Thursday, 9 December 2010

Going underground: My trip into our sewers

I walked alongside a river today 8 metres underground. The river Fleet, which began to be bricked over in the 1760s and was completely covered by 1840 hasn't been seen since. It's a strong river, quite capable of knocking you off your feet and rages underneath the centre of our city while people above are oblivious to the cavernous tunnels through which it courses below.

And those tunnels are themselves beautifully crafted, the finest of Victorian brickwork and engineering that remains in good working order to this day. As you walk through these huge tunnels, linked to one another by a warren of narrow tunnels and iron ladders bolted to the walls, it's tempting to just imagine what it must have been like for the men who came down here and built them entirely by hand. In the days after the Great Stink of the 1850s Joseph Bazalgette's scheme transformed London and the way it works - a shoreline disappeared to become the Victoria Embankment and a subterrenean city came into being.

But there are clouds on the horizon. As I marvelled at all of this through the gloom Rob, the Thames Water Flusherman who was our guide for the morning, pointed to four 2-ton solid iron storm doors (pictured below). The top pair of doors were at least 2 metres above the water which was at low tide. He explained how a storm surge occurs with such ferocity and speed following a rain downpour a few miles upstream in North London that within minutes all four of those great hulking doors are themselves resting atop a surge of water that has picked up such momentum as it hurtles under London's streets from Hampstead downwards that it flings those doors open and keeps them there as it flows into the Thames.


And while that's a story of nature's power it's also a story of man-made change. Climate change. As you'll see from the video above in his two decades working in this other-London Rob has seen the number of those storm surges grow in force and regularity. And it's why back in our neck of the woods we have the flooding problem that we do.

For while Bazalgette's sewers were more than sufficient for a Victorian population and can just about cope with even our own - they struggle to cope with the number and nature of rainstorms we now experience. And they are set to continue. That's a big problem down below, but it's even worse for those waking up to the foul smell of sewage seeping into their homes.

Which is why we need the Thames Tideway Tunnel. One of the biggest sewer systems ever conceived it will be a fitting successor to stand on Bazalgette's pioneering shoulders in sheer size and capacity, but also the only thing capable of handling the sewage problem we have now. The human cost is one thing, but amounts of sewage like that going into the Thames on a regular basis also has a devastating environmental impact .. as the many rowers in West London will tell you.


So today was a day of breathtaking sights, and thankfully not too much smells. It was a morning of wonder at how hollow the world beneath our feet in London really is, there are entire networks of passages and great vast chambers underneath the busiest roads in the country holding not just the sewage we flush down the loo but even tidal rivers long hidden from view. But it was also, for me at least, a visit which was inspiring by the company of the men who took us down there to look around. These are the real heroes who keep all of this working and have done ever since they were built. They spend days and nights clearing up the rubbish we flush down the toilet but should be putting in the bin, and seem to cope with such a demanding job by a brand of humour that is very funny - but not for a family blog such as this.

And just think of the human stories that have gone on that end up down there too. Just as we were about to go down below one of the flushermen showed me a Victorian era ring, which looked very much like an engagement ring, that he'd found earlier that night. He found things like this in the timeless tunnels most nights he said.. How did the ring find its way down there? We can only imagine -  but next time you're contemplating washing fat or cotton buds down the sink - think of the men underground who'll have to clear it up. And think again. See all the photos here.


  1. Great story! Truly a bit of hidden London.

  2. Really fascinating story. Thank you.

  3. Really interesting post, thanks!

  4. Interesting article. I look forward to a sequel on Stamford Brook, another lost river of London (and local!)

  5. Sewer cleaning is really a hassle because it sometimes takes a few days to be completely done but nowadays, there are new methods to clean and quickly fix sewer lines which are not only affordable but are also more convenient.

  6. I'd love to go on a tour like this. Any chance you could let me know how to go about it?