Lurking on the banks of the River Thames, out towards Thamesmead is the most beautiful sewage pumping station you'll ever see. I know 'pretty' and 'sewage' are a strange combination of words to share a sentence, but believe me, it's true. Crossness Pumping Station is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering excellence. The ironwork is so detailed and intricate, it feels as if it should have been a cathedral rather than something as dull as a sewage works. Crossness was opening by Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales in 1865.
Crossness was created by the well-known 19th Century civil engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. This was one of his greatest achievements and played an instrumental part in relieving London of cholera outbreaks and helping clean the River Thames which was basically so full of raw sewage, the whole of London stank of poo! Not helped by a particularly hot summer in 1858 when the stench was so bad, it became known as The Great Stink. The cholera epidemic resulting from this killed over 14,000 Londoners, so our man Joseph was brought in to save the day. And he did. He designed a vast sewerage system which radically improved the health and sanitation of Victorian London.
On one of the rare occasions that Crossness opens to the public, a friend and I headed to the depths of Abbey Wood to check it out. It's a strange place to find in the middle of nowhere, and the Victorian buildings alone are wonderful. But when you don your obligatory hard hat and set foot inside the pumping station itself, it really is quite magnificent. And being a girl, I don't have a huge interest in things like beam engines, so that's saying something!
Building Crossness was such a massive project, 318 million bricks were required which created a national shortage at the time. There are four rotative beam engines at Crossness built by James Watt & Co, which pumped sewage into a reservoir where it was stored and then released into the Thames only when the tide was going out and away from central London. The engines were named 'Victoria', 'Albert Edward', 'Prince Consort' and 'Alexandra'. Even though these engines are no longer used, the 'Prince Consort' engine has been completely restored so you can see how it would have worked back in the day.
As well as the pumping station, Crossness has an interesting fitting shop which is still in use, so you can watch men beavering away with welding machines and big chunks of iron (I told you I don't really know much about this kind of thing). And there's a room displaying cabinets full of old-fashioned loos and some interesting facts about what people used to use to wipe their bums before loo paper was invented. Corn cobs or mussel shells anyone? Ouch!
Crossness is definitely worth visiting, but it's only open to the public sporadically, so do check their website for further information. There are several days throughout 2012 when you can visit, the first being Sunday 22nd April.
The Crossness Pumping Station
The Old Works
London SE2 9AQ
Tel: 020 8311 3711
Nearest station: Abbey Wood