A strange smell at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

There was a worrying incident at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel on Friday evening, with seven people taken sick after reports of an “unusual smell”. With the shambolic refurbishment work still taking place in the tunnel, all kinds of possibilities emerged. Thankfully, nobody needed hospital treatment and the tunnel reopened later in the evening – but what happened remains a mystery.

The only clue comes from a commenter at greenwich.co.uk, who reported “a heavy smell like ‘skunk’ in the lifts and tunnel”. Perfectly plausible.

But according to Greenwich Council, nothing happened. Councillors were told it was a false alarm, with local representative Matt Pennycook passing the message on…

Those photos of emergency services at the foot tunnel? That BBC News story, containing a statement from Scotland Yard? You imagined it. There was no incident, see?

Obviously, there was an incident – even if it was people made ill by the whiff from weapons-grade jazz cigarettes. But the response to it was classic Greenwich Council communications policy; refusing to acknowledge the blatantly obvious in case it damaged the council’s reputation. Whatever the smell was on Friday night, it was soon replaced by a stench of bullshit.

Indeed, councillors like Matt Pennycook should be challenging this sort of thing, rather than meekly passing it on – but sadly, too many Greenwich councillors see themselves as representatives of the authority rather than representatives of the people.

For a start, if it was someone skinning up down there, then why were they able to do that in the first place? There’s now no staff in the tunnel, with the lifts now operated by the public. Has safety been compromised in an attempt to save cash?

I had a look at the tunnel on Sunday. There were no staff there, although council wardens were hanging around Cutty Sark Gardens looking like plums, overseeing that strange water feature that looks like a leaky water main. Inside, the tunnel’s still as filthy as ever, with outdated signage and broken lighting, although a chicane’s been put in to stop cycling in there.

The refurbishment of the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels – paid for by an £11.5million government grant – was meant to be finished by the Olympics. It doesn’t look like very much has happened at all since the lifts, which are still regularly broken, opened earlier this year. One question springs to mind – has the money run out?

Welcome to the Royal Borough of Greenwich…


  1. Perhaps it was De Qrangecamping troop making there way across the river from the Peninsular?

  2. Are you sure the skunk referred to wasn’t the noxious animal rather than the roll up variety? I’m trying to think how that might have made people ill – but an animal stink, that seems more likely…

    Anyway, it seems worrying that with seven people taken ill the council is just passing it off as a ‘false alarm’. Unless the source is found surely it risks a more serious incident. Can’t think why they’d be so complacent about this… oh yes, it’s the council!

  3. I have a cunning plan to get the signs replaced.

    We must point out to the Dear Leader that the signs are lacking the word ‘Royal’.

    That’ll do it, especially as the tunnel connects us with a plebby ‘unroyal’ borough.

  4. The tunnel has become a confused mess.

    Expensively refurbished (and unreliable) lifts sit atop squalid, cramped, graffiti-ridden stairwells. Citizens now have to tell Greenwich Council – via twitter – that their equipment has failed, despite them apparently having a control room which monitors the cameras and lifts. Clearly they don’t have one, or if they do, those who work there are either nodding off from boredom, or busy with other stuff.

    Signs say “No Cycling” at each end of the tunnel and also “Cyclists dismount” at the absurd, hurriedly jammed-in barriers at the bottom of each slope. A pointless waste of money that would’ve been better spent in the direction of completing the stairwells. Interestingly, I’ve not seen a single contractor working on the tunnel for months. Are they all working nights, or has the work stopped entirely, unfinised?

  5. You seem to be implying that Councillor Matt Pennycook is trying to deny that anything at all happened at the foot tunnel. In fact he is passing on the message from the Borough Commander that there was no “incident”. I interpret “incident” to be a rather technical term to denote a crime, or accident (that might have caused a chemical leak) whereas you seem to be interpreting “incident” as a happening of any kind, Certainly, there were 7 people who reported a funny smell and difficulties breathing so that the fire brigade, police and ambulances all turned up (I saw them as I was passing by that evening). But none of these people were hospitalised and there was no “incident” to explain the funny smell.
    I find it bizarre for you to jump on this one tweet to criticise the council and to somehow frame it as if there’s some totalitarian government-style repression of information happening. It is disappointing – you have an excellent forum and obvious journalistic skills. You have an opportunity to really put pressure on the council and lobby them about issues like the foot tunnel using this blog and then you undermine it with: “But according to Greenwich Council, nothing happened.” And pick on Matt Pennycook for no good reason I can see than that he had the temerity to “meekly” pass on a message to the Twitter reading public from the police!
    Rosalind Francis

  6. Rosalind – You saw fire engines, ambulancs and police gathered by the tunnel. Were you not curious as to what was happening?

    A councillor says there was ‘no incident’.

    How did you get to learn of the facts surrounding the presence of the emergency services?

    Not from the council it seems.

  7. The council are terrible, I’d be the first one to say it. Their coms policy is bathed in ignorance and denial.

    That said this appears to be a bit of collective “imagination” on the part of a few people in the tunnel.

    “Can you smell that?”

    “Er yeah now you mention it, I do”

    “Lets call 999”

    Clearly the emergency services were called to a smell in the tunnel, clearly they responded and found nothing harmful.

    So is that an incident or just the work of an overactive imagination?

    To my mind I think this is a reassuring statement saying nothing was found to be wrong rather than a statement that nothing happened.

  8. £11.5 million to refurbish two elevators?!? Seriously I could have done it for £10.9M and I’d have swept the tunnel afterwards. Either something’s gone astray with the reporting of the value of the grant and the use for which it was intended or a very large chunk of the grant itself has gone astray. Citizens of greenwich borough ought to be finding out.

  9. Hello Rosalind –

    My main problem here is that something *did* happen. It was widely reported all weekend, yet dismissed as a “false alarm” (while the council’s comms department said absolutely nothing). The borough commander’s statement is at odds with what Scotland Yard’s press office was putting out. Without hearing from those involved, we’ll never know whether seven people were struck down with “overactive imaginations” or not.

    But bearing in mind Greenwich Council’s appalling track record on the foot tunnel, I’d be asking questions – and at the very least, making sure people knew I was questioning what I was told. That’s a councillor’s job, isn’t it? Or just not in Greenwich?

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