Time Travel at War: Alexandra Palace and ‘The Princess’

The official website of North London’s Alexandra Palace has a timeline feature. As you scroll back and forth through the exhibition venue’s 140-year history, certain events stand out: A ‘flying bomb’ which blew out the Rose Window towards the end of World War Two; BBC transmitters jamming the navigation systems of German bombers; a devastating fire in 1980; the Palace twice being home to Belgian refugees.

But you’ll see no mention of the story that connects these strands. Maybe this is because it is, in part, a story of failure. Or perhaps it has simply been forgotten, as has so much in the history of London’s dimensional gateways.

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Winter at Alexandra Palace during WWI source | public domain

Set your mind’s timeline to the early months of World War One. The young daughter of a Muswell Hill nurse is brought by her mother to visit refugees camping in the Palace’s Great Hall. The experience will have a lasting impact on the six year old.

Now jump forward 25 years. The nurse’s daughter is back, again greeting Belgians displaced by war. This time, however, the refugees are in the Palace’s wings, being housed there largely as a front. The nurse’s daughter has no professional reason for visiting them – Mary Stratton has not taken her mother’s career path. She is at the Palace in her capacity as a foremost physicist, leading a top secret project. Behind the vast Rose Window, inside the Great Hall, a weapon is being developed that she hopes will play a decisive part in the war against Nazi Germany.

Mary Stratton is building a time machine.

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Alexandra Palace source | licence

But now we come to the 1980 fire. This event was not kind to historians of Stratton’s creation. Much of the paperwork, not to mention what remained of the machine itself, was burnt to ash along with the room it was stored in. We know that the machine had been codenamed ‘The Princess’, but the details of its workings are lost.

What does remain, thanks largely to the diligence of her sister, is a wonderful cache of Stratton’s personal letters, notes and other papers. Alongside hints of the social dynamics at work in her team, they give fascinating insight into what drove her.

“War has a habit of twisting science to the most awful destruction”, Mary wrote to her sister in 1942. “Well, I believe I am close to finding a way to turn science back upon war itself, to hasten an end to all this death without shedding a drop of blood more”.

The ideas of Albert Einstein crop up time and again. His theories on time’s illusionary nature clearly fed into Stratton’s work. And it seems his thoughts on pacifism and liberty also informed her thinking. (Mary was present in 1933 when Einstein spoke at the Albert Hall. Whether she met him in a more personal capacity during his visit to London, we can but wonder.)

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Albert Einstein source | public domain

Stratton’s papers show a wide range of influences. She drew, as Einstein had, clear links between science and literature, art and freedom.

One intriguing scrapbook has cutouts of William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the Solar System and Gustav Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Paradise alongside a sketch of Alexandra Palace’s stained-glass Rose Window, which had awed Stratton as a child.

The visual connections inferred may give tantalising hints as to the manifestation of The Princess. A letter to Stratton’s sister certainly does. Shortly before her death, Stratton saw the 1960 film of HG Wells’ Time Machine.

“Dear Sis, their Machine! I nearly burst out laughing with recognition. Ours was a deal less pretty Victoriana and a shade more bashed-up Brewster Buccaneer – but something about the general feel of the thing didn’t half give me goosebumps”.

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HG Well’s Time Machine from the 1960 film, and a Brewster Buccaneer (the kind of weapon of war Stratton hoped to render obsolete)

But what of the aims of the time-weapon? The hypothetical murder of a young Adolf Hitler is a well known thought-experiment. We’ll keep to ourselves our thoughts as to where Stratton would have stood on the ethical element, but it may not have been relevant anyway. The physicist didn’t seem to believe such an enterprise was possible.

Somehow, a decoded transcript has made it into Stratton’s sister’s collection which discusses facets of the mission with uncharacteristic candour. It is addressed to the team’s superior military co-ordinator.

“I’m afraid the boys are getting rather carried away: travel back and we can murder everyone, travel forward and we can find superior weaponry and import it back through time. I’ve had to hose them down somewhat”.

