Last week was national sewer week and I was given the opportunity to check out a pumping station and walk through a sewer tunnel.
People I talked to about this were either horrified or fascinated by the prospect. From my perspective the whole experience would’ve been worth it for the headline above.
Abbey Mills pumping station is a beautiful bit of victorian architecture designed by Joseph Bazalgette (the godfather of London sewerage). The outside is weird gothic to the max and it is no surprise that it’s been used as a film set on a number of occasions, including a recent outing as the asylum in Batman Begins. Bazalgette apparently spent almost a year of his life designing it all, even down to the detail of the tiles – presumably as some kind of monument to himself and to all London’s waste.
The interior is a strange combination of victorian and 70s sci-fi – a wet dream for fans of classic Dr Who and “hauntologists”. The canteen was used as a prison waiting room in the Jeffrey Archer docu-drama. It’s all stark brickwork and inexplicably huge yet functional machinery. This massive building dedicated to pumping everyone’s faeces. Superb.
It’s interesting how the development of capitalism is so intertwined with sewerage. For example the original wooden pipes used to drain away rain water were only made possible thanks to the technology used to manufacture gun barrels. Similarly, the actual shape of London is partially determined by sewers: many of them were formerly rivers which were then covered over so that houses could be built on them.
Walking through a sewer was a weird experience – a group of us trudged along in thigh high wellies, overalls and hardhats. Amazing brickwork and lots of it. It didn’t smell that bad, in fact – probably because it was mainly water, with the odd turd, bit of toilet paper, and a surprising number of mobile phones.
Joseph Bazalgette’s great-grandson Peter is best known for introducing Big Brother to British television. So, after Joseph dedicated his whole life to getting the shit out of people’s houses…