Graffiti Tunnel

February 27, 2011

Between the builder’s yard and the bird sanctuary a long path leads to graffiti Tunnel.

A first-timer will approach with caution.

This is a dark place.

Before the tunnel you’ll see a concrete obelisk daubed in markings. Behind it arches a fat brown pipe, studded with bolts, spray painted with cryptic letters and the words “TEN FOOT”. Above is Lea Bridge Road where a queue of traffic growls. Bored faces stare at you from bus windows. You dare not stand like a troll beneath the bridge. You have no choice but to enter.

On either side of the obelisk are two tunnel entrances, each daubed in markings: a mix of art, tags and written warnings like “BAN ALL CYCLISTS” and “REWARD THEM WITH HANGING”.

The graffiti is regularly whitewashed by teams of council painters. Within days new marking are back. These messages are updated as rapidly as a social media page. It’s a form of street Twitter.

You can try and interpret the code, or you can simply choose your tunnel. Once you’re walking through it’s like any city subway. Strange only because it’s here, near a field of horses, a bird sanctuary and hedgerows filled with brambles. This is yet another example of the marsh letting you tune into two or more frequencies at the same time.

From the Hackney Marsh side of the path heading towards Walthamstow marsh, I always take the wider tunnel on the left. It’s become such a habit, I’ve grown fearful of going through the right hand entrance.

Only once in recent memory have I taken the narrow tunnel.

On a freezing winter day I strode down to Graffiti tunnel, Hendrix trailing, sniffing for food in the snow drifts. Inside my usual entrance I saw what appeared to be a sack of clothes. When I reached, the sack reared up at me. A bearded face, eyes closed, mouth in a yawn or a silent scream, I couldn’t tell.

I just walked on.

This was the first time I’d seen a homeless person in the marshes. What was he doing here? This was barely shelter at all. Way out here, this was no place to sleep. Only the angry rumble of the night bus and shrieking foxes for company. I never take my wallet out to the marshes so I’d nothing to give him. There was nothing else to do but walk on by.

“Hendrix!” I called. He was frozen at the tunnel entrance. Tail down. Attack stance. Staring ast the homeless man. Growling.

 I called out again. Hendrix snarled and backed away. I stepped back into the tunnel.

“Hendrix!”

There was nothing else for it. I had to get him. I walked back past the tramp and said, in what I immediately recognised to be a ridiculous – and slightly camp – singsong voice:

“Ooooooh, that bloody dog!”

The man’s expressionless face swung to look at mine. It was like staring into the eyes of a Leviathan hauled from a world of suffering deep beneath my comprehension. He was suddenly everything I feared.

When I reached Hendrix I stuck his lead on and dragged him down the narrow entrance where there was nothing to confront.

Perhaps all urban architects should follow this model: divide subway tunnels into two. People can then choose to avoid that which they find uncomfortable. It would be a perfectly appropriate expression of modern society.

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