Sunday, 31 July 2011


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.   


  1. This looks like a very interesting outing-I would love to have done that! We once visited Barking Power Station-very interesting and I was lucky to take some kids who had won an art competition to the tunnel works at Woolwich when they were building the DLR there. I love that sort of thing!

  2. If we ever make it to London, we are doing that tour. Very interesting. Just watched Engineering an Empire, on Britain, and this fits right in. Much of it being mirrored in recent Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett's world.

    Thank you so much for this.

  3. Egads, I loved every word of this. I found it fascinating. I bet there's no other blogger who has been down in the sewers below London and then blogged about it. Great photos, too.

    And Very lovely mother-daughter outfits, by the way. :) Classy.

    The sluice gate looks ominous, especially with that bit of light. Or, maybe I should be seeing that light first with just a tinge of ominous. Either way, it's a great photograph. Love the old books. I'm partial to them.

    A very fun and interesting post.

    You were exactly the Right Sort of People to go down in the sewers.

  4. Fascinating. But more to the point, was there a gift shop and were you actually able to purchase that stunning matching mother and daughter set?!

  5. I sympathize with your dealing with gunk under your sink. That's no fun.

    The waterworks looks like a fascination place to visit. I enjoyed the tour and love the mother daughter shots.

    You asked if I was familiar with the peace rose. I used to have a peace rose but mine didn't bloom this year. It still looks alive so my fingers are crossed. I've had it 20 years so don't know what it's problem is this year since it usually blooms in June.

  6. Oh Jenny what an adventure you have had, very interesting...
    Erna xx

  7. An interesting and humorous post! Thanks for sharing the sewers with us. I loved it!

  8. It is exactly the kind of behind-the-scenes tours that I love! I've done such tours at one of our local water reservoirs, at a shopping mall, the zoo, the Film Academy and some other venues, but none of it has quite what your sewers tour had.
    And that building is just fantastic!

  9. Looks fascinating! Loved the outfits! The dalek may have been quiet but he posed nicely for you :-)

  10. Hello Jenny:
    What an absolutely fascinating post and how interesting to have been able to obtain a timed visit. We should love to see the original Victorian building, with all that wonderful iron work, and do so hope that its future is secure, What of, for example, Battersea Power Station?!!

    However, we are rather less keen on uniforms, and even less happy about going underground, particularly when lowered as you describe, and so we should probably have parted company from the tour at that point and, in so doing, doubtless have missed much.

  11. It’s nice to meet someone else who finally gets English references. I’m still trying to fully process that you toured Victorian Sewers… and made it sound interesting! Didn’t know about that little Arkham Asylum tidbit either.

  12. It's lovely to get such interesting comments and responses. Thank you to everyone. Specifically... @Sarah, yes, industrial archaeology is fascinating though I think you might have had a heart attack if taking the kids into the sewers, I can just imagine some 5 year old falling in. We took the kids along to Crossness open day though and it was FASCINATING, definitely recommend this - I'll blog about that some time soon. @Zhoen, it's VERY Ankh-Morpork down there, makes me think of the river that runs thrugh that city... @louciao, yep, they are missing a trick with no gift shop!@Librarian, yes I love all kinds of behind the scenes tours, I'm only sorry that food factories have mostly stopped doing them. @Jane and Lance, Battersea is a sad shell now, bought by some speculator and gutted and then he went bust. A disgrace. It will soon be in the shadow of the new American Embassy, so perhaps they'll do something with it. But the interesting stuff has gone. Still, Crossness is Sewage Works Lite, and you can see and learn all kinds of very fascinating stuff in what is an even more amazing looking waterworks than Abbey Mills. The link is down towards the bottom of the blog.

  13. Fascinating. I have actually been down a sewer. When I was in the sixth form and as part of our geography studies we set out to follow the course of a river which was culverted in places. Somehow we ended up in a sewer!

  14. Nice outfit! :)

    This is fascinating.

  15. What a fascinating place to visit - although I can see how it might put a person off their lunch! We take our sewerage systems for granted don't we, but how lucky we are to have them!

  16. I started this post with some trepidation but it was quite lovely. "London's history of waste disposal" may be the best phrase I'll come across all week.

  17. First of all, thank you for visiting our Colorado blog and for your very nice comments.

    Now, obviously you are an adventurous type (when out of your kitchen!) and I'll give you credit. I'm not sure I would want to visit the sewers and I certainly would not want to get all dressed up to climb down ladders into the dark unknown! Very brave you and your children!

    I do enjoy your photos though so anytime you wander into scary places, please take lots of photos and post them so armchair travelers like myself can get a vicarious thrill! OK? :-)

  18. But what about the smell, Jenny? You don't mention the smell!

    A fascinating post, though, and a trip my grandchildren would LOVE (tho' I'm not keen on ladders, so their parents can take them!).

  19. I bet that was a really eye-opening tour. Talking of disgusting filth, apparently the first thing that would strike a 21st century visitor to one of those grand old historic mansions would be the human stink. They didn't have all the hygiene aids we take for granted nowadays.

  20. This is one of the visits I want to do in Paris some day, follow the streets in a sort of parallel "underworld", i think there is a huge amount to learn from the dark side of a city!
    By the way you look very chic with your special boots and overalls!:))

  21. re your comment: actually the answer was right there in my post. apparently there was a Great Wenden and a Little Wenden, and when they were joined together they took the Latin for "both Wendens": Wendens Ambo

  22. Have never thought of going down into a sewer, but found your post most interesting.

  23. The wooden shit-pipe thingy impressed the crap out of me. I went to a sewage treatment center in Florida where I'm from and it wasn't NEARLY as cool as that. You're talking like 2000 years of shitstory in there! I wouldn't be surprised if that wooden thing was used by Boudicca or someone.

  24. That sounds like an interesting visit and I do hope it did not smell.

    The Old School at Donyatt (as you sounded interested) I found in 'Cottages 4 You'

  25. Oh my goodness - seeing that chap up to his knees in sludge was a bit disconcerting. I'm glad you took me down with you - don't think I'd do it on my own (a bit claustrophobic). Marvelous photos of your tour - you and your daughter look quite elegant.

  26. Amazing! History is full of things I never think about - like sewers. I really like the photos of the architecture.


  27. Wow, I never imagined sewers as being so ornate, nor quite so interesting! I saw that fashionable chap modeling the togs standing in knee deep sewer water...hope you did not have to do that; your boots don't look quite high enough!

    Loved the references to Dr. Who and Marshalsea Prison! So true, so true...

  28. I really enjoyed this post. And especially the photos of you and your daughter in these matched outfits :)

  29. What an adventure you had, Jenny! I remembered the time when my sewer under the sink was damaged by the tree root. You can imagine how terrible it was. Anyway, your adventure looks more historical and social thank you for the glimpse into the sewer where I won' have chance to go. I'm the one who easily get scared in the dark, deep water and narrow place. You and your daughter look nice and excited in those outfits. Have happy days ahead.

  30. What an absolutely fascinating place....thanks for sharing :)

  31. Good Grief! I was totally amazed at this post and everything it contained.
    What a truly beautiful building - so ornate. I never would have guessed its purpose.
    The tour and all the facts were so very interesting. That early wooden water supply pipe - who would've thought.
    It WAS a Dalek too :O
    I love the Mother and Daughter pic and outfits too :D) Cheers!

  32. Wow! What a fascinating post! I'm so glad you went on this tour so that I don't need to now!

    I love the look of the old Victorian building housing the sewer works, it is stunning inside and out. It must be interesting to visit but, but... doesn't it stink?

  33. What an amazing place! Would've loved to have been there as well...


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