Close encounters of the turd kind
For a period of four years, since our first ventures into the Fleet Sewer, all exploration outings on the part of ourselves and others had been concentrated on its downstream stretch; being the approx 2km run from the area close to the northern end of Farringdon Road down to the Thames in the vicinity of Blackfriars Bridge. Investigation further upstream had always been hampered by a couple of issues. The first and main issue was an intercepting weir which was reached at the point 2km upstream of the Thames. More accurately, the flow beyond the weir was the main reason that nobody had considered heading further upstream, the water’s depth and velocity had always been considered such as to be impassable. The second reason is likely the natural assumption that the tunnel would only get smaller heading northwards, but of course smaller doesn’t necessarily mean less interesting and also we’ve all had instances of supposition failure.
Pic.1 – The upstream weir, beyond which was previously unexplored.
I’ve always been curious about the upstream reaches of the Fleet Sewer and what they might hold. The northern course of the river was covered over sporadically, sections at a time, across a span of approx one hundred years between 1770 – 1870 and has never been entirely renewed. Before us was the prospect of a piecemeal melting pot of construction, garnished with the added flavours of various major works; works ranging from connection to the new middle level #2 intercepting sewer c.1909, to diversion and modification of the sewer during the channel tunnel rail link project of 2004. Of course these and other projects would have replaced earlier construction, but they hopefully would have added more than they took away.
On the first of two trips to the untravelled upstream reaches we traversed all but the last 170yds of the two and a half mile section. On this trip we had in mind that we’d just explore in the first instance, coming back to take photographs on other occasions. Post upstream trip number one, having assessed the extent of what was there, we decided to break it into thirds and make return trips to each of these sections for photographic purposes. Part I of III was to the mid section, that passes roughly beneath St.Pancras and King’s Cross stations.
On a particularly unremarkable street, a little way north-east of St.Pancras station, we donned our default sewer operative regalia. Setting up shop around a pre-determined manhole cover we slipped off the street, out of the crisp night air and into something altogether more miasmic. As the cover thudded shut above, perched on the ladder of the manhole shaft, I flicked the switch on my head torch. Its light cut a wide beam through the aqueous vapour that hung heavy in the air, vapour that quickly took advantage of the cold lenses of my glasses to return to its former state. Stepping off the ladder the familiar sweet fetid fragrance of a thousand toilets, washing machines, bath tubs and kitchen sinks filled my nostrils in way of a firm nasal handshake, ” Welcome back“.
Pic.2 – Our upstream start point, note the condensation a la 1970s soft focus.
The above image is looking northward, the sewer’s flow is sent in an easterly direction down into the Mid Level #2 Interceptor. This connection would have been constructed between 1906 – 1911, the section of sewer itself was one of the later upstream stretches to be built (c.1850) diverting the river’s flow off its meandering course 80yds to the east of the present sewer.
Having pre-planned our exit point and suitably fortified it in preparation for our emergence, the route before us was set and our goal was simply to get some photographs. My goal was slightly more particular, being to get some photographs and break the photographic drought that had blighted my drain trips over the past three months or so. I wasn’t encouraged by the first picture I took (above) as my lens packs more glass than the downstream broadband ducting and was presenting ample surface area for much condensing. I wiped the lens and rushed to take a picture before the haze returned, I can conclude that my camera LCD screen lies. While not being a remarkable picture it is just fine as far as I care, but the LCD preview suggested otherwise and squinting in its deceptive glare with the sounds of swirling and crashing water reverberating in my ears the drought threatened to continue.
We set off downstream. At this point immediately post intercepting weir the water flow in the sewer was fairly minimal, just a couple of centimetres deep and perhaps twenty centimetres or so in width. The lack of water should have made for less effort on the walking front, in this case however the invert of the brick pipe was so slippery that walking/sliding had to be undertaken at a slow and steady pace. A downside to the lack of liquid content was the constant reminders that this was no longer the sparkling river of wells from days gone by. Along the edge of the flow, small families of swollen sanitary mice gathered around hulking lumps of fissured faecal debris, their blood stained bodies bathed in the vile yellow-brown run-off while their twisted cotton tails flailed in the water which threatened to pluck them off the sidelines. As we passed by, the wash from our movement sent many such a gathering into the water and away down the tunnel ahead of us. Of course we’re always well aware of the content of the sewers through which we travel, but the usual ninety five percent water to solids ratio keeps it from your mind, less the occasional floater and the unavoidable toilet paper on your tripod legs. Soon enough ignorance was restored as side pipes and branch sewers gushed worth and we sloshed merrily onwards through the widening pea green river.
Pic.3 – Looking northwards in the 1850s tunnel, back to where we had come from.
Whilst taking the above picture I had to rebuff the unsolicited advances of Otter Zero, he attentively watched me setting up the mini-flouro lights until the moment got the better of him and he blurted out “Do you want me to get my big one out?“. A response was required to make clear that this was not acceptable drain conduct and any graduate of the school of Mayall and Edmondson would have replied likewise “What? . . . here in the sewers?” Said I. Following a little eye rolling and much grinning on my part, having got our picture we packed up the bags and continued on our way.
