its cast-iron rings are lined with concrete which has been surfaced with some 200,000 white glazed tiles. The northern end was damaged by bombs during World War II and the repairs include a thick steel and concrete inner lining that reduces the diameter substantially for a short distance." (Source: Wiki Entry on Greenwich Foot Tunnel)

The tunnel is about 10 minutes walk south from my house. You arrive at the tip of Isle of Dogs, and can see across the water to Greenwich, temptingly close.

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Beside you, you will see the entrance to the foot tunnel, a large, round red brick structure with a glass dome roof.

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If you look across the river, you can see it's twin on the other side (in the picture below, you can see if off to the very right of the frame). The ferris wheel, by the way, is the Greenwich Eye, the baby brother for the much larger London Eye near the houses of Parliament.

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The tunnel is open 24 hours a day. There is a lift (actually two lifts, one on either side of the river), but the lift is only open during the day. At night, or for those wanting a little exercise, you can walk down a set of Spiral stairwells.

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Have a quick glance back your last look at land on the north bank of the river.

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Down into the tunnel itself. Crossing from Isle of Dogs, first you pass through the repaired section with the iron plates...

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A "riveting view," isn't it? (insert groan at bad pun here)

Next, you walk through the tunnel with the white tiled walls. Above you is 50 feet of earth before you get to the bottom of the River Thames, where another large amount of water (depending on the tide depth) sits above that. It's a long way to go if you need to get a breath of fresh air.

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The tunnel is very busy right now, not just with tourists, runners and cyclists, but just regular folks trying to get across the river, given that presently the DLR is not running between Island Gardens (on Isle of Dogs) and Cutty Sark (in Greenwich) due to repair work.

After a few minutes, you emerge on the other side, now on the South side of the River Thames. Coming out of the Greenwich Exit, you take a check turn and look back North across the river to Island Gardens, Isle of Dogs and the whole of North London across the water.

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Happy 106th, Greenwich Foot Tunnel!

Posted by GregW 05:05 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

How to Really Confuse Tourists Driving in London

Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light Tree, Heron Quays, Isle of Dogs, London

overcast 16 °C
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As if driving on the other side of the road, making most every intersection a roundabout and making people driving through London pay a congestion charge wasn't enough to confuse the heck out of tourists, how about the following?

You are driving south down Westferry Road in London, passing under Westferry Circus and come out to see the following in the middle of the traffic island.

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No, it's not a traffic control device. It's art.

Created by Paris born artist Pierre Vivant and funded by the Public Art Commissions Agency, the piece stands in the middle of a traffic circle on the Isle of Dogs. There are two trees behind the traffic light tree. They are London Planes. A third tree used to stand on the site, but died. To replace the tree, Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light Tree was erected.

Designed to mimic the shape of the London planes behind it, the structure has 75 traffic lights, flashing red, amber and green in a never-ending sequence. It is meant to represent the "eternal energy of the Canary Wharf area."

The roundabout runs just like any roundabout without lights - cars in the circle have right of way, and those coming into the circle need to yield. But I can't help but think that it would be very confusing to any motorist approaching the circle to see all those lights.

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People wonder why London has such bad traffic...

Posted by GregW 08:49 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Mini-Beach Holiday to Brighton

John Lennon may have been the Walrus, but after a day in Brighton, I am the lobster

sunny 24 °C
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Since getting back from Paris, I've had a bit of a stressful week and a half. Not bad stress, just a busy calendar running errands, going on job interviews and planning for my upcoming move, so when I saw a free day on my calendar and a weather report from the BBC that said sunny and clear skies, I decided I deserved a little beach holiday. So on Thursday I packed a towel and my swimming trunks and caught the train to Brighton.

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Brighton is due south of London, about 80 miles from where I live right now. The first order of business was figuring out how to get there. London and the surrounding area has a dizzying array of transit options. Most people are familiar with at least a few of them - the iconic black taxi cabs, the red double-decker buses and the extensive tube network are known even to those that have never been here. I admit when I first arrived in London, I was a bit of a tube snob. If I went anywhere, I went by the London Underground.

As I have settled in, though, I have figured out that there are a few other options to getting around that can be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable than the tube. Specifically, I figured out that there is a train station called Cricklewood which is as close to my house as the tube line, and has frequent trains that run into the city and beyond. In fact, I could have saved myself some time had I known when I went down to Wimbledon, instead of taking two underground routes that stop frequently, I could have taken a commuter train straight through the city to Wimbledon station.

