‘If you bowled a nice red apple down the tunnel at Acton,’ the official storyteller for the Super Sewer told me, ‘it would roll all the way to Chambers Wharf, the shaft beyond Tower Bridge.’ This gigantic pipe, a 7.2-metre-wide triumph of civil engineering, as spookily lit and smooth-skinned as the underground redoubt of the latest world-dominating Bond villain, inclines gently downwards to the east. It follows the money, the riverside opportunities: Chelsea Embankment, Nine Elms, Victoria Embankment, Shad Thames. All the mysteries of London, cultural, fiscal, apocalyptic, now tend towards Barking Creek and Beckton, towards the fractal geometry of the sewage treatment beds and the bridge across the Thames that never happened. Launched from a 35-metre concrete-sheathed hole, the Super Sewer arrives, after flattering the swerves and quirks of the Thames, at a sixty-metre pit: the point at which this pristine newcomer, just a little fatter and rounder than the six Tunnel Boring Machines that dug her out, prepares for its rendezvous with the admired brickwork of Joseph Bazalgette’s overwhelmed Victorian outflow. Such imaginative solutions were required, at whatever the cost (in the end it was £4.3 billion), to reduce the horror of the raw sewage and indestructible sanitary and convenience products spewing into London’s river.
Taylor Geall, the bright young fabulist charged by his Super Sewer employers, Tideway, with selling an upbeat message about reconnecting Londoners with the Thames (even when large sections of river frontage were closed off for the construction), commutes from Bognor Regis. His repurposed gravitational field, sticking with an example drawn from Newton’s orchard, makes the vertical horizontal. Nature denatured. The echoing tunnel as an empty highway down which, as he told me, you could cycle from Battersea Power Station to the Tower of London in about seven minutes. There is no longer a pull towards the iron core at the centre of everything but towards the sweet-smelling Eden of filter beds, that great allotment of human faeces, condoms and wet wipes, laid out for cosmetic treatment between Beckton Gas Works, the Gallions Reach Shopping Park and Barking Creek: a major development zone for our stretched city. Thousands of new homes are promised, supported by excellent transport links. There have been problems, it has to be admitted, with the Overground spur from Gospel Oak, but at least there is a spanking new station. And Thames Clippers will run Uber boats to carry commuters upstream to Docklands and the City. Futuristic projections depict a better than real vision of uniform crescents inspired by Bath, and long straight avenues out of Haussmann, all wrapped in a green buffer of newly planted woodland with a strip of river frontage ‘accessible for walks and cycling as well as bird and seal watching’.
This is good news for ex-industrial settlements struggling with debt and failing services. Barking Riverside has been designated London’s only ‘Healthy New Town’. It’s an environment where ‘physical and mental health is prioritised’. The concrete utopia includes a projected ‘Wellbeing Hub’, in which fortunate investors can ‘visit a GP, work out at the gym … or enjoy a state-of-the-art indoor waterpark, all under one roof’. Heroic efforts by copywriters and professional sloganeers provoke reflex disbelief in the cynical, or anyone who has actually visited the place. What is being said, loud and bold, online and on fences around hidden development sites, seems to be the absolute contrary of what is all too visibly there. That is the first rule of the river. And it leads to an unavoidable question: what are the consequences for these imaginary townscapes, with their forests of towers, for the Gadarene rush of incomers with healthy digestions overstimulated by fusion cuisine outlets and opportunities for brisk exercise? What is going to happen – it is indelicate to ask, but we need to know – to all that shit? The torrents of water from simultaneous ablutions, micturitions, power showers? And the steady autumn downpours of our rainy season. The run-off from sodden parks and burst water mains that follow, almost to the hour, the announcement of a hosepipe ban for gardeners. (Thames Water lifted the ban on 22 November. They say they are working ‘round the clock’ to repair thousands of leaks. Meanwhile, they advise, we should all use water wisely.)
In earlier times, the river absorbed the daily evacuations from both banks of the Thames: from the sewage cathedral at Abbey Mills, by way of Beckton’s filtration beds, and from Crossness Pumping Station. Bazalgette’s 82-mile subterranean network, with its six intercepting sewers, can’t begin to cope with the liquid excesses of 21st-century hygiene. But the old photographs of those who laboured to dig the tunnels retain a certain nobility: engineers and promoters in top hats and black coats, with gangs of navvies, white-shirted, leaning on their picks and shovels. These men took on London, its sticky clay, its buried rivers and polluted air, its monumental self-interest and its blind faith in scientific progress. The original calculation was generous, tunnels constructed to accommodate a rising population. But hardly at the rate that transpired: London’s population doubled between the start of work in the 1850s and Bazalgette’s death in 1891. Individual tunnels were named after members of the royal family. Edward, prince of Wales, and a train of courtiers, bishops and stakeholders in attendance, lifted their champagne flutes at the opening ceremony at Crossness. The pumping station was described as a Valhalla, with avenues of columns, lights and arches spreading in all directions. A glorious steampunk fantasy fit for royalty.
When success threatened any target for the Super Sewer, launched by Tideway in 2015, Boris Johnson let it be known that he was available, film crew on standby, to take the plaudits. Whatever his manifold faults, the man was a master of credit harvesting, his hair tossing and his huff-and-puff bluster leavened with Carry On jokes: ‘Fantastic, amazing … Going through the motions, so to speak.’ Engineers and work crews, already operating on a 24/7 schedule, dreaded the calls from the Downing Street press office. ‘Boris wants to come.’ Pressure was heaped on pressure. German-made boring machines were in limbo, stalled by strikes at English ports, buried in paperwork. Mile after mile of lorries queued across Kent. A procession of churning concrete transporters, urgently required to infill the supporting sheath around the tunnel shaft, were unable to make the short run down the A13 from Beckton to Abbey Mills before the concrete lost its required consistency.
