Crossness Pumping Station opened on the banks of the Thames in 1865, between what are now Thamesmead and Belvedere. Nobody lived nearby at the time, which made this the ideal location for the outfall of the Southern Outfall Sewer. Here was one endpoint of Joseph Bazalgette's solution to Victorian London's great sanitation crisis, blah cholera, blah the Great Stink, blah yes you've probably heard all this before. But there's nothing quite like reacquainting yourself with the scale of the enterprise, and even though you can't go down the sewers you can still stand in awe of his giant engines.
Expect quite a trek up a lonely road round the back of Southmere Lake, parallel to the huge overground sewer piping its cargo riverward. Most visitors drive, parking before the barrier at the far end, or on special open days they hitch a ride on a special minibus from Abbey Wood. Sunday was one of those special days, when the Thames Water employee at the gate smiles and nods everyone inside what's still a massive water treatment complex, and please stick to the path and keep going until you reach the brick building by the riverside. Try to ignore the faint background smell. You'll get used to it.
Bazalgette's network of pipes were designed to feed effluent from south London's suburbs toward a pumping station in Deptford where it was lifted by twenty feet, then sent under force of gravity via a larger pipe to Crossness. Here it collected in a reservoir with a capacity of 27 million gallons, then needed to be raised again to river level, hence the need for four huge rotative beam engines in a big shed. Nothing cunningly chemical took place, the plan was simply to dump the untreated sewage in the Thames on the ebb tide and let it wash out to sea. London's water quality improved no end, but Erith's tenure as a riverside resort ended overnight.
The Crossness Engines Trust was founded in 1987 to try to bring some of the machinery back to life. Their first battles were raising money and fixing the roof, then restoring one of the engines to working order which they finally achieved in 2002. I last came to look round in 2005, and quite a lot has changed since then including a major upgrade to the museum. The story of Crossness, from cholera to the Tideway Tunnel, is now told across a suite of display blocks scattered across the floor.
It's extremely well done, with a broad spread of information from the historical to the informatively scientific. Be sure to stop and press the touchscreens or you'll miss a lot. You may need to stand very close to the speakers to hear whatever it was I couldn't hear they had to say. This may be easier when the cafe's quieter. Don't expect to follow the displays in the correct chronological order without help (which comes in the form of a small printed map handed out at reception upon which a ridiculously sinuous line is drawn, which you'll likely discard for being unmanageable, and for goodness sake just paint some arrows on the floor). I learned a lot.
When you're ready, don a safety helmet and enter the industrial cathedral. The Engine House is an astonishing space, and I don't say that lightly. No larger beam engine survives anywhere in the world today, and Crossness has four. Come on the right day and you can even watch one in operation, a whopping flywheel spinning to power a 52 ton beam nodding hypnotically overhead. Take the vertiginous iron staircase to the upper level for a closer look.
Even on non-steaming days the building's amazing, courtesy of the structural mesh of ornamental cast ironwork. To the Victorians a sewage works was something to be proud of, even though it'd almost never be seen, so the interior is wilfully over-decorated throughout. The central octagonal lobby is surrounded by a symmetrical pattern of metal leaves and flowers on all sides, plus Metropolitan Board of Works monograms, and is beautifully painted in green, white and red. Those with a penchant for machinery come for the engines, and everyone else ends up worshipping the ironwork.
Other things to see in the helmeted zone include a shiny plaque you must not touch and a cavernous chamber now emptied of machinery. Other things to see back in the museum include a cavalcade of toilet cisterns and a selection of historical loo paper. Things to buy in the shop include fudge, toilet-seat-shaped notepads and owls made from nuts and bolts. The volunteers look like they weighed up every post-retirement option Bexley had to offer and picked the one that looked the most fun.
By next year the Crossness site should have another outside attraction, namely a narrow gauge railway running half a mile along one edge. They already have a loco called Bazalgette, sourced from the National Garden Festival at Stoke-on-Trent, and a trailer-cum-carriage to pull behind. What they need are volunteers to help lay the remainder of the track, which currently peters out into black sheeting beyond the turning loop rather than reaching the car park. But don't wait to come. By rights every Londoner ought to visit Crossness at least once, if only to recognise the extraordinary achievement that helped cleanse the city and make it thrive.
Next Open Days (steaming): June 23, July 21, Aug 25, Sep 8, Oct 20 Next Open Day (non-steaming): July 6 Pre-booked tours: today, June 18, July 2/16/30, Aug 13/27, Sep 10/24, Oct 8/22