For one thing, Stratton noted that The Princess, when completed, was likely to be ‘short range’: “We’re not talking about traversing epochs – yet”.

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William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the solar system alongside Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s vision of Paradise

More importantly, Stratton believed that any major changes to even recent history could endanger the integrity of our perceived reality.

Instead, she took inspiration from the technicians who were utilising the Palace’s BBC transmitters to disrupt German navigation systems. Crucially, this interference was clandestine, designed to lead the Germans to believe that their own systems were at fault.

Stratton thought that by dipping into the near past, agents could disrupt German operations which British code-breakers had discovered were planned for the near future. Enough disruption would render the Nazis unable to wage war, without the risk of damage to localised spacetime.

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An aerial shot of Alexandra Palace. The Great Hall, with its Rose Window, is visible at the building’s centre source | licence

But Mary Stratton’s theories would never be properly tested.

Whether there was a mole in the mission, or the Nazis own code-breakers intercepted a message, we may never know. Perhaps the bomb attack on Alexandra Palace was just coincidence. The damage was minor, but the team and their military superiors were spooked enough to discuss moving the project to a more secure location. However, they don’t seem to have got very far with this before the war in Europe came to an end.

Of course, in the Pacific, the closing of the war was hastened by a far more terrible scientific endeavour. The A-Bomb changed military thinking. Mary’s ideas fell out of favour, remaining so until the Hawkingsian renaissance of the 1980s.

Today not so much as a blue plaque stands to remind us of a woman who never accepted a vision of humanity that for a few dark years seemed poised to envelop the world.


  • Candidate: The Princess (AKA The Ally Pally Time Machine)
  • Type: Time Machine
  • Status: Uncompleted

Source and license for featured image.

Walthamstow’s Unquiet Village: Elswick-on-the-Marsh

A footballer, arriving early to Hackney Marsh one autumn Sunday League morning, sees strange lights flicker in the mist.

A conservationist, picking through trees at the edge of Walthamstow Marshes on a quiet afternoon, hears shouting and laughter from the adjacent field. When he emerges from the overgrowth, he finds the field is empty.

A commuter, on a train crossing the marshes one dark winter evening, thinks she sees a ramshackle settlement of odd-looking houses where she knows only scrubland should be. She puts a hand to the glass to block the reflection from the carriage lights, but the train moves on, and the vision fades into the night.

Most people would soon forget such moments – once an eerie, out of place feeling had passed. But for some residents of the streets surrounding North East London’s Lea River Marshes, the feeling might linger. It might nag at them, in the days and nights to follow, until finally an old tale from their school days surfaced in their memory. Then, they may wonder if they have played a small part in the strange, restless life of a most unusual portal: a temporally and geographically untethered market town named Elswick-on-the-Marsh.

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Even for the tiny number of locals who remember it, Elswick (pronounced Ezzik or Elzik, depending on who you’re speaking to) is notoriously elusive. Glimmers, glimpses in the half-light, unexplained voices, distant shadows: these are the ways in which Elswick manifests.

Unless you are one of the privileged few.

We learned about Elswick from Jessica, a teenager from Leyton. She, in her turn, had learned about the village from her Great Aunt (whom Jessica calls ‘Nan’).

“I don’t remember a time when those stories weren’t in my head”, Jessica told us. “Of people who had found Elswick and never returned. When Nan told them to me, her eyes would get this look. The way she used to talk about it, I never knew whether it was a good or a bad place. All I knew was that she was obsessed”.

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Jessica says she carries in her memory a small book’s worth of Nan’s sayings about Elswick. “She’d repeat them like prayers… ‘Elswick is a doorway’ … ‘Elswick ever moves’ … ‘Elswick shows itself for a reason'”.

Nan walked the marshes almost daily, often taking Jessica with her.

“Look for a path, Nan said. An old paved road you haven’t seen before. And – how did she used to put it? – ‘Don’t take the path unless you’ve got something to trade'”.

Now, Jessica searches for Elswick alone. Nan went missing five years ago, when Jessica was not long into secondary school.

