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The Crossrail Drillers

May 24, 2022
by the gentle author

Bookings for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOURS are now open for June & July

The Elizabeth Line opens today and it will change the capital in ways that we cannot yet imagine. Here is my account of how it all began with a small hole in a car park in Whitechapel, written on October 31st 2009.

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 in Bishopsgate, 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 tunnel over thirteen miles long, due for completion in 2017. So many skilled tunnellers are required that a Tunnelling Academy is being created in Newham.

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 men 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. I realised I had witnessed a moment of history.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jeanie permalink
    May 24, 2022

    Thank you for today’s drillers’ post. I’m looking forward to getting back to London and hopping on the Elizabeth line from Paddington. Good news! ?

  2. aubrey permalink
    May 24, 2022

    A great achievement of quite complex civil engineering. An underrated profession.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    May 24, 2022

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I enjoyed reading your piece about “Crossrail Drillers” as they began this massive project in 2009. Obviously, the undertaking took longer to complete, but that is usually the way these things go.

    Also in my morning email was a message by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan – “This is a landmark moment for our capital and the whole country, particularly in this special Platinum Jubilee year.”

    I then had to study the route of the Elizabeth Line. Wow, what a difference it will make!

    God save the Queen. Missing London today …

  4. Lucy permalink
    May 24, 2022

    It’s worth remembering that Tower Hamlets council wanted the Crossrail station at Whitechapel in order to leverage property values in the area. There was little reason for the station in transport terms, as it is so near Liverpool Street. Lead councillor Michael Keith and Chief Executive Christine Gilbert (who was married to the then Railways minister in charge of Crossrail!) got Spitalfields councillors Helal Abbas and Lutfur Rahman to buy into the plans.

    A giant construction hole was to have been built in Hanbury Street, with hundreds of lorry movements and a giant spoil heap nearby – but the No To Crossrail Hole campaign put a stop to that, thanks to Kay Jordan from the Spitalfields Small Business Association and Muhammad Haque, organiser of the Khoodeelaar campaign. Khoodeelaar cannot be exactly translated but conveys in Sylheti ‘a hostile force is digging!’ This motivated a large local protest, leading the Council to about-turn and lobby against the Hanbury Street hole, which was stopped in 2006.

    Those works would have devastated the Brick Lane area and things would have looked very different now.

  5. May 30, 2022

    I travel around London Live Streaming Funerals a lot so its great to know all this opens up which should make everything that little bit easier for travelling around 🙂

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