The trains are run by First Capital Connect, which sounds like a bank but is really a train company. A very popular one, it seems, as the first time I tried to take one of their trains was from St. Pancras to Cricklewood after returning from Paris. Ticket in hand, my train pulled in. It was only four cars long and full of people. Despite the 100 or so people on the platform trying to cram on the train, we weren't all going to fit, and a large number of passengers, including myself, were left on the station when the train pulled away. The next train wasn't for another 40 minutes, so I hauled my stuff all the way across St. Pancras station to the tube line.

Luckily, I had no such trouble getting on a train yesterday. I even got a seat once we'd passed Farringdon station, though I didn't get to sit long as I had to change at Blackfriars. Normally I wouldn't mention something as tedious as changing trains, but I wanted to mention how much I like Blackfrairs station, which is partially out over the Thames river.

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There was a woman standing on the platform across from me who was staring out at the river. She may have been happy for all I know, but for some reason I got it in my head that she was sad, sitting there staring out at the water and wishing that her train wouldn't come today, so she could go back home and go to sleep.

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A few minutes later a train pulled in and three of her friends got off. They walked away smiling and laughing, so it turns out my imagination was wrong. My train pulled in, and off we went.

A little over an hour later I was in Brighton. The walk to the sea-shore from the train station is about 10 minutes downhill. You pass the clock tower and a few minutes later, the wind off the ocean is hitting your face.

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The beach is incredibly rocky and the water is testicle shrinkingly cold, but that doesn't stop the masses from coming out to the beach. Because the water is so cold, few people venture into it, and if they do, it's usually only for a quick dip and then out into the sun again to let the sun dry you off.

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There are two piers at Brighton. Well, at least there were two piers at Brighton. The west pier has fallen into disrepair, and is mostly just rusted metal pilings and beams in the water now.

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There are development plans afoot to build a massive tower and pier where the ruins of the west pier is now. The plans are nice enough, but I feel it's a bit of a shame really. I like the rusted and derelict nature of the present west pier. It's like a piece of art, a statement on the transitory nature of all things.

The east pier is definitely not in a state of disrepair. It is a lively tourist attraction with amusement, arcades, casinos, bars and restaurants. There are also a lot of signs reminding you to make sure that you put out your cigarettes thoroughly so you don't burn down the mostly wooden structure.

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Seeing the Helter Skelter put The Beatles tune in my head.

If the fear of a flaming wooden pier keeps you from going out above the water, there are still lots of amusements along the beach to keep you interested.

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Heading east from the pier, you find the Volk's Electric Railway. Operating since 1883, the electric train runs from the Aquarium and pier in the west to the Marina in the east.

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The eastern most station, by the marina is called Black Rock. I've been watching Lost on DVD all this week, and one of the key locations at the end of the 1st season is the mysterious Black Rock. Seeing the station name replaced The Beatles Helter Skelter in my mind with thoughts of the TV show. Damn media infiltrating my brain! Can't I just enjoy Brighton without having to contextualize it within some media-created framework.

I didn't take the train. There was a big sign on the train station talking about how important it was to get exercise, and that it's a good thing to walk, which persuaded me to hoof it to the Marina.

If I was going to walk all that way (it's about a mile), I figured I needed something to power me up, so I grabbed some lunch. Given the seaside nature of where I was, I figured I should eat from the ocean, so fish and chips with mushy peas was on the menu.

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There was a place just down from my lunch spot that was selling muscles and cockles, and it made me think of Sweet Molly Malone, calling "Cockles and Muscles - Alive-Alive-Oh!" Another song in my head...

The marina is just that, a marina, with boat slips. There is also a number of restaurants and shops.

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I wandered back to the beach and settled into a spot on the beach at Duke's Mound, just to the west of the nudist area. Yes, there is a nudist area. No, I didn't take any pictures. I did take a peak into the spot. Mostly it was clothed people sitting around looking at the few brave, naked and male souls.

There were no change rooms close by, so I changed into my swim trunks using the old towel round the waist method, and headed into the water. It was freezing, and as the tide was high the bottom was all rocks. Further out, or when the tide is lower, there is a sandy bottom, but when I was in, all I could feel was cold water shocking my system and rocks stabbing at my feet. I was out of the water in less than a minute.

I lay down on my towel and let myself air dry, every once and a while sneaking a peak at the two beautiful Indian girls sunbathing topless just down from me. Much better viewing than the male-heavy nude beach.

As the waves washed in and out, it moved the rocks on the beach, sounding a lot like someone carrying a bag of marbles. That's the sound of the ocean in Brighton - waves, gulls and rocks banging together.

Once dried off, I headed into Brighton. Lots of little shops and some nice pedestrian areas for strolling.

