Monday, 18 October 2010

The Cathedral to Waste

Crossness Pumping Station is not generally open to the public, but there are occasions every year when it does open its gates to visitors. Enthusiasts and the uninitiated come for miles to take a peak at restoration work in progress, and see the Prince Consort, one of the four steam powered pumps, in action. It has taken a team of retired engineers and enthusiasts about 10 years to restore the Prince, and for open days like this, visitors are enthralled by its spectacle of Victorian engineering prowess. Every 30 minutes the Prince chugs into action, it’s actually surprisingly quiet for a pump producing about 125 h.p enabling it to pump over six tons of sewage at each stroke. Whilst the Prince sputters and gurgle’s subtly in the background visitors in hard hats look around in ore at the beauty of Charles Driver’s incredibly ornate caste-ironwork. Some parts have been restored to their former glory, singing out in bright red, yellow, gold and green: these elaborate decorative features give Crossness its nick name “The Cathedral on the Marshes”.

Crossness is located at Thamesmead near Woolwich and as we approached the corporate gates of Thames Water, (the modern day treatment works sits close to the original Crossness Pumping Station) the wind was blowing the right way to give us an olfactory reminder of where we were.

As we drove about 300 meters along a small bumpy road we passed the modern treatment works, directed by a couple of well placed, hi-vi clad, volunteers en-route we were eventually confronted by Crossness. This majestic yet slightly worn building remains as a monument to Joseph Bazelgette’s civil engineering masterpiece: London’s Sewage System. Opened in 1865 this pumping station contributed to the health of Londoners as it pumped sewage efficiently out of the city whilst also improving drinking water. Bazalgette was chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works charged with the duty of ridding London of the foul stink of 1858. Before Bazalgette’s sewage system the Thames had operated as an open sewer, being filled with the contents of London’s WC’s and cesspit’s. There was only one further out break of cholera after the pumping stations and sewage system were put in to action.

Crossness has a pseudo religious quality, it represents purification of the city and its people. There is a reverence built into the architecture of the building and it is this quality that I am particularly drawn to. Volunteers currently working on restoring Victoria (one of the other four steam pumps at Crossness) are collecting her dust and dirt for “LAID TO REST”. In the context of this project Crossness dust has been elevated into “Holy Dust” which in turn will produce “Holy Bricks”.

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