Have you ever been to the London Museum of Water & Steam? It's fair to say that this west London venue is among the city's less-well-known museums. And yet, paradoxically, it is also the most visible.
This is the museum's magnificent standpipe tower, which rises high over the Thames north of Kew Gardens. Don't call it a chimney. No smoke or steam ever billowed from its 60 metre crown. Rather, it contains a set of lofty water pipes, thick as redwoods.
The museum is housed in an old pumping station, built by the Grand Junction Waterworks Company around 180 years ago, and in use until the mid-20th century. Remarkably, most of the kit was preserved. And by 'kit', we mean colossal beam engines the like of which you won't see anywhere else. These brutes are so massive that they're almost impossible to photograph. Here's our best effort:
The pick of the bunch is the Grand Junction 90 inch — the world's largest working beam engine. It pumped water to London for almost 100 years. Today, it isn't hooked up to the mains, but is still teased from its slumbers during regular public steamings — one of the great sights of London.
The standpipe tower celebrates its 150th birthday next year. Few surviving Victorian structures can equal it in height. Its purpose was to hold a large mass of water that could protect the beam engines by resisting any sudden changes in pressure. The view from the top is unrivalled in this part of London — it's a good 10 metres loftier than the nearby pagoda at Kew.
Sadly, public access to the tower is now rare, though we'd hope the museum can find a way to run limited tours for Open House weekend and other occasions. What you can see, any day of the week, is a peerless collection of engines, pumps and paraphernalia relating to the history of London's water supply.
The museum is a mechanical paradise for engineering enthusiasts, but there's much here, too, for any visitor with an ounce of curiosity. The place is especially good for kids, with many hands-on displays, an educational 'splash zone' and a miniature railway. Peppa Pig has been known to visit.
London Museum of Water & Steam is open every day (unless closed for a private event), with steaming events at weekends. The nearest station is Kew Bridge on the lines out of Waterloo.
With thanks to Mike Paterson of London Historians for arranging the tour, and the museum's Clive Penfold who acted as the perfect guide.