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Video: Taking the plunge into the sewers at Abbey Mills Pumping Station

09:39 04 June 2014

Reporter, Anna Silverman (left) with photographer Isabel Infantes

Reporter, Anna Silverman (left) with photographer Isabel Infantes

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How did you spend your Tuesday night? I spent mine wading up to my hips through raw sewage underneath East London.

Was it as bad as it sounds? Well, kind of, yes.

Daniel Brackley, field operator at Wick LaneDaniel Brackley, field operator at Wick Lane

As part of national sewage week, I was offered a place on a tour of Stratford’s Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

Dubbed the “cathedral to sewage”, a tour around this Victorian castle is always over-subscribed, with one woman telling me she had waited three years for this day to come.

At Thames Water’s Wick Lane depot I was suited and booted and fitted with a harness and helmet, all the while being reassured: “It’s not as smelly as you think.”

I descended into the depths of the Victorian maze down a slippery ladder.

Abbey Mills Pumping StationAbbey Mills Pumping Station

“Welcome to our office,” said field operator, Daniel Brackley, as my foot squelched down into a carpet of sludge.

The tide was fairly strong and I was up to my waist in waste.

After spotting floating excrement drift past I shrieked and decided it was best not to look down.

“Well what did you expect to see down here?” laughed Daniel.

Visitors get ready to descend the ladder at Thames Water's Wick Lane depot.Visitors get ready to descend the ladder at Thames Water's Wick Lane depot.

I sensed from my group’s stunned silence I wasn’t the only one trying to recall what had attracted me to the excursion in the first place.

It’s true the smell isn’t as bad as you’d expect and I was relieved to see it was free from brown rats, as water levels are too high for most rodents to survive.

Hoping for sightings of dead bodies and frantically flushed -away parcels of drugs, I asked Daniel what his weirdest find had been in the sewers.

“The worst thing I’ve ever come across is an enormous fat berg [an accumulation of cooking fat] underneath Leicester Square,” he said.

Visitors explore the sewer tunnels at Thames Water's Wick Lane depot.Visitors explore the sewer tunnels at Thames Water's Wick Lane depot.

“There was 1000 cubic metres of it, which is enough to fill nine double decker buses.

“Other than fat bergs the most common find is contraception or sanitary towels people flush down the loo. No dead bodies.”

The detritus of North London merges into five chambers at Wick Lane 
before heading south-east to Beckton where it is treated and discharged into the Thames.

Fortunately, the system drains every shower, washing machine and sink, greatly diluting what would otherwise be an intolerable mire.

The sewer tunnels Thames Water's Wick Lane depot.The sewer tunnels Thames Water's Wick Lane depot.

Also referred to as the Thames Water “flushers”, Daniel and his team work in the tunnels beneath our streets.

“Twenty seven cubic metres of waste pass through this tunnel each day,” he explained. “And this tunnel alone is 16.5 miles long.

“Our main duties are to keep it clean by clearing away fat deposits and surveying 100km of the sewer each year.

“Despite what you might think, it’s not difficult to 
recruit people for the job. The last post we advertised received loads of applicants.”

As part of the tour, we were also invited to a finger buffet, a concept which was hard to swallow so close to gushing rivers of waste.

But I was grateful to see a spread of pork belly and salmon – turns out you 
really get the red carpet treatment down the sewers.

Sewage manager, Ben Nithsdale, then launched into a lecture on the history of London’s waste, followed by a tour of the pumping stations, where the likes of Batman Begins, a Coldplay video and a Snow Patrol video were filmed.

They were designed by pioneering Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the man who was also responsible for the sewer network for central London in 1868.

These buildings are the main attraction coaxing visitors to the site and our guide explained we were looking at “neo-gothic, Italian age architecture”.

Abbey Mills has six working stations with ‘A’ station’s colourful tiles and Venetian windows making it famously beautiful.

While ‘A’ station is only used when there is a storm, ‘F’ station is on 24/7 pumping every flush or raindrop towards Beckton.

Abbey Mills has proven to be such a popular day out Thames Water receive hundreds of requests each year.

Any sewage-seekers hoping for an expedition like mine will have to wait until next May.

Ah the perks of the job.

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