Immediately it was noted that the pipe had changed, the somewhat less refined looking masonry that now encircled us was fifty years senior to the section we had started out in. Contrary to layman assumption Bazalgette did not mastermind an entire new drainage system for the Metropolis, rather he worked with what was already in place. Approx two thirds of the Fleet Sewer’s underground length existed previous to the implementation of Bazalgette’s improved scheme for London’s drainage and much of this pre-established infrastructure was retained and modified to tie in with the new system. Visionary though Bazalgette was, he was not ‘the man who built the first London sewer‘ as I read attributed to him in an article recently. He was in fact not the first person to propose an intercepting sewer system for London, but I digress.
Our next significant photo stop was a couple of spots along the diversion works of 2004, undertaken during the St.Pancras channel tunnel rail link project. I hadn’t been aware of the diversion until our collective torch light hit on a concrete box section up ahead. Whilst not lengthy it had a couple of features worth noting and was a welcome relief under foot as the floor surface was rather less lubricated. For most of its length it’s a 7ft rcp with a couple of sharp bends formed of box section. On one bend was a curious side pipe that turned out to be a manhole access passageway, but a rather oddly formed one being a sort of squashed oval turned on its head.
The other notable feature on the course of the diversion is a new weir chamber. Any overflow from the chamber is sent down a short section of 5ft rcp from where it drops 20ft into a plunge pool, continuing into another stretch of rcp and eventually into the victorian Fleet Storm Relief Sewer.
Pic.4 – 2004 overflow weir chamber, connecting with the Fleet storm relief.
In Nicholas Barton’s The Lost Rivers Of London he states that the Fleet Sewer incorporates the bridge, of erroneous Boadicea legend, that spanned the River Fleet at Battlebridge. I was pretty keen to confirm or deny this. Having spent so long underground on our first trip we slightly lost track of where we were in relation to aboveground landmarks. I had initially thought that a curious feature we came across might be remnants of the Battle Bridge. The feature in question was a series of four arched apertures along one side of the tunnel, with dressed stone sills, where the openings had been later bricked up with rather less finesse than the surrounding workmanship. Unfortunately the spot was not only too far upstream to be associated with the bridge but the construction was inconsistent with records of the bridge and not contemporary with the period of its construction. Fail!
The Other likely candidate was a wide arched section of sewer, wider than the surrounding construction and showing signs of having been built into the tunnel. It has since been brought to light that this section, although in the correct approx location, can also be ruled out as a Battle Bridge candidate, although it is a bridge of sorts. This heavily braced section of the Fleet Sewer was modified during construction of a public foot subway, as part of the King’s Cross station works in 1891. The original invert was left in place and fitted out with a wider upper section of cast iron, bolted through stone sills. Along this stretch of the Fleet sewer it provides the organic filler for a cut and cover sandwich, as on both sides it is flanked by tunnels of similar dimension, one carrying water mains, the other gas and telecoms.
Pic.5 – The braced subway section, mid ground.
Pic.6 – Cross section of the subway bracing work.
Walking on in single file as the repeating patterns of bricks and mortar cycle across your retinas, while your ears abound with watery acoustic anomalies, it’s not uncommon to experience the odd momentary lapse of focus. Should any such lapse of focus coincide with submerged debris then the result may be a scene of comedy flailing arms scrambling for purchase, eventually plunging hands first into poop soup up to the elbow to stabilise yourself, yes I got wet. The Fleet Sewer was really out to give someone a proper soaking that night, and having tasted the arms of Doe it seemed that only I would suffice. A while later I was saved from the path of a full on baptism of mire by the chance actions of the Otter.
Pic.7 – The Otter hole, the side pipe up which he scurried.
If there’s one thing the Otter doesn’t much seem to cherish it’s venturing up small pipes, to define small in the world of the Otter, bending his neck past a forty five degree angle seems to qualify. Consequently, when I looked over my shoulder just in time to catch a glimpse of his velvety tail vanishing up a barely four foot rcp, I was surprised. We followed to see what might have caught his eye or indeed his nose. The air in the side pipe was notably fresher and cooler, the little water that there was seemed to be run-off or at the least it was much less unsavoury than elsewhere. We didn’t hang around long, the rcp junctioned with other similar sized pipes and a flash of the torch revealed that they in turn junctioned with others, that junctioned with others and so on and so forth. It was a maze of stoopage and I think it was me who suggested that we get back to the relative comfort of the main tunnel. I was still a little perplexed at the Otters sudden side pipe scurry, but ready to push on to our next major point of interest. Heading up the group I had advanced all of a couple of feet when a horrendous sound blasted up the tunnel and almost caused all three of us to directly contribute to the sewers content. With dilated pupils and thumping hearts came the realisation that timing had briefly absconded from its comedic bedfellow and nestled up with an Otter. Twenty foot ahead of me a three foot pipe, entering the main tunnel at around head height, had erupted and was projecting a wall of foaming grey-green water across the width of the tunnel. The force of it would have not only knocked me off my feet but pinned me down while it pelted all manner of nastiness at me. Had we not deviated very briefly I’d have been right about in front of the pipe as it let rip, Otterly delivered.
