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A Tour Of Abbey Mills Pumping Station & The Northern Outfall Sewer

By Londonist Last edited 79 months ago
A Tour Of Abbey Mills Pumping Station & The Northern Outfall Sewer
A selection of tools for would-be Super Marios.
A selection of tools for would-be Super Marios.
Matt 'the hat' Brown and Dean 'won't stay clean' Nicholas.
Matt 'the hat' Brown and Dean 'won't stay clean' Nicholas.
Close up of the windows at Abbey Mills.
Close up of the windows at Abbey Mills.
The display equipment has an antique charm all of its own.
The display equipment has an antique charm all of its own.
Outside Abbey Mills. The flat tarmac is the roof of the station's coal bunkers.
Outside Abbey Mills. The flat tarmac is the roof of the station's coal bunkers.
Inside Abbey Mills. Or is it a Dalek factory?
Inside Abbey Mills. Or is it a Dalek factory?
Another interior shot.
Another interior shot.
Abbey Mills pumping station in all its Gothic glory.
Abbey Mills pumping station in all its Gothic glory.
Our guide talks us through the labyrinthine sewer network.
Our guide talks us through the labyrinthine sewer network.
17444_abbeymills_model.jpg
Even the drain pipes are ornamented.
Even the drain pipes are ornamented.
The roof lantern of the pumping station. There's no way to reach it from inside without erecting scaffolding.
The roof lantern of the pumping station. There's no way to reach it from inside without erecting scaffolding.
A foundation plaque showing the shields of the various civic bodies who financed the project.
A foundation plaque showing the shields of the various civic bodies who financed the project.
A selection of tools for would-be Super Marios.
A selection of tools for would-be Super Marios.
Wading through a shallow bit.
Wading through a shallow bit.
Wearing a safety harness a sewer worker prepares to descend. Note the orange bags - these contain emergency oxygen supplies and must be carried by all visitors.
Wearing a safety harness a sewer worker prepares to descend. Note the orange bags - these contain emergency oxygen supplies and must be carried by all visitors.
The entrance to the Northern Outfall Sewer at Wick Lane depot.
The entrance to the Northern Outfall Sewer at Wick Lane depot.
Our guide for the day. He insisted that we weren't given torches - "you don't really want to be looking at what you're wading through."
Our guide for the day. He insisted that we weren't given torches - "you don't really want to be looking at what you're wading through."
Matt 'the hat' Brown and Dean 'won't stay clean' Nicholas.
Matt 'the hat' Brown and Dean 'won't stay clean' Nicholas.
Thames Water's pet rat. A plastic fellow known as Roland. Real rats are rarely seen in the major sewers.
Thames Water's pet rat. A plastic fellow known as Roland. Real rats are rarely seen in the major sewers.
The group pauses inside a chamber, thigh-deep in effluent.
The group pauses inside a chamber, thigh-deep in effluent.
Tunnels and arches led off in various directions.
Tunnels and arches led off in various directions.
Here's how they used to do it. Fresh water pipes from the 17th Century, when elm trees were used as pipes, their ends sharpened to form sockets.
Here's how they used to do it. Fresh water pipes from the 17th Century, when elm trees were used as pipes, their ends sharpened to form sockets.

"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.

Last Updated 26 May 2010

jasonmarkwebber

This is a proper sewer!

http://www.20thcenturylondon.o...

lee jackson

Hmm, sewage ... not sure if I'm jealous or not, Matt, when it comes to this one ... would have quite liked to have seen inside the pumping station, mind you ... are there occasional open days? LEE

carrot

Awesome post, guys.

Nicolas

Did you mean "faeculent march"? Great post, I have a thing about water treatment, best not elaborate...

Caz

Such a lovely building for such an unlovely purpose. Is it open to the public?

ben

i remember walking past here with friends and we stopped to look at it but didnt know what it was, it's amazing to think of the history and decor of the place but we didnt have a clue at the time! this is why i love london, you can go almost to any nook and cranny of the city and find historu.