Jessica is pretty certain she knows where her aunt went.

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Much has been written about the marshes surrounding the River Lea, a tributary to the Thames. They have been drained since Medieval times and up until the 19th century were mainly lammas (common agricultural) land, used by commoners for grazing cattle and growing wheat.

The extent of the marshes, while still impressively large and wild-seeming for an area so close to London’s centre, has diminished significantly since the industrial revolution. Railways, housing, industry, waterworks, international sporting events – the enemies of the open marshland are many, and the struggle to protect what remains is ongoing.

When it comes to Elswick, the written records are much more sketchy. In fact, we found only one concrete mention, albeit from a major source. The Domesday book records the small settlement of Elleswych, in the Hundred of Beconsfield, Essex, under Lord Peter of Velognes.

We knew it was a long shot, but with the written records less than helpful, we decided we had to visit the Marshes for ourselves. We went close to dusk, knowing that most sightings occur in the still-time between night and day.

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The path that Jessica mentioned was our starting point. We can presume that when the Domesday survey was made, Elleswych enjoyed a relative degree of stability within space and time. So on which road did it lie in the 11th Century?

There are references to a paved Roman road that crossed the marshes near Leyton, but its location, if it exists at all, is disputed. There is of course the old road which crosses the River Lea at Stratford, but there is little remaining of the marshes there. We weren’t sure where to look next.

Then we read about the Black Path.

The Black Path was a porter’s way, leading from the fields to the great market of London (Lundenburh, as it was in the late Anglo-Saxon period). It was also a route of pilgrimage. Both uses seemed to chime with what we knew about Elswick.

You can follow the Black Path’s line on modern maps – look for a straight diagonal through London Fields up to Hackney City Hall which becomes, a few lost turnings later, Porchester Road in Clapton. After the marshes you can pick it up again in Walthamstow, near St James’ Park. But the path’s way across Leyton Marsh has been lost. Some open space remains here, however, so that is where we headed.

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Could Elswick have once dwelled in the lost marshes south east of Hackney?

From here we explored east and north, along the line of the Lea and inland, into Walthamstow Marshes. As twilight deepened and shadows rose from the brambles and bullrush, from the grassland and scrub, certain lights became apparent at the marsh’s edge. Half-hidden industrial buildings, streetlamps, the headlights of a distant train. Glimpsed in the gloaming, you can see how they could be mistaken for the lost village.

Sounds, too, drift across the marshes. Unexplained noises weave with crow-caws and the rattle of the passing trains. A pylon buzzes overhead, briefly harmonising with the airborne, ever-present roar of the city.

Are the stories just phantoms? Is Elswick an unreachable will-o-the-wisp?

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On Leyton Marsh we found a transient village of hawkers and traders – just not the one we were looking for

But we remember Jessica’s fervent words.

“It’s out there somewhere, the old trading post. Nan certainly had a lot to trade. So much to give… She once said Elswick only revealed itself to those in need of it. Or those whom it needed”.

Did Nan need it?

“I don’t know. It was around the time of the Olympics that Nan disappeared. She took a lot of that whole thing badly. The loss of great chunks of the marshes. She knew friends that relied on a lot of the community stuff that was lost, the allotments and all that. But – I was only a child. I can’t believe that Nan would have left me by choice”.

We feel bad for Jessica and her unanswered questions, tied up as they are with this fickle, endlessly flittering gateway – and with the uncertain future of a unique and magical part of London.


  • Candidate: Elswick-on-the-Marsh
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active [monitored]

Londinium’s Lost Portal: The Quaerium

Stroll east along the Strand, on the side of the street closest to the river, and go past Somerset House. When you see a gap between two buildings, turn river-ward. After ducking beneath an old watch house you will find yourself in a steep, narrow alley. Suddenly you are a world away from the busses and taxis, from the harried tourists and coffee-seeking office workers. A little way down, in a wall behind a railing, there is a scratchy, misted window. Next to the window is a switch. If you are lucky, the switch will be working, and a dim light will fall on the cellar to which the window leads. Even so, you will need to press your face to the glass. Within – cut into the floor of a pale, peeling-plaster room – is a large basin. It is roughly rectangular in shape, and measures perhaps four metres by two, with a depth of a metre and a half.

