diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
the Embankment

200 years ago it wasn't just the River Fleet that stank, it was the whole city. One million Londoners produced a heck of a lot of sewage, most of which ended up in the capital's two hundred thousand cesspits, or in the street, or floating down towards the Thames. Conditions were at their worst close to rivers, such as the Fleet, where domestic water-closets often discharged directly into the stream. As the 19th century progressed outbreaks of cholera became more common, sometimes killing thousands of people, and the smell of the city on a hot day became intolerable. The situation came to a head during the 'Great Stink' of 1858 when the Thames became heavily polluted during a particularly hot summer. Lime-soaked curtains were hung from the windows of the House of Commons in a vain attempt to keep out the stench. Thankfully a solution was at hand.

Enter Joseph Bazalgette - an engineer with a vision. He believed (rightly, as it turned out) that London's stinky problems could be solved by a series of giant intercepting sewers which would divert brown waste safely away from the rivers in the centre of town. These sewers used gravity (and 318 million bricks) to deliver their cargo to two pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills, both suitably downstream of the capital, where sewage was stored in reservoirs until the ebb tide and then released into the Thames. Three east-west sewers converged at Abbey Mills (just down the road from my house, so I've written about it before). The northernmost sewer fed down from Kentish Town and Hampstead, intercepting the waters of the upper Fleet along the way, while the middle sewer passed from Notting Hill through Clerkenwell. But when it came to constructing the Northern Low Level sewer, there was nowhere else for it to go except along the banks of the river Thames itself.

The Victoria Embankment, constructed by Bazalgette between 1864 and 1870, provided a new waterfront for central London and solved four important problems. Firstly it hid a giant sewer pipe, safely transporting the effluent of west London towards less affluent east London. Secondly it provided the perfect location for the construction of a new underground railway - today the District Line between Westminster and Blackfriars. Thirdly by reclaiming land from the Thames it narrowed the river and produced stronger defences against potential flooding. And fourthly a new four-lane road built on top of the Embankment relieved growing traffic congestion along Fleet Street and the Strand. Drivers whizzing along the current riverside dual carriageway probably don't realise that all of Chelsea's excrement still flows along beneath them.

Bazalgette's sewer system also finally demoted the Fleet from a buried river to an underground storm relief drain. Where once a babbling brook flowed into a navigable inlet, now sludgy brown liquid flows through a network of subterranean brick tunnels. Several connecting branch sewers converge on this dank Stygian puddleway, and one of the chambers lower down is as big as a cathedral with great vaulted ceilings. This is not somewhere that most people would choose to visit, but JD and Stoop specialise in underground drain exploration and they've made two journeys down the Fleet sewer during the last year. Their last, and most dangerous, expedition was back in June when they (and a daring Time Out journalist) made it nearly all the way down from St Pancras to the Thames.
"Stoop took out his big ass torch, which he'd been reserving for photos, so that we could get a look further down the tunnel. The beam stretched out ahead of us through the vapour and mist, "That's it!", I had caught a glimpse of the huge end chamber looking just as I'd seen it in an archive picture. Just ahead was the end of our journey down River, we strode ahead and using two iron rails set into the tunnel wall we climbed over the diverting wall which sends the flow into the intercepting sewer. The chamber beyond was free from any water flow, having just a thin layer of Thames sludge, it was an impressive array of iron gates, walkways, brickwork and ladders." (sub-urban Fleet sewer exploration, 2005)
Down in the sewers you're always at the mercy of the weather, or some waterworks operative diverting the flow from a channel above, so the trio's journey back up the sewer was rather more treacherous as the water level increased.
"A previously sealed hole in my waders had given up the ghost and one of my feet now weighed in at a good three kg more than the other. "I’m telling you it’s practically full up" - they both looked a little unconvinced until I emptied out about three litres of poo cocktail."
Read more here (or in last week's edition of Time Out). Oh, and they don't recommend you try following in their footsteps, just enjoy their photographs of the Fleet sewer instead. [More (slightly illegal) Urban Exploration links here]

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream