I left the John Snow pub and was engulfed again by the tourist hordes round Oxford Street until I reached a tube station. From here, I travelled east on the Central Line until it burst back into daylight at Stratford. This was familiar ground for me: I was born just a kilometre or so from here and, rising up in front of me was huge bulk of the Olympic Stadium and, beside it, Anish Kapoor’s enormous red Orbit tower. The city skyline, dominated by the “Gherkin” rose up to the west and, just visible to the south, I could see the roof of the O2 Arena.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station, photographed from the Greenway in Stratford, East London, June 2013.
An ornate cupola was just visible in the gaps between modern high-rise buildings as I walked towards the City. However, the full structure only came into view when I turned off the main road and walked for 500 metres or so along a gravel track on top of an embankment. A huge ornate structure resembling a Byzantine church rose up in front of me. This is Abbey Mills pumping station and, like the Broad Street pump, it is another incongruous landmark in the history of Victorian London’s battles against infectious disease.
This was built about 10 years after the Broad Street cholera outbreak, as part of an ambitious scheme to collect all London’s sewage, which formerly ran in open drains to the River Thames. The engineer Joseph Bazelgette was commissioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works to build a series of interceptor sewers, which collected wastewater from all over London and channelled it towards locations downstream of the main centres of population. The whole system relied on gravity to move the wastewater from the interceptor sewers to the Northern Outfall Sewer which joined the Thames five kilometres away at Beckton. The Lee Valley, however, is a low point in the network and it was necessary to raise the sewage from two of the interceptor sewers by 12 metres so that it could reach the Northern Outflow Sewer.
It was only afterwards that I realised that the embankment on which I had walked to get to Abbey Mills was, in fact, the route of the Northern Outfall Sewer itself. It has been made into a footpath and cycleway, known as the “Greenway”, running from Hackney Wick to Beckton. Like the Romford Canal (see post of 3 June), the unpleasant associations have been discretely overlooked or forgotten but, nonetheless, this narrow embankment and the Byzantine architecture of Abbey Mills represent one of the most significant advances of the Victorian era.