You are looking at London’s first inter-dimensional gateway.

Maybe.

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The view through the window  source | licence

The title on the information plaque beside the window will say that you are looking at the Strand Lane Bath. The rest of the text, like the cellar light, is oddly noncommittal and far from illuminating. There are hints at a controversy surrounding the origins of this plain-seeming piece of masonry. The plaque gives almost grudging mention to what is, in fact, a substantial school of thought that the structure was a cistern, built to serve one of the 17th Century Houses which once lined the embankment alongside Somerset House. But the authors seem loath to give up the backstory that many other Londoners would tell you – that the bath is a piece of Roman London, once part of a larger network of bathing rooms, and thus at the epicentre of society in 2nd Century Londinium.

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A model of Londinium  source | licence

Confused origins, oral histories that contradict the paper trail, academia in conflict with folk knowledge – this is fertile ground for PoL. The story of London’s portals often gets lost in the noise.

And indeed, a further controversy surrounds the Strand Lane Bath, one not mentioned on the plaque. There is a group of scholars who agree on the ‘Roman’ part, but have something to add when it comes to the ‘Bath’ bit – we speak, of course, of those scholars concerned with the history of London’s portals. The Strand Lane Bath proves just as divisive among this community.

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That Roman London contained at least one ‘manmade’ inter-dimensional gateway – and that it took the form of a bath – is not contested among portologists. The portal, known then and now as The Quaerium, is referred to in the writings of well-connected traveller Fabius Viatorio, who accompanied Emperor Hadrian on his visit to Londinium in 122 AD. Many – though not all – portologists argue that in the extract that follows, the description of the portal’s location and dimensions fit with the Strand bath:

‘In Londinium, on a hill close to that settlement’s Great River, a Merchant, with help from wise men, has built a small but wonderful temple. No Gods are worshipped within its walls. Inside the temple is a bath of modest proportions, but to submerge oneself in the milky liquid is to do more than bathe. This merchant holds famous gatherings, at which women and men sink into the water, and onwards into other Worlds’

Romans had been trying for some time to open doors to other dimensions. Perhaps it surprised them that when it happened it was in the Empire’s rainy North-Western outpost. We’ll probably never know whether The Quaerium’s builders had help from members of the subjugated population – Viatorio’s ‘wise men’ are intriguingly vague – but either way, portologists agree that whoever built the Londinium door seem to be the first documented beneficiaries of London’s uniquely leaky dimensional thresholds.

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According to records The Quaerium predates London’s fortified wall  sourcelicence

One thing portologists don’t agree on is the exact nature of the Quaerium. Debate rumbles over whether it was a door to other dimensions, a portal to other stars and planets in ‘our’ universe, or simply a place-pinned (Wellsian) time machine. Adherents of the latter cite an entry from the diary of an unnamed Roman General, in which the author recounts a dip into The Quaerium’s liquid: “I walked in a land untouched by man, hot beneath a white sun, strange birds in the sky above me, strange grasses beneath my feet. To my south were forested hills, and before them, a river flowing eastwards through a great, salty swamp”.

Again, many say the description could easily describe the Strand location in pre-historic times.

But not all scholars are convinced that the Strand Lane Bath and the Quaerium are one and the same.

PoL wanted to speak to one of the doubters, so we met up with a good friend of ours – Susan Macks, Crypto-archealogist at the University of Connecticut.

