LAST NIGHT, I stood at the entrance to a darkened, underground place and heard, drifting up from the depths, anguished panting and the heavy slap of rubber on metal.
No, it was not the debut of some new Greenwich sex dungeon. The inmates of this particular subterranean world do wear faintly kinky clothes - but lycra, rather than leather, and fluorescent yellow windcheaters, not dirty macs. They are cyclists, and I was listening to them heaving their bikes up the hundred steps at the southern end of the foot tunnel (the lift, as always these days, being out of action.)
"It doesn't get any easier," said one woman to her friend as she thankfully dumped her steed on the top landing. But though it may be rather a haul, it is definitely preferable to the alternative being planned by our dear friends at Greenwich Council - complete closure of the tunnel for up to eighteen months.
It is yet another Olympic-related blow to the area. As we know, the Games are already costing us substantial parts of our park (closed for ten months), historic trees (lopped) and a flower garden (taking on an exciting, dynamic and vibrant new role as a doormat for the Olympic cross-country course.) Now the foot tunnel is going too. In order to make it suitably shiny and modern for 2012, it is to be closed for what the council calls a "substantial refurbishment" costing £11.5 million.
I don't think the tunnel even needs "refurbishing." I like its Edwardian atmosphere, its white tiling and its wood-panelled lifts. Unlike some over-restored heritage structures, its unbuffed-up state still gives a real breath of the ordinary London of the past. Those lifts, though faithful copies of the original ones, are only 17 years old. The south lift may be broken, but could it not perhaps be, well, repaired?
After the redevelopment of the Market and the closure of the Village Market, this refurbishment could end up being just one more attack on the character of Greenwich. With our public spending deficit of £175 billion, it also strikes me as a prime example of the kind of unnecessary project that taxpayers ought to part company with.
But the real difficulty with the refurb is that the tunnel is a vital route which cannot be lost for any significant length of time. As the council's deputy leader, Peter Brooks, admits, it is "still extremely popular, even since the arrival of the DLR offering an alternative crossing option." With its sister at Woolwich, the foot tunnel is used by one and a half million people a year.
Since the DLR, the Greenwich tunnel's clientele has fallen mainly into two groups, both of whom the council claims to view as important. There are tourists, who enjoy the walk through and the view from Island Gardens. If the tunnel follows the Cutty Sark, the markets, and (in 2011/12) the park into the unavailable zone it will be another stage in the diminution of Greenwich's visitor "offer" and another blow to one of our principal industries, tourism.
The second important group is cyclists, who we are all supposed to be encouraging these days. (Declaration of interest: I am one.) The tunnel is the only way for cyclists to cross the river in the eight miles between Rotherhithe and Woolwich (or really in the ten miles between Tower Bridge and Woolwich, since the Rotherhithe Tunnel is not a pleasant or safe experience.) It is an absolutely essential link for cyclists commuting between Canary Wharf and a vast swathe of south London. And it is very heavily used. I counted.
In half an hour yesterday, between 5.55 and 6.25pm, the tunnel was used by 134 cyclists - an average of one every 13 seconds. It was used by 75 pedestrians, two and a half a minute. This would equate to around 250-300 cyclists an hour in the peak hours, so perhaps 1500- 2000 across the whole day. Many of the pedestrians, incidentally, were joggers or runners - so other fitness goals will also be damaged if we close the tunnel. And all that was without a working lift.
I spoke to some of the users. "I cycle every day from Catford to Canary Wharf," said Max Elliot. "I am absolutely horrified to find out that the tunnel might close - there is literally no other way to do the bike journey." Anthony Austin, chair of Greenwich Cyclists, told me: "There's no point in closing the tunnel. It's not clear they need to close the stairs when they are doing the lifts. We cyclists have come to use it as an absolutely essential link."
Some are asking for a peak-hour ferry replacement, but that will greatly extend the crossing time and will not, in any case, help those who travel outside peak hours. The DLR, of course, bans bikes at all times, and Cutty Sark station is too deep for bikes anyway.
Greenwich Council wouldn't deny to me last night that the tunnel will be closed. I've been trying for the last 24 hours to get an answer from them about exactly how long the closure will last - no joy so far. "I just know from experience that once Greenwich Council agrees to the closure of a footpath it will stay closed for a long time," says Anthony Austin.
But the tunnel is, as the council admits, a statutory public highway. So there will have to be some sort of legal process to close it - which offers opportunities for a fightback. At the very least, it should be argued that even if the lifts have to close, the stairs should stay open.
We have only just got the A2 back after two months of largely unnecessary chaos. And I don't know about you, but I am getting sick, sick, sick of councils and other public busybodies interfering with our town and our lives for their pointless vanity projects. This might be the one where the worm finally turns.