Well, today's been all about gunk. T's spent hours and hours getting all kinds of terrible looking stuff out from the pipes under the sink. And at last, the water runs away properly. But oh, the mess! it looked like a murder had been committed (except that it was all black, not red.....) Oh, ugh! I will spare you the other details. But I thought it might be appropriate today to tell you of my visit to the London sewers.
Don't read on if you have a sensitive digestion, although to be truthful the sewers were actually infinitely less disgusting than the stuff under the sink.
These sewer trips occur roughly once a year, but they're not advertised - not quite sure why, and the lady at Thames Water was a little bit evasive about that. I think they were afraid of having The Wrong Sort of People down their sewers. We were certainly carefully vetted and given a fixed (and far from convenient) time for our visit. Despite this, we had a very good day out and were glad we had made the effort.
So we arrived (uncomfortably) early one fine day at ye olde Victorian Waterworks at Abbey Mills in South East London.
It is a very handsome waterworks, although run down - to be fair, they do have a more modern waterworks nearby. I liked the slightly Haunted House atmosphere, because I like big, gloomy, ornate bits of Victoriana, and there aren't nearly as many of them around as there used to be. This place has played the Arkham Asylum in the "Batman Begins" movie, by the way, and should surely feature in more movies. Here is the front door .
We had a tour of the very interesting grounds - the staff are proud of the place's history, character and atmosphere. And the people who built it were proud of it too - they spared no expense, even on the ironwork on the roof, which could easily have created for an upmarket shopping arcade of the period.
And there was lots of antique machinery, some of which isn't used any more. At first I thought I spotted a Dalek from "Dr. Who."
But it was actually a Dalek's cousin, and didn't move or say a word.
We then had a film and a lecture and also the chance to look at some museum exhibits relating to London's history of waste disposal. I think everyone was thoughtful afterwards, considering the truly filthy conditions our ancestors lived in. It is quite surprising that anyone survived at all. Here is a wooden water supply pipe from a very early attempt to get London's water organised.
Of course, like all other major works of infrastructure, the development of a sewerage system cost a fortune. MPs were only persuaded to vote the money when the Thames became so noxious that Parliament was unable to use the nice new buildings that had been created for them in the mid 19th century. The distinguished engineer Alfred Rosling Bennett, in his memoirs, recalls leaning over the bridge near the Houses of Parliament in the 1850s and marvelling at the sight of the millions of red worms which had crawled out of the mess, and were lit by the low rays of the evening sun to create a sort of red glow.
After the educational bit, we got togged up in white boiler suits and tall wader boots with thick white socks. Here I am with one of my daughters, both of us glad that we finally got around to wearing one of those cool mother-and-daughter outfits that we always yearned for.
We found that you are lowered into the sewer on a sort of crane, strapped in with a harness. You need to be OK about climbing up and down iron ladders, too, inside the sewer.
And once inside, you have to hold on to a rope, just in case you fall. Miners' lamps come in handy, since it's not very light down there. Although the sun did shine through the gaps sometimes, and the shafts of sunlight created quite a striking effect, if you are being artistic about it.
The operative who guided us was very enthusiastic about the magnificent brickwork of the walls - the best possible, designed to last for centuries - and so it has. But in general it was all rather Dickensian. Here is a sluice gate. Looks like something out of Marshalsea Prison, doesn't it?
Dear readers, forgive me, but I didn't take many pictures inside the sewer, specially when we reached the dark bits. And I never got a shot of the wonderful brickwork. You see, .I was wearing great big rubber gloves, and I had to take them off in order to operate the camera. I was afraid of dropping (a) the gloves and / or (b) the camera.
I did manage to capture this chap stylishly modelling the outfit we wore.
Back "upstairs" again, we sat down for a yummy buffet. Not everyone had a good appetite. But everyone agreed that it had been very interesting indeed, a side of London which few of us had seen.
Our family was inspired to join the Crossness Engines Trust, which is striving to restore the nearby, and very sensational looking Crossness Pumping Station, which dates from the same period and is even more of a riot of cast iron. Sometime, I'll post about the Crossness open day we attended. But do check their website f you have any interest in Victorian social and engineering history, or industrial archaeology. It's a very active and imaginative group ( a few of the activities are here, although in fact they have many more) .
I could write a whole lot about them and about the amazing Joseph Bazalgette, who was behind the drive to make London the first city in the world to have a proper sewerage system. But it's late, and I won't be blogging for a few days now, so I'll leave you with a glimpse of the sewer archives - a whole world of research for an historian, and, like everything else at Abbey Mills, much more interesting than you might think at first.