Pic.8 – One of three points where the main line passes beneath rail tunnels.
Following the sudden torrent of water a hell of a stink had been kicked up, I was poised for the piercing tones of the gas detector to ring out, but they never did. The water’s surface now looked like a brew that even the hardiest of cup wielding girl duos might refuse to partake of, a bubbling, oil slicked, swirling sebaceous smeg fest which for a little while kept pace with us and threatened to taint the rest of the journey with the ‘smell of arse‘, as the Otter put it. I guess there’s no valid grounds for complaining about the smell whilst exploring sanitary sewers?
The final feature to be committed to pixels was one that gave us some answers and gave the Fleet another opportunity to better acquaint itself with me. The bricked up arches we had witnessed upstream would have served as an overflow in to the Fleet Storm Relief Sewer, built in 1875. We know now because of the unmolested instance located downstream. It’s a set up that I haven’t quite seen the like of before, often overflows of this era are rather obvious affairs and seemingly over engineered. This set up is very elegant in its simplicity, four arched apertures in the main tunnel lead through to an inclined spillway which leads down to a dropshaft on the storm relief sewer. We set about getting some photographs. I still wasn’t confident that I’d captured much of merit, but I was happy enough that I’d got some images to illustrate a text. In way of providing a stage for the next set of events here’s a picture of the spillway.
Pic.9 – Looking to the dropshaft, from a mid way point on the overflow spillway.
Standing on the spillway I decided that I’d taken all the pictures I wanted for the evening and I packed up my gear while the Otter, stood alongside me, continued to take photographs. It was an interesting space and I was quite happy just gazing at the sea of yellow bricks. Teh Architect was in the main sewer tunnel doing a sterling job of assisting Otter in the lighting department and being as this was only his second time in a drain, let alone a sewer, I was occasionally checking in with him. Moments previous to packing up my stuff, Otter had given us a scare when he thought somebody was opening the cover that drops into the overflow chamber. As it turned out it was a family of rats busily clattering about, but it made for a prolonged moment of tense silence. Off the back of that, gear packed up, knowing we were all but done for the night, I indulged my thoughts of post-draining Monster Munch and blue Powerade which awaited me at the car.
Pic.10 – From the main tunnel, looking north, the overflow arches to the spillway.
Whilst my mouth was still salivating from the thought of Flamin’ Hot flavours there came the sound that no drainer ever wants to hear. Starting as a low rumble I dismissed it as another of many trains we’d been hearing throughout the evening. My attention was drawn back however as not only had the sound persisted, but it had definitely increased in volume. I turned and looked to Otter who by now had also realised that something was amiss and was looking over to me with a similarly concerned expression. We both looked up to Teh Architect who was still in the main tunnel, his face bore a look of confusion more than concern, which he later explained was because he wasn’t really sure what was occurring. A sound that had taken a while to build had now got alarmingly loud, “Get your arse down here now” we both shouted up to him. We weren’t about to hang around to see what was heading our way. Otter stuffed his gear in his bag while I rushed to see that Teh Architect had got down ok. In his rush to get to us, and with my head being one step ahead of my body, I managed to get a sweeping great face full of the Fleet as his wader swung onto the ladder, Fleet Sewer 2 – Jondoe 0. The cover was right by us and we were all but on the ladder when the thunderous sounds of water very suddenly died to a low rumble, we hesitated. Popping a cover in close quarters to Kings Cross station wasn’t part of our plan for the evening and was something best avoided. Of course the same could be said for drowning in a tsunami of sewage. Tentatively we peered back into the chamber, the flow in the main tunnel hadn’t altered and the rumbling had lessened still. Walking over to the dropshaft we peered down to see that the storm relief sewer at the bottom, which had previously been dry, was now flowing with a reasonable amount of water. So it hadn’t been in the main tunnel as we’d feared, that didn’t make me any less uneasy though; above ground it was a clear dry night and I wasn’t happy with the situation.
Pic.11 – The twists and turns of our exit route, downstream of the overflow spillway.
It was time to leave. Our preferred exit manhole was a short distance from the chamber so we hurriedly jumped back in the main tunnel and pushed on until the awkwardly located ladder rungs came in to view. Of course the evening wouldn’t have been complete without a Fleet hat-trick, which saw me nearly bathing in anything but chalybeate waters, Fleet Sewer 3 – Jondoe 0. A glance up into the cover’s access recess to see the dim glow of the cyalume stick we had placed earlier that evening confirmed the location. I jumped on the rungs and got up under the cover, which proved a little stubborn to open. We emerged to a surprised looking local shop keeper who had presumed our manhole surround was placed outside his shop by a passing drunk (possibly Otter) and was in the process of removing it until he noticed the cover opening. We regaled him with tales of the poop tsunami and then shuffled off into the now even crisper night air.
Pic.12 – If I could give you one piece of advice it would be this, beware of the ceiling penis.
More than a week later the aqueous vapours of the Fleet still hang heavy in the air, at least in my car they do as I’ve yet to empty the boot of my sodden gear and as the sun’s early rays hit, my car’s interior begins to propagate a sewerfresh atmosphere for the drive to work.