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Not interested in buying anything, I eventually made my way back down to the sea front and found myself a table at the Gemini Lounge and Beach Bar. The place has a huge patio with a band playing, and a built in temperance mechanism in the form of some of the slowest service I have ever received.

I slipped off my sandals. My feet were killing me. Not only did I walk a few miles in sandals (not the most supportive shoes for hiking in the world) and have the rocks of Brighton beach stab at the bottom of my feet, but the tops were lobster red from the sun. Actually, only half of the top of my feet were lobster red. The parts that were under the sandal straps were alabaster white. There is an interesting red-white zebra stripe on my feet now.

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I settled back, resting my feet and sipping on my beer (once it finally arrived). The band announced that they were going to play one more song before coming around to collect donations and then taking a break. In honour of the sunny weather, they played Beautiful Day by U2. Despite the fact that the singer didn't seem to know any of the words and mostly just mumbled a tune, I still gave them a pound when they came around with their collection bucket.

I sat back and let the sun shine on me (while keeping my feet safely under the table in the shade), and just watched the people roll by. The beach may not be white sand, the water may be somewhere close to the freezing point, the service may be slow as molasses in January and the band may not know the words to the songs they sing, but no bother. The sun was shining and I had a day off, without any stress, and that was a damn fine thing.

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Posted by GregW 04:26 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Cathedral of Shopping

Paris’ Galleries Lafayette

sunny 21 °C
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When I was in Paris back in 2005, some people, mainly female, would often comment how exciting it must be to be in Paris and go shopping. I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, shopping is something I do because I need to. If I have no milk for my cereal, all my underwear has holes in it or I wind up at Wimbledon in the beating sun without a hat, I say to myself, “well, I guess I have to buy something.” I try and make shopping as quick and painless experience as possible. Get in, buy what you want, get out. No dilly-dallying or looking at other stuff.

In Paris, I was doubly dissuaded from shopping, as the strength of the Canadian dollar against the Euro back in 2005 was, to be kind, poor. Everything in Paris was twice the price as back home. In my 7 weeks in Paris in 2005, other than food, drink and train tickets, I bought one pair jeans on sale for €15.

However, for many Paris is the shopping capital of the world. I was reminded of it while watching the Bastille Day parade, when 3 massive army trucks stopped on the Champs Elysee. Despite their power and might, they were overshadowed by a massive Yves St. Laurent sign on the building behind them. The might and majesty of the France military is nothing compared to the power of Paris’ fashion.

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While I may see shopping as just function, I understand that for many shopping is more than that. For some It is form, a see and be seen, get the right stuff and flaunt it. For others, it is sport, deal and bargain, shop and compare, search and find until the goal is achieved at the lowest price with the highest quality. For even others, it is therapy, a way to forget their troubles and feel good.

For a select few, it is religion. For those few, Paris built Galleries Lafayette.

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In three large buildings, just north of the Paris Opera is a massive shopping complex. On entering the largest of the buildings, one can’t help but gaze up and gasp in awe. You are in a massive dome with picturesque stained glass and detail work on the many balconies to rival the biggest religious houses in Europe.

This is the Cathedral of shopping.

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I work my way up the floors of the main building. Floor 0 is perfume. Floor 1 is designer fashion. Floor 2 contemporary fashion, as well as the bridge to the men’s building. That’s right, this is just women’s fashion in the main building. Up to Floor 3. “Seductive fashion,” including lingerie. Floor 4 has an oxygen bar for those tired from the trudge up the elevator or breathless from the skimpy outfits from floor 3. As well, floor 4 has outdoor fashion. Floor 5 is children’s fashion.

Finally floor 6, and my destination, one of the many restaurants in the Galleries Lafayette. I buy lunch and beer for a wallet rocking €17. I decide to suffer it though. After all, when one is in a church, one is expected to tithe a little of their earnings to the power that is.

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In this case, the Gods of Shopping.

Posted by GregW 15:59 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

The Elephant and Castle Mystery

An in depth examination of the mystery of why this area is named after a pachyderm and a big, old building. Well, in depth meant visiting two bars, but you get the general idea...

rain 20 °C
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When we last saw me, I was wandering a field in south-east England. A few hours later, after taking a circular route that saw me walking through more fields, a small forest and getting cut up by even more thistles and thorns, I wound up back at the train station as clouds started to roll in. The train arrived just in time. After 15 minutes later the rain started to come down.

Riding back, my plan had been to take the train to Blackfriars Station and then the tube home, but looking at my train schedule a name popped out at me and I decided to take a detour. Elephant and Castle.

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The name Elephant and Castle was familiar to me, as it is the name of a chain of British pubs in North America with locations in Toronto, the rest of Canada and the US.

