The Cathedral Of Sewage!

Crossness Pumping Station

Crossness Pumping Station

The Crossness Pumping Station in Bexley, South London is a real gem to visit. Yes I know it sounds like a nightmare..! Sewage… I mean come ON! It’s not what many people would immediately think of to lock in the Sat Nav to visit right? Well read on…

Known as the “Cathedral of Sewage” it’s easy to see why this name was coined with the fabulous architecture and ironworks displayed inside; you’ll see what I mean later. We went a few years ago when I took all these photos but until now I hadn’t the opportunity to show them off. If you get a chance to go you really should, especially if you like engineering, history or are researching London’s somewhat stinky sewage works history!

Getting to and from Crossness is pretty simple as you can come in straight from the M25 from Dartford and head for Thamesmead. Free parking (it certainly was when we went) is available fairly close by at the operational Thames Water Sewage Plant which is on the same site as Crossness. We parked in a secure compound with plenty of space attached to the sewage works so if you need to get wheelchairs out or have child car seats and so on there should be no problem with that. You’re not parking on a busy London dual carriageway! Be aware though there is about a ten minute walk from the car park around the paved outside of the works to get to the pumping station. The pathways are all provided by Thames Water and fenced off so you can’t get lost.

Clockwork Orange

Incidentally right by the car park through the tree line you can see one of the Thamesmead estates that famously featured in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, specifically the scene where Alex attacks his (ex) droogs and they end up in the concrete lake. I’ve personally always found that scene fascinating due to the angular austerity of the lake combined with the water and the desolation of it all.

Back to Crossness though… I know what you’re thinking… Does it smell? Well… Yes it does! BUT you get used to it and from our perspective it was absolutely worth it as the Victorian pumping station is a great place to see and testament to the ingenuity of their generation.

The Great Stink

Such a lovely term eh? Well, it wasn’t funny for the Londoner’s alive back then in summer 1858. Back then human waste was simply discharged into the river Thames which combined with a hot summer led to the coining of the phrase above! Far worse than this though were the outbreaks of Cholera from the polluted water, which led to a solution being sought for this horrendous problem. Enter Joseph Balzalgette…

We’re lucky that these days we don’t have this to worry about in most first world countries, but sanitation is still a massive issue elsewhere in the world. Londoners have to thank a certain civil engineer Joseph Balzalgette though for his ideas which involved creating a sewer systems to move the waste Eastward.

It’s hard to appreciate in this day and age what a contribution Joseph Balzalgette made to Londoners and their health and wellbeing in my honest opinion. Just imagine what it must have been like to have raw sewage floating about in the Thames and what it must have smelt like and the risk of disease. It’s an awful thought right? Crossness was a part of the solution along with Abbey Mills pumping station, which was also designed by Joseph Balzalgette. We should also mention that Charles Henry Driver was the architect of both Crossness and Abbey Mills, as the ironwork and architecture is so beautiful as you’ll see from my pictures.

Parrots!

After leaving the car park you’ll take a pathway up on to the ridgeway to the left of the modern sewage works to walk around to the old pumping station. On your left beyond the security fencing you’ll see trees and and ‘heath’ type area which I was amazed to see green parrots in the trees and flying about! I later found out that these birds had escaped locally and were flourishing in the area, it was quite an eye opener to see such pretty birds flying around south London!

The Ridgeway is a rather large mound that you walk up and over on the path to the old pumping station. This mound or rather huge raised area houses the main sewer where all of the sewage in South London enters the sewage works at Crossness. That’s a whole load of… yes!

As you walk around the edge of the site the scent does get a little strong but if you aren’t too sensitive it easy fairly easy to deal with. There is a small (narrow gauge?) rail works on the left just before you round the corner to the Crossness pumping station proper. The little rail depot is pretty cool and looks like a remnant of the victorian days – I would expect it is a legacy of the coal deliveries the boilers would have needed to work to generate the steam.

The view of Crossness from the path as it opens up to your right

As the path passes the rail depot and opens up to your right you get the impressive view in the picture here. It really appears from nowhere and it was such an impressive sight to behold. The river Thames is just to the left of the main building along with some cooling pools for water from the steam process of the works. To the right is the Valve House (described in the picture below) which had a forklift outside that we found out was still powered by diesel found in one of the submerged tanks in the building! (More on this later.).

There is a staff car park in front as you can see and the main entrance to the facility is to the right down the pathway.

