Abbey Mills Pumping Station – that trip down the sewers in full

There’s been lots of interest in my sewer trip prior to it actually taking place so for all of you who’ve been fascinated by my plans (or simply by my desire to take such a trip!) here’s what happened…

Thames Water’s “Sewer Open Week” is a six day event (it was only five last year, but is clearly proving popular). We went to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station in east London for Thames Water’s Sewer Open Week.

That particular stretch of east London is not one of the prettiest parts of the capital, by any means, but when you head up the driveway into the grounds of the pumping station (which aren’t visible from the road) you might be slightly surprised to find a hodgepodge of widely-spaced buildings there which embrace most of the architectural styles of the last 100 years. This is because although the original station was built over a hundred years ago in the grand old Victorian style, it’s had to be added to since then, and newer buildings with more up-to-date pumping technologies have arrived to bolster the original.

One thing I was fascinated to find out was that all of the buildings do basically the same thing – pump sewage and excess rainwater – at about the same speed, but they’ve become smaller and smaller the more modern they are, until the latest pumping station is perhaps one-fifth the size of the original.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were welcomed into the original pumping station, which is the grand old ornamental building you can see in most of my my pictures; the kind of thing that would never ever get built today because accountants and bureaucrats would take one look at it and ask if the decorative features are strictly necessary for the building to pump water, and whether the grounds needed to be so pleasant, and why the doors needed to be so large and beautiful (“Couldn’t B&Q do something almost as good for a fraction of the price?“) etc. etc.

Because make no mistake, the original Abbey Mills Pumping Station is a lovely building both inside and out, both on a large scale and on a small scale. You can see in the pictures: all the walkways inside are some wonderful wrought iron work; there are little flourishes here, there and everywhere, outside has some nice patterns in the bricks, those very official-looking doors, not to mention some charming carvings around many of the edges which I didn’t photograph (they’re “The Plants of England”, apparently). In short, although not a big architecture buff myself, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

And that was before we got the tour by one of two archivists working at Abbey Mills.

There were three types of people on the tour; basically, (i) people who work directly for Thames Water, (ii) people who work for companies who work for Thames Water, and, er, (iii) myself, Jimmy and Si.

I think we were the only members of the public there, judging by the amount of times people asked us who we were “with” or where we were “from”; Jimmy’s answer, “Scotland“; mine, “south-east London“; or Simon’s, “New Zealand – originally” drew a few blank looks, until we realised people didn’t mean geographically, they meant what company were we from, and we had to rather sheepishly admit we were just part of the great unwashed, with no other reason for being there other than that we thought it would be “really cool”.

Another surprising thing was the number of ladies on the tour – there were all your usual suspects: older men with an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of the history of sewage, younger men aspiring to an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of the history of sewage…and some perfectly ordinary ladies and gents of all ages, which I personally found somewhat reassuring, given the questioning stares I’d gotten from some folk when I’d mentioned our prospective sewer trip in the past.

Yeah, so, anyway, around the pumping station, all very nice. Then…a free lunch! And a really really nice lunch, too! We couldn’t quite believe just how nice it actually was, especially since the entire day was completely free!

So we filled up on mini-burgers, tiny little pizzas, delicious sausage rolls, miniature strawberry tarts, criossants filled with cream cheese and spinach, onion bhajis, kofti kebabs and cranberry juice, all in the confines of a working sewage pumping plant. It was a strange (but delicious) meal, I can tell you; and the dining area was a sunken section in the middle of the pumping station that looked very very much like the canteen in one of H.M. Prisons. 

Except it was carpeted.

And the trip down the sewer itself…?

Myself, Jimmy and Si were in “Magenta Group”, which meant we were the last group in the afternoon to go down, after “Green Group”. There were about 16 of us in the group (and two groups in each of the three tours a day: in the morning, afternoon and evening). And it was about four o’clock we were taken by a mini-bus about a mile up the road to a Thames Water depot (the name of which temporarily and embarrassingly escapes me…). It took about five minutes to get into the protective gear you can see in the photos and then were taken outside to begin our tour.

After a very quick health and safety chat by one of the sewer maintenance guys who would be coming down with us I, as first in the line, was clipped to a line, handed an emergency pack and descended a ladder six metres into the actual sewer.

First thoughts were it was darker than I’d expected, which wasn’t helped by the sewer guy in front of me shining his helmet torch into my eyes. It was also wider – it took a few seconds before I could see the opposite wall about two metres away.

Second thought was that it didn’t smell particularly bad. It smelt like some dirty washing water, maybe from an old washing machine or something, but there was no smell of proper sewage. It wasn’t a nice smell, but it wasn’t a bad one either. Of course, we’d had a lot of rain that morning which had sluiced it a bit clear; plus, Thames Water had shut some of the gates leading to this particular sewer to make sure it was absolutely safe. Apparently, that morning, without the gates shut, the water had been running about eight feet deep!

The sewer was pretty much round, all made of brick, with sandy, stagnant water that reached about two feet at its deepest point. We had to shuffle along because it was fairly dark – although there was some daylight coming from drains above us – and you couldn’t see what was on the bottom through the water, and what was on the bottom was mostly grit. There was more of less of it (which is what made the depth vary) but it was basically grit; and although the odd item floated past us we didn’t actually see any poo either.

Once all 16 of us had climbed down into the sewer (plus four guides) which took about ten minutes, we set off along the tunnel. It was…something of an anti-climax, to be honest. I’d expected something like you’d see in the films, but here we were in a dark-ish tunnel, just shuffling along through muddy water and unseen gravel.

It took maybe five or six minutes to reach a kind of junction, where we could see over a wooden dam into another sewer where the water was a bit higher and flowing quite quickly. What looked like bits of manky old paper, cloth and (possibly) rubber were stuck to the dam, and this was probably the worst thing I smelt in my whole time down there.

We hung around in here for about ten minutes while the guides lowered and raised one of the big metal gates for our amusement, then we set off up a tunnel running parallel to the one we’d come down. Still no pooh, or especially unpleasant smells. No one even fell over! (the guides said no one ever had).

And then, about 35 minutes after I’d entered the sewer I found myself back up top in the sunlight. The guides told us to step into a bucket of disinfectant and then helped us take off our waders and safety harnesses. Then we walked back into the changing rooms to take off our disposable boiler suits and those big, beige socks you can see in the photos.

And that was pretty much it, to be honest, except to pick up our certificates. It was undoubtedly a fascinating experience, and one that I feel quite privileged (and way cool!) to have been in on, but it was a little bit tamer than what we’d expected.

Still, if you get a chance to do it – and we were very very lucky indeed, because even some of the Thames Water folk were saying they’d had to wait years to get on the tour! – then don’t turn it down!

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