"It's not really all that smelly," we were assured, as we kitted up for the sewers. A plastic suit, rubber gloves, safety helmet and a fetching pair of waders might keep our clothes clean, but what of our noses? We were about to descend into the Northern Outfall Sewer, the throbbing aorta of Joseph Bazalgette's Victorian network of tunnels. You might know it as the Greenway - the pedestrian track that runs through the Olympic site. After wading through the torrent of waste beneath, we now know it as the Brownway.
Descending the ladder at Thames Water's Wick Lane depot, we waited for the aroma to hit. But we had been accurately briefed. There really was no honk, just a subtle waft of turd. The main unpleasantness was communicated through our feet. Attempting to walk thigh deep in sewerage, over a spongy carpet of gunk, in overly buoyant waders, against the flow of shit was not a simple or pleasant experience. The first tentative steps were a battle not to stumble. We haven't paid such attention to our personal locomotion since toddling days.
After a while, we found our feet and began our feculent march upstream. Wick Lane is one of the great sewerage meeting points, where the detritus of north London combines into the five parallel chambers of the Northern Outfall, and thence to the epic treatment works at Beckton. These tunnels carry the entire anal output of Hampstead, the urine and flush of every toilet from Tottenham to Fulham and every slip of paper blessed by the bums of north London. Fortunately for us, the system also drains from the baths, washing machines, showers and streets of the city, greatly diluting what would otherwise be an intolerable mulch.
Thames Water flushers - the guys who maintain our sewers - provided an insightful commentary about the history and upkeep of these amenities. One of the biggest challenges is the accumulation of cooking fat. Washed thoughtlessly down a million kitchen sinks, the immiscible waste clumps together in the sewers where it can cause serious blockages.
The 150-year-old brickwork really is in architectural treasure, one that was built at great cost yet is rarely seen. But the current system, still largely Victorian, is inadequate for London's future. Even now, waste must be pumped untreated into the river several times a year, lest it back up into people's homes. In response, Thames Water are investing in big projects such as a new tunnel along the length of the Thames and major upgrades to treatment works.
After clambering back up to the surface, we were taken to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station near West Ham. This gorgeous mish-mash of architectural whims is a relic of an era when even the most mundane of civic buildings could be constructed in an ornate, exotic style. Although it has diminished in importance, Abbey Mills still functions as an operational station. Its history has been described elsewhere, so we'll leave you to click through the gallery above for a photo tour.
With thanks to the staff of Thames Water for taking the time to show us the beauty and the dirt of their unique workplace.
Words by M@ Brown, pictures by Dean Nicholas.