“First off, don’t listen to the Time-Machinees”, began Macks, between gulps of coffee and bites of pastel de nata. “The Quaerium was a full on TIDD [truly inter-dimensional doorway], you better believe it. But… I don’t know. I’ve been studying this doozy my entire career. It’s one of the main things that brought me to London. The Quaerium was Number One, the first documented portal in this amazing city of portals. Maybe the first, period. Like, what if The Quaerium was the door that started the whole thing? The first loose thread in the fabric, you know? These Roman dudes tugged on it almost for fun, and London’s dimensional pullover has been unravelling ever since. I love it. I love the Quaerium. I would dearly love it if we’ve found it. But I just don’t see the hard proof here, sorry”.

So, maybe just a cistern after all?

Maybe.

Macks believes that, like most of London’s Roman architecture, the Quaerium was likely destroyed long ago (“For all we know the descendants of Boudica smashed the thing to pieces under their stolen, golden hipposandals”). But like we say, PoL is always drawn to a confused history. And from new HQ’s for bankers to new stations for Crossrail, the ground beneath central London has rarely been such an open wound – with significant Roman artefacts still being discovered, we aren’t quite ready to give up the search.


  • Candidate: The Quaerium
  • Type: [Contested]
  • Status: Historic

Under river, outside time: The Woolwich Foot Tunnel Anomaly

When the Woolwich foot tunnel closed for repairs in 2011, it should have been a routine job. The pathway had been providing pedestrians with a quick route beneath the Thames since 1912. A century on, a few minor improvements were necessary. Contractors were hired to plug holes, improve access and bring communications capabilities into the 21st Century: swapping leaky tiles for a leaky feeder.

But Woolwich residents will recall that the refurb of this much loved and much used walkway did not go according to plan. When it finally re-opened it was 8 months behind schedule, having been closed for more than a year and a half. What the average Woolwich dweller doesn’t know, however, are the unusual circumstances behind this delay.

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Part of the works were to update the lifts  sourcelicence

Mention the 18 month time frame to someone who worked on the Woolwich Tunnel job and you may be met with a mysterious smile. A year and a half may have seemed a long time to those who relied on the tunnel for their daily commute. But for those who were down there beneath the river, that time-frame has a different meaning. When one contractor tells me he aged 3 years on the Woolwich job, it is not a metaphor. For, deep down beneath river and clay, hidden from those above ground, something was occurring. That something was a time anomaly.

A time anomaly, from the perspective of someone who experiences it, involves a clearly defined part of landscape or architecture, in which time ‘stops’. Years of study into such phenomena has proved largely fruitless in terms of explanations. And even less so when it comes to predicting when and where they might arise. There is some anecdotal evidence that temporary spaces, or spaces temporarily under a different use, lend themselves to time anomalies, and the Woolwich event would appear to support this.

But they are notoriously hard to define – not having experienced one, PoL isn’t about to try. The best thing we can do is listen to those that have experienced them. The following testimony is from one of the contractors on the Woolwich foot tunnel job (he wishes to remain anonymous). His words are presented uninterrupted, with as little editing as possible.

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Woolwich from the river, pre foot tunnel times  source | public domain

“I was one of the first ones to experience it. We were working from both ends, as it were, and had tents on both sides of the river. It was pretty basic, if you wanted something from the other side, you just had to walk it through the tunnel. Anyway the foreman’s on the other side and he radios to ask me across. So I walk through the tunnel – the ‘long walk’, we called it, funnily enough – and it’s slightly spooky because no one else is down there, they’re all working on the lift shafts, and I get up the other side, find the foreman, and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Says he only radioed like a minute ago and how did I get there so quick? Wouldn’t take my word for it I’d walked. Reckoned I had a buggy down there or something, that it was some kind of prank.

But I stand my ground and he starts to see I’m not lying. Anyway he forgets what he called me there for. He gives me this big red plastic box, tells me to walk back over and hold it up for him when I get to the other side. So I head back down, the lonely walk back, thinking shouldn’t we be getting on with some work. When I get to the top I wave the red box in the air and radio the foreman. ‘You just left me!’ he’s saying, ‘No more than a minute ago’. That’s when I start to feel a bit weird.