An overview of the main buildings on the pathway as you approach Crossness

The main entrance into the attraction is through the boiler house on the right (the low roofed building). I’m pretty sure this was all access friendly for wheelchairs if my memory serves but the fantastic volunteers who staff the site can advise further I’m sure if you want to check. On your right as you walk up the path is a large green area behind the fencing that now has a solar farm on it; this used to be the ‘green’ for the site workers and families which was built upon the sewage storage reservoir – it held 25 million litres!

View towards loads of valves and anorak type things near the entrance!

When we went to Crossness there was an exhibition on about ‘The Great Stink’ which was really interesting. I’ve taken photos of it below and written a short note on each. This took up the whole of the boiler house along with a cafe and various educational displays which were also on show.

It was really interesting to see what the humble toilet used to look like and the ornate designs that they had. The name “Thomas Crapper” clearly raised some laughs for obvious reasons!

To the right of the main entrance before you go in to the main building is a small room which used to be an economiser where exhaust gases from the boilers were used to pre-heat water to convert to steam; picture below left. Clever huh?

As you proceed through the building (and at that time the Great Stink exhibition) you get to the beam engine house. You have to put on a hard hat and then you can go through to see the truly amazing ironworks and the beam engines themselves. These are the huge machines that were responsible for pumping the sewage. It’s truly mind blowing to see the scale of the ironwork and the skill and craftsmanship it must have taken to manufacture these majestic mechanisms! You can go up the iron stairways (I think some may have been steep and spiral design) to the upper level and also down into the lower level where the tanks are, that would be pumped out of the sewage drawn into them.

Hard hats on! Entry to the Beam Engine House to the left behind us
View from the ground floor. You can see the glorious “Octagon” central area in shot.
A closer view of the “Octagon”. It really is stunning – look at the ironwork and the colours! you can see the stairway to the lower level in the centre. To the left is an information board on a part of the building or machinery; there are lots of these information boards which makes for a very interesting visit.

London’s Burning…

Now here’s something really cool… To the North of the beam engine house is the triple expansion engine house which I’ve got photos of below. We were told that after the facility was abandoned in around 1956 (and left to decay – I find this just astounding given the history of the place, but it is what it is) some specialists were commissioned to supervise the demolition of the site. Fortunately one of the specialists was switched on enough to realise how special the machinery was and how it simply must be preserved and restored for posterity. I’m so glad he obviously got his way!

When the restoration was underway, at some point the aforementioned triple expansion house was discovered completely flooded with Thames river water; it had been underwater for years I understand due to the abandoning of the works. You can see the tide mark around the room in the pictures below; probably about 15/20 feet up. That must have been an eerie sight… All that dark river water hiding the machinery below.

In the picture above you can see a hatch open in the floor as I have detailed. When the room was drained of the floodwater the people working found diesel fuel stored below; which was still usable! That forklift I mentioned earlier still uses this diesel for fuel all these many years later.

As an aside, London’s Burning the ITV serial set in London about the firefighters on Blue Watch had an episode filmed in the triple expansion house if I remember correctly! In actual fact many things have been filmed on location at Crossness; including music videos, TV serials and films. You can see it makes for a great location.

Here’s some more pictures from the triple expansion house, including detail of the emblems above the doorway. I seem to remember the emblems were something to do with the counties or similar; you can see the Essex shield I’m sure. Just look at the intricate design of the stonework; how I wish we had that care on public buildings in the modern day!

There’s also a some interesting things to see outside the main buildings with the cooling ponds, and the wonderful architecture of course, along with other curios like the diesel pump I saw near the North side main entrance. I know that the site looks a little ‘unfinished’ in some of the shots with safety fencing up, but it only adds to the interest on site really as the volunteers all work for nothing. Any funds raised would go to the restoration of the beam engines and interior I would think. The site is rather ‘industrial’ in areas with various ironwork bits and bobs everywhere, so I would keep an eye on children as the urge to clamber near potentially dangerous ‘stuff’ may be just too much for them! If you’ve children (big or small!) who find machinery, big clanking ‘things’ and the feeling of ‘secret industrial stuff’ interesting then Crossness is a must visit.

Plum tuckered out!

The boys were properly tired out after our few hours at Crossness; do allow for the walk back to the car park as little legs (a few years ago now!) found it a little tiring, bless their cotton socks!! We headed home via the M25 and M11 and I would recommend anybody goes to check this amazing place out. The volunteers who run the site do actually have steaming days where the restored beam engine is started up to demonstrate it working. We didn’t get to see this but it must be a real treat to see first hand.

You can find out more about Crossness and visiting/steaming days at the official website at the Crossness Engines Trust.

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