diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 20, 2005

London Open House: It's four years ago this week since I first moved to London, and events like Open House remind me just how little of the capital I've so far seen. It's always a joy to discover a new treat, and thankfully there must many more delights I have yet to experience. Here are details of the final three of the nine visits I crammed in this weekend [and my photos are here]

Crossness Pumping Station: There are always queues on Open House weekend, but I wasn't expecting to find them at an old sewage works on the Thames marshes in deepest Bexley. The old dear driving the ageing minibus from Abbey Wood station had never seen the like either. We'd endured a rattly journey past Thamesmead and down a godforsaken approach road, before being dropped off outside an unexpectedly ornate brick building in the middle of almost nowhere. The smell of effluent filled the air, which made the snaking queue of locals and curious centre-of-towners all the more surprising. The stench was coming from the modern sewage works just along the river but we were here to see its Victorian predecessor - the pioneering and palatial Crossness Pumping Station.

You'll remember from last month's journey down the River Fleet that London's sewage problem was finally solved in the 1860s by master engineer Joseph Bazalgette. Crossness was his crowning glory, the ultimate destination of all the icky brown waste in South London which was piped here so that it could could be stored in huge subterranean reservoirs before being pumped out into the Thames on the ebb tide. And to do the pumping Bazalgette constructed four huge beam engines, each able to lift more than a thousand gallons of sewage in one stroke. The scale of the operation is phenomenal, with 47 ton iron beams rising and falling with the rotation of enormous flywheels spinning beneath. Only one engine has so far been restored, by a group of willing volunteers who clearly love nothing more than the allure of steam and sooty hands. They've done a particularly good job on the decorative ironwork around the central 'Octagon', although even the rustiest corners of the building still retain a genuine industrial charm.

Crossness proved a fascinating building to explore, not just the main hall but also down into the dark pipe-filled bowels and up the winding staircase to the broad ironwork floor at beam level. We were only afforded a glimpse of the dilapidated Triple Expansion Engine House nextdoor, which still waits for an injection of Heritage Lottery Fund cash and for restoration. Meanwhile outside in the old boiler room (safety helmets off) a Museum of Sanitation is being established. Look - a row of old porcelain toilet pedestals! See - a collection of 19th century bedpans! Lo - a roll of Izal medicated toilet tissue! All a little twee perhaps, but the importance of this building to the long-term health of South London should not be overestimated.
(full details on the highly informative and well-illustrated Crossness website)

Trinity Buoy Wharf: It may sound ludicrous but London does indeed have its own lighthouse, situated on the thin strip of land where the river Lea enters the Thames, just to the north of the Millennium Dome. The lighthouse was never used to warn of underwater hazards but was instead kitted out by Trinity House back in Victorian times as a testing ground for their latest lighthouse technology. The site today is surprisingly inaccessible given its proximity to Docklands, with road access hidden away down a shabby industrial backstreet in the southeast corner of Tower Hamlets. There are great views of the Dome and the Thames from the top of the lighthouse, the interior artily filled by the computer generated ringing of Tibetan 'singing bowls' performing a 1000-year sound symphony (honest).

The rest of the wharf site is a strange mix of old and new, and oddly enchanting. An old red lightship is tied up a few yards from a genuine aluminium American diner. Brightly coloured metal containers have been piled up to create low cost office and studio space in a pioneering (keyword: sustainable) project called Container City, which us weekend visitors got to peer inside. Few central London office blocks can beat its low cost riverside panorama. And out at the end of Jubilee Pier I was surprised to be allowed access to the Vic 56 - an 85 foot long WW2 steamboat. There was no gangplank so I had to clamber aboard over the side of both the pier and the boat - rather inexpertly and inelegantly I thought. But it was a treat to wander the decks of this partly restored ship, clambering over ropes and climbing to the wheelhouse, and to meet and talk to the present owners. Seaworthy at least as far as Harwich, apparently, and no shortage of volunteers wanting to hide themselves away in the grimy engine room and stoke the steam engines.

Bank of England: There's only one bank to which we all belong but from which we can never draw money. All the more strange then to be allowed access to the Bank of England first thing on a Sunday morning. I had my rucksack searched by a top hatted security gent in a pink frock coat, and was then taken on a tour of (some of) this mighty fortress's interior by a softly spoken bank worker. As you'd expect the decor is magnificent, from fine crafted Derbyshire limestone walls to painstakingly beautiful mosaics underfoot. Corridors stretch off into the distance, a cantilever staircase rises seven storeys into the sky, and three floors of basement and vaults are hidden underfoot. We trudged through the Governor's office (he has a cheap black plastic government-issue pencil stand on his desk containing just one yellow highlighter pen) and on up the stairs to the room where the Bank of England decide the UK interest rate each month. Every wall and ceiling screamed opulence, especially in the facsimile Court Room, although we were assured that most of the bank's offices were rather more utilitarian. Our tour ended in the Bank of England's mini museum, where I took the opportunity to handle a genuine (and surprisingly heavy) gold bar - worth either 28 pounds or a hundred thousand pounds depending on whether you're weighing it or buying it. The queue was at least two hours long by the time I got back outside - bloody typical even for a top bank, I thought.


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