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The Crossrail drillers

October 31, 2009
by the gentle author


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.


7 Responses leave one →
  1. Maggie permalink
    October 31, 2009

    I really enjoyed reading this. Glad you made the effort to talk to these men, it makes it seem more real, the whole Crossrail thing. It’s nice to see ordinary people given credit in this major building project too.
    I always feel the Victorian brickies etc are hardly ever mentioned in the history of their work, especially when you read about Bazelgette’s sewers.

  2. the gentle author permalink*
    October 31, 2009

    Dear Maggie, I am sure there will be more reports from me on this project over the coming years!

  3. Alison permalink
    October 31, 2009

    Did you know that there will be 40+ lorries daily thundering down Stepney Green with tons of rubble for a period of 9 months when they begin to excavate the crossrail shaft in 2013? Well we didn’t, and any one who lives in Stepney Green should be concerned about this.

  4. the gentle author permalink*
    November 1, 2009

    Dear Alison,

    Thankyou for introducing this issue.

    Your grievance has both my sympathy and support.

    But it does not temper my passion for engineering that I owe to my father who was an engineer. From the age of eleven, from apprentice to retirement, he spent his whole working life in an engineering shop. He worked on many great projects, including Concord, but never received any credit – just the satisfaction of knowing what he had done. So I am aware of the unacknowledged skills and individuals who contribute to any big undertaking and that is why I have respect for these men drilling for soil samples.

    It is the names of Christopher Wren, John Nash and Isambard Kingdom Brunel that I think of as those who have shaped London with their designs. I suppose it is easy for us now to love their works when we can simply enjoy the finished results, without having to endure any of the mess and upheaval.

  5. stepney resident permalink*
    September 20, 2010

    Dear Alison,

    I live very very close to Stepney Green and frankly under a year’s worth of lorries and a bit of mess seem like a pretty small price to pay for a vast improvement to London’s infrastructure.

  6. armier permalink
    November 26, 2013

    Thank you for expressing what I’m sure many Londoners feel.

    I ‘m also involved with Crossrail, and I too have, well, you conveyed so well…

    ”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.”

    Beautifully put.

  7. Stuart Thorn permalink
    April 3, 2023

    Once again, I come from the future.

    I was in our capital only a few weeks ago, travelling extensively on the underground system (I used to live at one end of it – opposite end to you though Gentle Author, Amersham). Anyway, after much consideration and without recourse to Google, I wondered if Crossrail was completed yet, I looked at a fair few underground maps and, whilst not specifically considering Crossrail, I really think I would’ve noticed if it suddenly appeared on the underground maps…

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