The Crossrail drillers
Over the last week, there have been scenes worthy of nineteenth century California enacted in the car park of Sainsburys, Whitechapel. Deeper than Neville’s Turkish Baths, far deeper than the Charnel House in Bishops Sq, deeper even than the Central Line, something is stirring. Preparations are underway for the largest engineering project in Europe, building a monster tunnel from here to the future. Crossrail will extend right across London, from Shenfield in the east to Maidenhead in the west with a central underground railway tunnel over thirteen miles long, due for completion in 2017. So many skilled tunnellers are required that a Tunnelling Academy is being created in Newnham.
As you may now have surmised, the men with the derrick in Sainsburys’ car park are not prospecting for oil (although their primitive drilling rig would be recognised by the prospectors of a century ago), they are extracting samples to discover what is beneath, so that the challenge of digging the tunnel may be quantified. I took the liberty of asking some questions and the guys explained that they were drilling thirty five metres down. The first few metres are the hardest because the car park is on the site of the former Albion Brewery and when the entire structure was flattened, it filled the cellars with a dense layer of rubble. Beneath this is a deeper layer of Thames valley sediment and then sand until you reach the bedrock.
In the midst of our conversation, as we discussed the vast ambition of the project, I could not resist a sense of awe at this extraordinary undertaking. First there is the notion of digging so deep beyond the layers of recorded history into geological time, then there is immensity of the construction project and the logistics of organising it, and finally speculation at the transformation it will bring upon our neighbourhood – this place will change for ever as Crossrail pulls us closer to the centre of London and to Heathrow airport too.
I was becoming overawed, when I saw that – although these men were simply doing a routine job of work, drilling holes in Sainsburys’ car park – they were themselves excited and proud to be the harbingers of such a monumental and wondrous enterprise. It makes me think of the building of the Hoover Dam in America during the Great Depression and I recognise that in these times we need great projects of this nature both to generate employment and give us hope too. I realised I had witnessed a moment of history today.