The sewers

It was while reading Jack Blanchard out of off of Politico’s London Playbook that I was reminded of wading through a river of shit.

That’s not a commentary on the standard of his writing. (In fact I swear by the Playbook, I don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves for emerging from a crowded field as the preeminent morning briefing email.)

It was his reference to a scheme to test sewage for coronavirus. An idea mentioned in passing again in parliament yesterday. The thinking is that the bug will show up in our effluent and confirm an outbreak in any given community. And that in turn will allow the authorities to micro target measures to control the epidemic. Not so much laser guided precision as jobby guided interventions. Appropriate given overall the UK response to Covid-19 has been crap.

Jack ended his bit on the proposal with a succinct ‘eugh’.

And this is what prompted me to write something.

For when I think of what’s in the sewers I don’t think ‘eurgh’, I think ‘woah’. Because I’ve been down there. 

I forget the exact year. Some time in the 2000s when I was a general reporter in the last UK newspaper office in Fleet Street. I was charged with reporting on Scots in London and things going on in London of interest to Scots for The Sunday Post. Well, who wouldn’t be interested in a story about the sewers? And there was a ‘Scot in London’ link because one of Thames Water’s press officers was a Scot, distantly related to the then deputy editor. Consequently the suggestion got a thumbs up. (Did other papers run a weird system of ‘suggestions’ for generating stories?)

And a week or so later I climbed down a manhole somewhere in East London.

Beforehand there was a safety briefing about which I remember nothing bar the strict instruction – ‘don’t fall over’.

We were decked out in hard hats, paper overalls – I would’ve preferred something more poo proof – and waders that contained significant metal weights in the soles. I remember clearly the scrape of those metal soles on the bottom of the pipes once we were down there. It was preferable to standing on something soft.

With the manhole open we descended a long ladder one at a time. I can’t remember who was in the group of eight or 10 – me and a photographer and I think the others were Thames Water employees.

Stepping off the ladder you landed in a stream of human waste. It was smelly, though not as bad as you might imagine. There’s a lot of water down there, it’s not pure poop. And it was dark, very dark. I remember feeling very light headed as my body adjusted to the assault on the senses. And I remember dreading fainting and falling into the effluent. Fortunately I remained on my feet and I adjusted to my new surroundings as we moved off.

Guided by a tour guide (poo-r guide?) we set off up a brick tunnel slightly bigger than a man’s reach. Big enough not to be claustrophobic. 

As we moved against the current the level rose; high enough that any enthusiastic sploshing might put something in your waders that would be better outside your waders.

There was plenty of chat about the age of the tunnels we were moving through and how they dated back to Bazalgette’s first Victorian sewer system. I was concentrating rather too hard on my footing to give all my attention to what ought to have been a fascinating history lesson.

Then came the cries of ‘Jeez’ and ‘woah’. 

It was not that we had encountered a particularly stunning stool. 

Instead we had emerged into something resembling a cathedral. A vaulted roof. Solid square, stone columns. Over our heads was something heavenly, beneath our knees was something more earthly. The contrast only added to the awe.

No simple functionality for those Victorians. Toileting may represent the lowest thing produced by humans but Bazalgette’s network to process our poos showcases the heights of our abilities both in terms of aesthetics and engineering.

It’s a strange tale in which the high point is a chamber the size of an Olympic swimming pool full of excrement. But so it goes.

For things go downhill from there. (Don’t worry, I don’t fall over). We left down another tunnel past a monument to unpleasantness – baby wipes, tampons, congealed waste. The start of another fatberg. Bazalgette hadn’t reckoned on modern life. Surrounded by the stuff we’d usually rather clean away it was the cleaning products like wet wipes and nappies that soiled the magnificence. As so often being there, experiencing it hammered the message home, increased my understanding.

As we ascended at the end of our tour I was relieved to have remained upright throughout. I showered thoroughly when I got home. The smell stayed with me, though not on me, for days.

As I understand it I was one of the last people to tour London’s underground sewers. They’d already ended annual public open days when I went. Soon journalists would also be banned. It may have been due to insurance issues. It was probably linked to the terrorist threat, particularly in the run up to the 2012 Olympic Games.

That’s a shame. For, at risk of going all Jerry Springer – a man who knows more than most in glorifying human waste – there are lessons to learn from my stinky stroll. 

Seeing and experience the sewers improved my understanding, increased my respect for the people who designed and built them and continue to keep them functional. 

Boris Johnson unfortunately recently had to experience coronavirus to truly understand it. 

And as long as the epidemic keeps the globe in its grip so many experiences are off the agenda.

Travel in particular is out of the question and people won’t be able to enjoy experiences, deepen their understanding of other cultures and, ultimately, of the human condition. 

That road leads to narrow minds and consequences even worse than tripping over in a tunnel of toalies. 

Restrictions are necessary to save lives, but we must be aware of the those consequences and counter them where we can.

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