If you've ever been to the toilet north of the Thames, anywhere between Acton and Bow, then you've contributed a little to the history of this building. The Abbey Mills Pumping Station is an essential link in London's sewage system, built in the 1870s by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and designed to speed millions of gallons of unpleasant liquids downstream. The pumps within raise the brownwater by forty feet into the Northern Outfall Sewer, thence slowly downhill for release into the Thames at Beckton. And the station still functions, despite being superseded by a more modern pumping station nextdoor, such was the genius nature of Victorian infrastructure. Courtesy of Open House, Thames Water allowed a handful of consumers inside the building this weekend, and we all enjoyed a fascinating two hour tour.
It's a magnificent building, entirely unnecessarily so [photo]. The Victorians had a habit of embellishing public projects, and Abbey Mills is no exception [photo]. The lantern on top earned the pumping station the nickname "the Mosque in the marsh", back in the days when nobody else lived anywhere nearby. Four Byzantine towers provide access to the roof, with rows of glazed tiles and carved limestone flora beneath to provide additional artistic flourishes. The building was originally cruciform in shape, before two additional boiler houses were added (only one of which survives). There were also twoenormous chimneys topped by minarets, although those came down at the start of the Second World War when they were decreed a toppling hazard. A railway line brought in coal to keep the plant working 24 hours a day, and key employees were housed in a row of cottages close by so that they were always on call. The building is sometimes known as the Cathedral of Sewage, and it's easy to see why [photo].
Inside (oh yes, the tour went inside), the view's justasamazing. High ceilings, rising to the lantern's symmetrical windowlight at the centre [photo]. A raised level of intricate ironwork, originally installed to access a series of beam engines, until these were replaced by electric pumps in the 1930s [photo][photo]. The replacements look like Daleks guarding the four corners of the building, and have recently been restored to provide several more years of service. Gaping holes in the floor lead down to thick pipes in chambers below, a curious mixture of old and very new. Around the walls are various dials and scales and chunky electronic cabinets, all now superfluous but part of the charm of the interior [photo][photo]. Nobody works inside any more, not unless something here goes wrong. In normal circumstances, as and when, the entire station now runs automatically, controlled from elsewhere.
In truth the old Victorian building doesn't need to function too often. A new aluminium-clad pumping station was opened in 1997, and only a couple of times a month does this still need support from its ancestor. There are eight pumping stations here in total, each lettered from A to I (but no G) and all of slightly different vintage. The original's A, boosted by B a few years later, then rather-largeC built to disgorge excess greywater direct into the Channelsea River. The Channelsea still suffers when too much sewage needs to escape, which is why the Lee Tunnel is being built between here and Beckton to reduce the environmental impact on the Thames. Its pumping station will be wholly underground, leaving virtually no visible footprint, unlike the other tumbledown buildings we observed during our tour of the site. I'd never realised there was quite so much here at Abbey Mills, but now I'll look down from the Greenway with a completely new eye.
The tour was excellent, thanks not least to our guide who delivered all the facts with humour and a knowing smile. He was accompanied by two Thames Water employees in hi-vis jackets, one of whom is the company's archivist and who later took us down to his repository. The room is stuffed full of files of plans, blueprints, photographic plates and manhole cover locations. On the shelves are some fantastically old volumes detailing all the original plans of London's Victorian sewers - giant leatherbound tomes labelled "Hammersmith to Bow" or "Counters Creek to Old Ford" or whatever - which are still referred to whenever developers want to build something new on top. The other employee works down the sewers, attempting to keep them clear and unblocked, and recently helped dig out a huge plug of cooking fatunder Leicester Square. You wouldn't want to do it, but be damned glad that someone does, and that Bazalgette's supreme sewage solution survives.