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The London Logs: Timeless Greenwich & Walking Underwater

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | July 23rd, 2012 | Comments No Comments

In keeping with the birthday theme of stopping time, I headed to Greenwich today to stand at Zero Zulu Time. greenwich-the-world-fm-0-longitude.jpgAlas, my timing was off: The Royal Greenwich Observatory is closed during the Olympics. This is where the equestrian events will take place. I’ll return next month.

Greenwich is a charming section of London, hugging the southern shore of the Thames. greenwich-fm-across-thames-2.jpgIt was a brilliant day and people made the most of the weather, sprawling on the park grass in front of the Visitors Center or lingering at the riverside taverns.

Churches always stop time. For a quiet and cool respite, I wandered into St. Alfege Church, where Henry VIII was baptized. Now really, if you are the church that baptized Henry VIII, would you be advertising that? Wouldn’t you be asking, “Where did we go wrong?” It’s a simple church with 400-year-old headstones in the yard abutting a tavern – providing spiritual nourishment no matter which side of the fence you find yourself on. greenwich-cemetery-pub.jpgMore interestingly, the church was named for Alfege, a Benedictine monk and Archbishop of Canterbury who was kidnapped in 1011 and refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his life, reasoning that his life should not be spared at the expense of impoverished people. The church that bears his name is dedicated to “non-violent action for justice and peace,” according to the flier prepared to honor the millennium of the monk’s death.
Greenwich is one of two places where it’s possible to cross the Thames underwater. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel ( runs 1,217 feet from bank to bank 50 feet under the surface. It was built in 1902 to make it easier for working-class South Londoners to work on the docks and shipyards at the Isle of Dogs across the river as an alternative to the expensive and unreliable ferry service. Today, of course, there are all sorts of underwater tunnels, but you gotta wonder: Who was the first guy who said, “To hell with a bridge, let’s make an underwater tunnel!”?

Glad you asked. Marc Brunel and his son, Isambard Brunel (who went on to plan the Great Western Railway), designed and built the Thames Tunnel just a bit further east to accommodate horse-drawn carriages. Construction on the world’s first underwater pedestrian tunnel started in 1825 and it opened in 1843, long after the horse-and-buggy days. It stretches 1,300 feet 75 feet below the surface and just reopened last December after repairs. Today there are at least 22 tunnels underneath the Thames, but only these two carry pedestrian traffic. (Most of the others are for rail.)

Both tunnels are free, open 24 hours/day and are common foot and bicycle commuter paths.

After crossing underwater, I emerged on the Isle of Dogs, named because it was an old marshy area that acted as a breakwater. Today it boasts luxury waterfront condos and an uncrowded accessible footpath. I wandered for a couple of hours, weaving around small private docks with houseboats.
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