Light on the start of the tunnel

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Betty Jerman explores the pipelines, peepholes and passages beneath our pavements.

Few of us are aware or even well informed about the vital services beneath our feet when we walk the pavements. Children visiting "Going Underground", an exhibition about tunnels at London's Livesey Museum until August 28, can find out.

In front of a mural of a real terrace house, a pavement and gutter with drain have been built. There is a surface peephole and each end is open so that labelled tubes, pipes and wires can be seen and identified for drainage, electricity, gas and water, the last one placed low down for protection in cold weather.

Naturally, the engineer Brunel features. His tunnelling shield for the Thames tunnel in 1818, inspired by watching an insect bore through wooden ships' hulls and a forerunner of those used today, has been cleverly re-created. Looking like a huge black insect, it has separate compartments, alongside and in storeys, for each man. Children can climb in, move a section of the facing and adjust screws and supporting poles as though advancing through the rock.

Tunnelling is as old as the Pharaohs, who set slaves to work excavating tunnels that became their tomb. An Egyptian corner simulates one, with an explorer with his lamp breaking into it. The natural example is a "candle-lit", spooky cave with wall paintings of bison, rough surfaces, stalactites, stalagmites and bats - not real bats, but the children look for them to complete their quiz sheets.

The style is not for guides to talk to the children but to let them investigate for themselves, although there are plenty of wall panels with text and jolly cartoons featuring moles. One mole is in bed under a cracking ceiling while another is sitting on a lavatory seat to remind us about sewage. The big crawl through mole hole is popular. It contains life-size stuffed creatures, such as the fox and rabbit, and outside there is a badger to touch and feely boxes hiding things like a piece of coal and a toy mole.

Another attraction is the 8ft x 4ft wormery and ant colony. The museum's view is that anyone can make a wormery, big or small, and it gives instructions.

Displays of posters and photographs tell of other uses of tunnels, such as the London Underground platforms people slept on during wartime bombing and the underground community known as Mole City in New York.

Dramatic pictures of machines boring for the new Jubilee Line (the exhibition's co-sponsor) are shown. The tube driver's simulator is both fun and instructive. The "driver", who really seems to be moving through the Underground, can sound a piercing warning whistle and make an emergency stop, can start the train, stop it at a station, open the doors and obey the red and green lights.

Livesey Museum, 682 Old Kent Road, London SE15 1JF. Tel: 0171 639 5604.

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