Over Christmas you might have seen a blogpost entitled The Woolwich Foot Tunnel Anomaly floating across your social media. Purporting to feature an eyewitness account of what went wrong with the delayed Woolwich foot tunnel refurbishment, it described how workers on the project found they could spend hours down in the tunnel working, and emerge only minutes after they’d entered. Colleagues would radio across to ask for materials to be sent over to find they’d already arrived by the time they put the radio down. People were sharing it on social media with the slightly quizzical attitude of “This can’t be true. Can it?”
The article was posted on the Portals of London blog, a website that claims to be working ”towards a catalogue of London’s inter-dimensional gateways”. It’s an example of how websites and social media accounts can be used to create fictional self-contained worlds that are just on the cusp of believability.
“I started the blog about a year ago,” explains the author, who wishes to remain anonymous, so as not to dispel the ambiguous nature of the project. “A lot of people obviously don’t believe in inter-dimensional portals, so they didn’t think the stories were real,” says the author. “But they weren’t sure if the person writing it thought it was real. I’ve had a lot of messages saying ‘I really like this, but where are you coming from?’”
The inspiration for the stories came from the layers of history in London, and an interest in creepy literature. “A couple of years ago I worked as a cycle courier, and I got very much into the hidden parts of London, seeing the backstreets and the basements of office blocks. And I have an interest in weird fiction and ghost stories. The blog has influences going back to Victorian ghost stories and MR James – his stories about the East Anglian marshes and some ancient malevolent terrors out there. I kind of feel a similar thing is in the Thames, the tidal nature of it, the fact that we have the Thames barrier keeping back the sea.” A mysterious mudlarking discovery – “The Bellarmine Jug” – features in one of the posts.
Online, the Scarfolk Council website is also cited as an influence. Scarfolk depicts a version of England that has been trapped in a loop in the 1970s, producing council information posters and documents from a nightmare version of the past.
“A side to this that I didn’t anticipate was the people I would meet through it, including in real life, which has really encouraged me,” says the author, who tweets as @portalsoflondon. “It’s been brilliant. It kind of caught on and found a small audience early in 2017 that encouraged me to keep going. And then the Woolwich one went crazy.”
Another post – Wren’s Restless Sanctuary: The Church of All-Corners-Within-the-Wall – explores the idea of a London church that has become victim of a “temporal untethering”, using as source material what it claims is a 19th-century document written by a London Corporation clerk carrying out a survey of the City’s churches after 1860’s Union of Benefices Act.
It warns the wary modern-day traveller to check before entering a church. Does a plaque clearly state the building’s name? Is the church marked on a map?
“I love the way that even the medieval churches that were burned down in the great fire and weren’t rebuilt, some of them kind of still exist as little gardens or courtyards in the City,” explains the author. “You can find evidence of even older churches, Roman temples under office blocks, and things like that.”
It’s a great example of the blurring of fact and supernatural fiction, presented as documentary fact. There was an 1860s act of Parliament to reduce the number of churches in central London due to declining parish populations. It is, however, unlikely that that caused any specific churches to become temporally untethered.
“It’s been interesting seeing how people react to it – and partly it’s because of the mix of influences in there. At first my main worry was that it would please nobody, because it’s a bit of psychogeography, it’s a little bit of ghost stories or horror but it’s not a straight-up genre thing, and it’s a little bit of history – but it’s certainly not real history. But it seems to have found an audience, and people bring their own things to it and pick out the elements that they like.”
Certainly, nobody who has read the blog will ever again walk through the Woolwich foot tunnel without checking the time at both ends.