Taking a walk under the Thames

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    An Unusual River Tunnel

    A tunnel is an underground or underwater passage, which can serve many purposes, but is primarily usedto get around natural or man-made obstacles. Many tunnels were built in the nineteenth and twentiethcenturies, mainly to facilitate train or automobile travel, some for pedestrian traffic and a few for boats.One of the most unique nineteenth century tunnels runs under the river Thames in London.

    The Greenwich Foot Tunnel is a passageway under the River Thames; what makes it unusual is it is onlyfor pedestrian use. The cast-iron tunnel, completed in 1904, was built to link the thriving docklands onthe north side with the new suburbs to the south side, running between the Royal Naval College atGreenwich on the south bank of the river and Island Gardens on the north bank.

    A glaze domed tower on each bank of the river serves as both an entrance and exit and providesventilation for the tunnel. You can enter from either side of the river, go down a wide circular staircasewhich takes you 33 feet below the river Thames, walk along a tile lined passageway under the river, andthen exit by climbing a similar staircase on the opposite bank. The walk is not difficult if you arerelatively fit, because the tunnel is only 1215 feet long, 10 foot in diameter, and a cool, somewhat damp,14 C (55 F) year round.

    The 100 steps at each end of the tunnel are not steep, however there is an elevator at each end if you donot want to use the stairs. The tunnel is well lit and is open 24 hours a daily, so people use it all the timeto cross under the river from one side to the other.

    The south entry/exit of the tunnel is near The Royal Naval College at Greenwich. It was a royal palace inTudor times, and was the place where King Henry VIII was born and spent much of his life. SirChristopher Wrens redesigned the site in 1694, creating a baroque masterpiece which was used as ahospital for seamen. In 1869 the hospital closed and the buildings were converted to the Royal NavalCollege.

    Adjacent to the Royal Naval College is Greenwich Park, which was once a royal hunting preserve, andthen became the home of the Royal Observatory. King Charles II founded The Royal Observatory in 1675

    to provide the Navy with new navigation devices, and told Sir Christopher Wren to design a building inwhich to house it. The Observatory is world famous because, much to the chagrin of the French, it is theplace where the prime meridian - zero degrees longitude - is located. If you stand astride the paintedmeridian line in the courtyard of the Observatory you will have one foot in the eastern hemisphere, andthe other in the western.

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    The Royal Observatory itself moved from Greenwich to quieter surroundings, but the building and manyof the original telescopes, chronometers and scientific instruments remain, forming a fascinatingastronomical museum. The Observatory sits on top of a hill, with a commanding view of the RiverThames, and in 1833 it instituted a practice which became the inspiration for dropping a ball in TimesSquare on New Years Eve.

    Ships at sea used to determine their positions by comparing local time with the time at Greenwich, andthen adjusting their longitude by 15 degrees for every hour the times differed. Clocks and watches wereexpensive, so few people could afford to buy timepieces to know what time it was. The Observatory wassituated at the top of a hill, so it was easy for ships to see it. In 1833 the Observatory began to lower alarge red painted ball from its roof every day at 1 p.m. This was one of the first public time signals and itenabled ships on the Thames to set their chronometers to 1 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time - GMT. The shipshave gone but the ball is still lowered daily, including New Years Day!.

    The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park is an excellent naval museum, with many interestingexhibits, including ships of all ages, navigation devices, nautical displays, paintings, etc. Perhaps the mostexciting and moving thing you might see is an exhibit of items recovered from the Titanic, ranging from

    passengers belongings to dishes and utensils from the ships public rooms. There are also chartsexplaining how the Titanic was located and explored.

    Close to the Maritime Museum is the world famous sailing ship Cutty Sark. Cutty Sark was launched in1869 and is the last surviving tea clipper, from the days when ships carried tea from Shanghai to London.

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    You can stroll along the decks and into the cargo holds, following in the footsteps of seamen who sailedher over a century ago. The name Cutty Sark comes from the Robert Burns poem Tam OShanter

    The north entry/exit of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel is located in Island Gardens, a park at the south end ofthe Isle of Dogs near Canary Wharf. The park provides spectacular views of the river Thames, ofGreenwich, and of the skyscrapers and activity in Canary Wharf.

    An easy way to reach the Isle of Dogs is to use the Docklands Light Railway. The Docklands LightRailway, part of Londons transportation system, links the City of London with the massive urbanredevelopment of Londons former dockland area. The Docklands redevelopment project was the largestof its kind in Europe, and has taken over 20 years to complete.

    Canary Wharf, and the developments around it, are relatively close to Island Garden, and are where many

    companies, hotels, shops and restaurants are located.

    Most of the Docklands railway runs above ground so you get an excellent view of the many industrial,commercial, and residential developments along the route, including Canary Wharf, and its landmarkCanary Wharf Tower, as well as parts of East London. The railway runs from Tower Gateway (Tower Hillon the tube), which is close to the Tower of London, and you can transfer from other parts of the tubesystem.

    You can get to Greenwich by car, bus, or train; however a more interesting approach is to use the onefavored by Henry VIII, boat. Travelling up and down the river Thames gives you a fresh new way oflooking at famous sights such as the Houses of Parliament, The London Eye, St. Pauls Cathedral, TateModern, the Tower of London and countless others; as well many interesting skyscrapers such as TheGherkin and The Shard. And of course you will sail under famous bridges such as London Bridge,

    Millennium Bridge and Tower Bridge.

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    The Millennium Bridge was erected for the 2000 AD Millennium, linking St Pauls Cathedral, in theheart of London, with the Tate Modern Art Museum on the south bank of the Thames. It also is worth

    seeing because, like the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, it is only for pedestrians.

    You will also sail past out of the way places such as St. Marys Church in Rotherhithe; the place fromwhere the Mayflower set sail to pick up the Pilgrims in Plymouth before sailing on across the Atlantic toPlymouth rock. Cruise boats and river buses sail regularly every day between Westminster andGreenwich, offering both one way and round trip tickets. This gives you the choice of sailing in onedirection and then using the Docklands Light railway, or something else, in the other direction.