The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction …

Just before Christmas I had an idea for a story: a group of campaigners battling to save the last polluted river in the country before the evil utility company ceased to pour in their effluents and a unique and unusual ecosystem was lost forever.  It was, obviously, not a very serious topic but there were serious ideas behind it.  There are also precedents, with some former industrial land now protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of its distinctive flora.

The thinking behind the story was that the factor most likely to lead to widespread reduction in pollution is not better regulation but the profit motive.   A few months earlier, I had watched a TV news story whilst in a hotel room, describing how Thames Water was able to extract phosphorus from sewage, process it into fertiliser then sell it to farmers.   Much of my professional work addresses the better regulation of phosphorus in the environment but I also know that there is a global shortage of phosphorus, which has stimulated considerable commercial interest in recovering phosphorus from sewage effluent.   The market, in other words, may ultimately play as large – or even a larger – role than legislation in controlling phosphorus releases to the environment.

I ran with this idea a little further: suppose utility companies found other ways of making money from sewage?   This is already happening on a small scale, with capacity to store and use methane released during the decomposition of sewage.  The limiting factor, as in most aspects of waste disposal, is economics.  Imagine, however, that the costs of energy were to shift dramatically … suddenly the opportunities presented by the huge quantities of sewage – which is just a semi-liquid form of the cow pats that half a billion Indian farmers traditionally used as fuel – look more attractive.  How might utility companies react?

So I needed a plot device that pushed up the price of energy and, in the process, stimulated utility companies to invest in energy production on sewage treatment plants, along with the infrastructure to connect this to the grid.   Suppose, I speculated, relations between Russia and the West deteriorated, threatening the huge natural gas supplies on which central European countries such as Germany depends?   This, in turn, would create greater demand for other sources of energy and push up prices to the extent that alternative sources of fuel might look more attractive.

All I needed was a geopolitical scenario that would create this east-west tension and my plot synopsis would be complete.   On cue, the crowds gathered in Kiev to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych and suddenly my bright idea for a work of fiction looked a whole lot more plausible …

More things we’ve forgotten to remember …

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.