Tuesday 29 March 2011

Brunel Underwater Concert & The Mayflower

I'm sure you've all heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the top hat-toting, great British civil engineer from the 19th century, famous for his bridges, dockyards and construction of the Great Western Railway. But did you know he launched his career as an assistant engineer to his father, Marc Brunel, to build the world's first underwater tunnel?  It was built beneath London's River Thames, between Rotherhithe and Wapping, and considered as one of the greatest engineering feats of its time.  It was also the only project which both father and son worked on together.

Brunel Museum
Despite two severe flooding incidents during its construction (one of which almost killed young Isambard), the tunnel was a success and is still in operation to this day as part of the London Overground (which used to be the East London line).  There is a fascinating museum at Rotherhithe, dedicated to both Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father, Marc Brunel.  When the tunnel was finally completed in 1843, it was hailed as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' and had over a million visitors in its first few months of opening, where it was used as a fairground, a concert hall and a shopping arcade. Westfield, eat your heart out!

After the first flooding incident, it was important for Isambard to regain people's confidence in the project, so he came up with a genius PR idea.  He arranged a fundraising banquet which was held inside the tunnel under the Thames.  It took place on 18th May 1827 and the tunnel was decked out with a long table dressed in crisp, white damask, elaborate silver candelabras and crystal ware.  Fifty special guests, including the Duke of Wellington, were privileged enough to enjoy this most amazing and unusal feast, although they didn't get to talk much as they were being serenaded by the Coldstream Guards playing such hits as 'Rule Britannia' and 'See the Conqu'ring Hero Comes' (Handel), which was pretty deafening in that enclosed space.  The world's first underwater concert and banquet went down a storm, and there is a wonderful painting by George Jones which depicts the evening perfectly.
Entrance to the chamber

There is a deep underground chamber next to the museum which is part of the tunnel. When the London Overground line was recently renovated, the museum were fortunate enough to have a new floor laid inside the chamber which has created a huge space which will hopefully be used for various future events.  Last week, I ventured down to the Brunel Museum and joined several other curious people for a special choral concert inside this chamber.  Access to the chamber is still very awkward and involves going down some tricky steps, crawling through a small hole in the wall and then down some makeshift staircase right down inside the dimly-lit chamber. But that's part of the fun as it's like entering a secret underground bunker.

View of the underground chamber from above

Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Choral Society in full swing, deep inside the underground chamber

A friendly man who runs the museum, gave a fascinating account of the tunnel's history, showed us a projected image of the Thames Tunnel Banquet painting by George Jones, and then the Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Choral Society proudly sang some of the songs which would have been played by the Coldstream Guards at that banquet back in 1827.  This was the first underground concert to take place there since then, so I felt very lucky to be there.

Projected image of the Thames Tunnel Banquet painting by George Jones from 1827

I highly recommend you make your way to Rotherhithe (you'll find it on the London Overground line no less) and go and see this fascinating place for yourself, although I'm not sure how often the chamber will be open to the public as it still early days.  And do make sure you pop next door to the Mayflower pub which is set right on the Thames and is also steeped in history.  It is where the famous Mayflower ship set sail from back in 1620 when it took the Pilgrim Fathers to America.  But that's another story...

The historic  Mayflower pub, Rotherhithe

View up river from The Mayflower

View downriver including The Shard in progress, from The Mayflower


Carrie said...

Hey - was that not quiet claustrophobic? I think I would find it a bit scary...especially with it's history..
Carrie x

Eliza said...

I just discovered your blog and realised we wrote about the same concert!
Your pictures are great.

Missimmy said...

Ha, that's so funny! Hope you enjoyed it. x

Soulful Mama said...

Why hello there Miss Immy! Thanks for visiting our blog :-)

We are now follwong yours as well. I have only ever been to London once & would looove to get back there :-)

~ Clare x

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