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Entrance to the tunnel seen from the river  source | licence

My initial feelings was I was pretty freaked out by it all. But once everyone else had experienced it, it was amazing how quickly it seemed normal. It became like a joke. It was a laugh, you know, a source of giggles. Someone said we’d invented the teleporter and were all going to be rich. The foreman stopped trusting watches and phones when we were down there, and took to using egg-timers. A few of the young agency lads tried to claim extra on their time sheets. That was the thing, though: time froze when you were down there. If you were down there for the full working day, fixing the tiling, you’d basically finish work, come back up and it would still be morning. Which was great at first – I don’t live in London so I did a lot of sightseeing, Cutty Sark, The Royal Palaces – but then we all realised how knackered we were.

It never really occurred to any of us to tell anyone about it at the time. It was like, who would believe you? You didn’t even believe it yourself. Plus it was such a wheeze. I think there was a feeling that as soon as head office was on to it the whole thing would be over. No more fun.

People started experimenting. Some of the guys camped out in there to see how long they could. 3 days and nights it was, and they still came back at the same moment they’d left. That freaked the site manager out though. He was having a nightmare with the timetables as it was. Biggest problem was making sure that if anyone from head office came down it wouldn’t look like he was sending people home ten minutes after they logged on – although that’s exactly what he was doing. Anyway he soon put a stop to all the mucking about.

Not before I had my one very strange moment, though.

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The stairs  source | licence

One thing we couldn’t get our head round was how the two, sort of, time-places a guy was in seemed to be happening at the same time, as it were. Like I see you emerge across the river in no time at all, but there’s also a ‘you’ who reckons he’s spending four hours in the tunnel.

So Petar, this Bulgarian lad, thought of a little experiment. One morning before anyone else is down the tunnel, he ties a long rope round his waist, and hands the other end to some of the guys. Then he sets off down the tunnel, see. And I’m to follow him down as far as the bottom of the stairs, and then stop and watch him walk down the tunnel. ‘Don’t put your foot off the stairs, don’t step in the tunnel’, he told me. And I didn’t.

So I’m watching him, and he’s got something in his pocket, a secret signal for when he’s across the river, when he gets to the surface. When the others see he’s surfaced, they’re supposed to shout down at me and pull on the rope. Anyway, I’m kneeling down and craning my head down so I can watch Petar walk around the curve, [the tunnel bends in an inverted bow underground – PoL] and he laughs and waves at me for a minute, then gets bored, keeps walking. And he’s just about to round the curve, out of sight – it hasn’t been long, just a minute or so, around the same time it’d took us to walk down the steps – and I feel the rope around me tighten. Then I hear the lads up top. ‘He’s across. Waving a red flag’. The thing is, Petar hears it too.

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This image shows how the tunnel bends out of sight  source | licence

And he stops. Turns round. And he’s looking at me. His hand slowly reaches into his big jacket pocket, and he pulls out the edge of this large red flag. For a moment I grin. I reckon they’re all having me on. But it’s the look on his face, that’s what still haunts me. Nobody’s that good an actor. His face – and he’s a big man, mind you, fearless. Our Petar was a big character, always at the centre of things, always with this big smile. Never saw him take anything too serious in all our days til then, but – I don’t know how to describe it, it was – fear. Just plain fear on his face. And he’s looking right at me and I know what he’s thinking. I know what he’s trying to figure out – do I keep going, or do I come back? He takes one step towards me, then stops. I don’t know how long we looked at each other like that, neither of us talking. Then in the end he turns round again, and carries on, out of sight.

Well, I’m up those stairs like a shot and when I get up top there he is, across the river, unmistakeable even from that distance, red flag in one hand, another guy’s arm around his shoulders.

Anyway I didn’t like that. That freaked me out, that did. Petar didn’t talk about it much. Nobody spoke much about any of it after that. The jokes kind of came to an end and we just got on with the job. Tried to ignore it.”

The tunnel was re-opened in early 2012. No time-discrepancies have been reported since that date.


  • Candidate: The Woolwich Anomaly
  • Type:  Time-Anomaly
  • Status: Inactive

Source and licence for featured image