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Newsletter, January 2014 (Issue 194)

Crossing the Thames

An Ipswich Society trip, 16th September 2013

An 8am start and down to Mucking, a suitable name, you might think, for the century-old London landfill site; however, the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon "Mucca's enclosure" and the area has been occupied since the Stone Age. Landfill ceased in 2010; since then the site has been capped (methane gas), grassed over and transformed into Thurrock Thameside Nature Park. Cory, the owners, contributed towards the cost (£1.96 million) of building the Visitor Centre and associated infrastructure. By 2016 the park should extend to 845 acres. The Centre was designed by Van Heyningen and Haward (the latter, Birkin Haward's son) and it includes sustainable features including recycled car tyres for the roof covering.

The foundations can be adjusted, by means of jacks, to account for 'land movement', i.e. sinking, and the whole structure 'floats'. It was certainly bright and breezy on the roof, with magnificent views down the Thames estuary towards Southend. From the bird-hide our other guide talked about the DP World London Gateway Port which, with the wide river and dredged channels downstream, will be a serious rival to Felixstowe Docks. It will be able to accommodate the world's latest, largest and deepest container-ships. All of this site is on a SSSI and SPA (Special Protection Area); the extensive mudflats and saltings attract tens of thousands of wildfowl and waders on migration from the north in winter.

'Crossing the Thames' or 'The Thames Crossings': London's ever-increasing traffic demands more bridges and tunnels. A brief stop at Beckton to view a possible site for a bridge; the structure's height would be limited by the nearby City Airport. On to Docklands where we 'flew' over the river in Emirates cable cars (maximum capacity 10): a panoramic but scarily lofty view. Then lunch and a stroll in the vast O2.

Via Greenwich to Rotherhithe - Anglo-Saxon for 'cattle harbour', where they were fattened up for market on the lush grass. At the Brunel Museum we were met by the museum's manager, our guide. We stopped outside St Mary's Church and saw a plaque commemorating the Mayflower, which sailed from here in 1620 on the first leg of her epic voyage to the New World. Between converted warehouses, now upmarket flats, to view Tower Bridge and the Upper Pool of the Thames. We heard about its insalubrious past, when the sewage went straight into the river - hence the Great Stench of the 1850s, before Bazalgette constructed the sewer system which is still in use today. We also heard about the lucrative trade in fishing bodies from the river and selling them to hospitals on the south bank. All very Dickensian!

Back to the Museum, via awkward steps, an entrance where you had to bend double, down a steel staircase and into the Tunnel Shaft. Apparently, we were among the first people for 150 years to be in there. Our guide gave us a fascinating and entertaining history of the 1825 Thames Tunnel. The shaft had been constructed above ground, then the earth had been dug away so that the shaft sank until level with the ground; it weighed 1,000 tons. Marc Brunel and his brilliant, famous son Isambard Kingdom, worked on that revolutionary design and eventually their men dug a tunnel under the Thames. It took eighteen years, cost lives and didn't make any money; in 1869 it was sold for underground train use; we could hear the rumble of nearby trains. It is the oldest tunnel in the oldest underground system in the world and is now an International Landmark site.

All over the world, every underground system owes its existence to the engineering skills and the genius of the Brunels who pioneered the 'tunnel shield' system based on the technique of the shipworm, which excretes the wood it tunnels through and uses that to line the tunnel behind it. Briefly, a rectangular frame with 36 cells, each holding a man with a pick and shovel; as the men dug, the shield was moved forward with bricklayers following behind to shore up the tunnel and prevent it collapsing in on itself.

A quick look at the museum and a welcome cup of tea before the long trek home. Fifty-two members - a coachful - owe their thanks to John Norman for a unique and engrossing outing and to Paul, our driver.

Richard Worman

[A similar trip on 12 May 2014 is fully subscribed. Contact the Secretary for waiting-list places. Editor]

    Front cover of issue 194 Cover, issue 194

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