It wasn’t until I arrived recently in London and looked closely at my tube map that I realized that the name Elephant and Castle wasn’t just two randomly squeezed together words (as pub names often are), but the name of an area in London. It’s the name of a tube station as well as a national rail station. The road between two round-abouts in the area is called Elephant and Castle, as is the shopping centre adjacent to road. In fact, the whole area has started to take on the name Elephant and Castle, replacing the previous name Newington in even official documents, like this website outlining a regeneration project in the area.

I pulled out my tube mapped and confirmed that I could still get home without issue, taking the Bakerloo line, which has its terminus at Elephant and Castle up to Baker station and then transferring to the Jubilee line.

The rain was really coming down when the train pulled into the station, but luckily the covered platforms let right down in to the Elephant and Castle shopping mall. I puttered around the mall for a few minutes, waiting for the rain to let up. The mall, I later find out, was voted the ugliest building in all of London by Time Out readers in 2005.

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Soon it was a mere drizzle outside, so I left the confines of the indoor mall and stepped outside and into a very lively multicultural market place. There were tons of stalls crammed into the small space of the moat that surrounds the mall.

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Heading up from the moat I come across a pub called the Charlie Chaplin. A sign outside provides a brief explanation of why the pub is named after the famous comedic actor. He was born in the area and lived there until moving to the USA to become a famous movie star.

The rain starts falling again, so I decide to grab a pint at Charlie Chaplin and wait for the rain to stop. The bartender serves me my pint, and I pop the question.

“Why is this area called the Elephant and Castle?”

She cocks her head to the side and slightly shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’ve lived here all my life, and I have no idea,” she admits, before turning to face a man down the end of the bar. “Hey Robbie, why is this place called Elephant and Castle?”

Robbie laughs. “Nobody really knows. There’s lots of rumours, but no one knows the truth. It’s been lost to the mists of time.”

I plop some coins in the juke box and after selecting my songs, spend time doodling in my notepad, drawing an elephant and a castle, very poorly. The elephant comes out looking like a dog with a long nose, and the castle is just a box with some teeth at the top. I have to colour in the elephant with a red pen so it stands out from the castle wall, giving it a faintly pinkish tint.

“Hmmm, I guess that makes sense. Pink elephants. I can’t imagine there being any other kind in London.”

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The rain clears up and I move on. Under a subway tunnel and across the street I find a pub called the “Elephant and Castle.” Surely they’ll know the truth.

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A sign out front says that the pub sits on the site of a theatre dating back to the 1600s. I walk in and find a modern looking restaurant, complete with a Thai menu. I take a seat at the bar, not at all the cosy, old English pub I was expecting, but clean and the staff seemed friendly, so I popped the question again.

“Why is this area called the Elephant and Castle?”

Another bartender with no answers to offer, as she admits she doesn’t know. Luckily, she also has a regular she can turn to. “Tom, why is this area called the Elephant and Castle?”

Unlike Robbie in the Charlie Chaplin, Tom has a definitive answer. “Prince Louis. He brought the elephant here from France. Kept it in the palace grounds, thus you had an Elephant in a Castle.”

Seems a sensible answer, so I jotted it down in my book and closed the case. At least until I got back to my apartment and could do some research on the internet.

Despite Tom’s definitiveness with an answer, it appears that in fact Robbie had it right. No one quite knows why the area is called Elephant and Castle. There are lots of theories, most of which are examined in this thread from a local London internet group.

There are a few popular theories:

  • The area is named after a pub called the Elephant and Castle. The pub was converted from a blacksmiths in 1790. The blacksmith was affiliated with the Culter’s Company, a maker of swords, knives and other cutlery, who often used ivory in their handles. Their crest has three elephants on it, including one with a howdah on the back, which is a seat used by hunters when riding an elephant. The howdah is shaped like a castle.

  • The name is a bastardization of the words Infanta de Castile, and references a Spanish queen or princess who visited the area. Most often Queen Eleanor of Castile who was the wife of King Edward the first is the one mentioned in this story, though other names can be found. An infanta was the eldest daughter of a king, something that Eleanor was not. Variations on this theme have Infanta meaning young, as the princess in the story was only a teenage when she was married.

  • The name is a reference to the King's menagerie (zoo) located at the Tower of London, thus you have Elephants in castles. A variation on this theme was the theory that Tom from the Elephant and Castle pub was espousing with his Prince Louis and his elephant.

What is right we will probably never know, so the case will remain open but cold, I guess. Much like the beer at the Elephant and Castle pub in Elephant and Castle, South London, England.

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Posted by GregW 10:44 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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