Interviewed for a documentary, one of the Super Sewer engineers admitted that they were pushing hard to meet their targets in the face of endless problems with weather and resistant ground conditions. ‘Rephrase that,’ the manager said. ‘We don’t have problems, we have “solution opportunities”.’ There seems, just now, to be a dangerously volatile relationship between actual human shit and the flights of promotional bullshit plastered around major holes in the ground. By the density of repeat signage, you can estimate the scale of the sewage dispersal problem.
Competitive pieces of phone footage from a sweep of English beaches, Cornwall to Kent, depict old black pipes, looking like repurposed Crimean War cannons, shooting tonnes of raw sewage into the sea. If you don’t choke on effluent, you will gag on the storm surges of associated statistics. It’s a numbers game. Advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is never easy to access, beyond its mission statement: ‘Creating a Better Place’. Accept cookies, fill in your postcode and all is well. Blue teardrops representing approved bathing beaches offer a lovely necklace around Seaford, Bexhill-on-Sea, Bulverhythe, and all those video locations where mephitic spills, oily, black and smoking, gush into the English Channel. If the sociable bunch of wild swimmers who used to brave the elements in all seasons now appear on the shingle in Hastings, it is only to make a protest, to hold up angry words painted on their surfboards. Southern Water, the authority responsible, has failed to make serious investment in renewing and repairing inadequate pipes. Streets are regularly deluged. Streams flow out of gutters along main roads. They float sodden roadkill, last night’s foxes and badgers, under the wheels of skidding traffic. Every incoming storm delivers a toxic assault on our beaches, leaving a drift of non-degradable convenience products instead of seaweed. A tea-coloured stain of fouled paper stretches out for fathoms, barely affected by the rise and fall of tides. A sickly brown scum smelling of drains and nutrient-starved parasites sucking on rotting fish. Nobody wants to breaststroke through pesticides and fertilisers, microplastics, petrol, mercury and the corpses of the malformed creatures that feed on them. The rains return. Pipes fail again. Fines are issued. Investors get their protected dividends.
It is a truth blithely ignored by those charged with the responsibility of delivering water to our homes that we are up to our necks in shit. There are more producers every year, and more rain, oversupplying ageing pipes and tunnels. This too savoury abundance, according to a best-practice model, should be treated by the water companies before it is released into rivers or sea. It must be filtered and processed. It should, according to the business model, be ‘dewatered’. The surging flood has become something more than water. It has announced itself as a challenging ‘solution opportunity’. Freak storms, the kind we know are coming, devastate an inadequate system: untreated sewage has to be diverted before it spouts from our bathrooms and drains. In December 2021, the Financial Times reported on the ‘torrent of sewage’ pouring into the West London home of a man called Tommy Stadlen. The unwanted return left his pregnant wife ‘waist-high in a sea of grey-brown liquid’. A posse of bedraggled rats had washed up in a neighbour’s flat. A month’s supply of rain had fallen in ninety minutes. Embattled water companies, with a duty to tend the profit curves of their shareholders, hide behind a monsoon of defensive statistics. Dire predictions of population growth are putting an impossible strain on the capacity of the Victorian sewers. Inconsiderate migrants keep settling in London’s metropolitan area and on the south coast.
Every time I take the long escalator down to the Elizabeth Line, or contemplate the implications of our compulsive burrowing into the radiant future promised by developers, I wonder about the psychic damage being inflicted on London as a living organism. ‘Intercept, store and ultimately transfer’ is the looped Tideway message. Capture, interrogate, pass the buck. We stack up fluid numbers and facts against the reality of a city in crisis. There are now more registered inhabitants in the centrifugal sprawl of London – to say nothing of the unregistered, hidden away in kitchens and sweatshops – than the numbered and verified dead, the eight million military casualties, of the Great War. The democracy of the street is undone. Flow has been hobbled by temporary diversions longer lasting than the names of the roads they invade. Free movement is invigilated by surveillance cameras. Walkers keep their heads down, looking away from the evidence of failed businesses. There is a sense of everything being downgraded. The public highway is a cluttered platform, a conveyor belt for the clinically disgruntled. A travelator that doesn’t travel. The street is barely tolerated as a boundary around the latest imperious tower block, the converted public house, the decommissioned bank that is now a pop-up restaurant. Mute towers in ever denser clusters repel unsanctioned pedestrianism. There are three opposed elements: the towers, the street and the shaft. The gaping maw of the Super Sewer goes down as far as the surrounding towers climb, but it is covert, safe behind barrier walls, protected by yawning security operatives in hard hats, charged with stalling appointments.
This buried London, a labyrinth of antiquated tube tunnels, abandoned stations, Crossrail advances, medieval burial pits, utilities, intersecting sewers, lost rivers, bomb shelters, escape hatches for royalty, is the most disturbing of the three layers. We feel the cuts of earth surgery, even when we have no knowledge of where they are happening. We shudder in ignorance as monstrous machines chew through clay. We feel a physical shift in the balance of things. But we have no reliable chart. The story is told before it happens. And it has to be experienced, in order to confirm its CGI fictions. When that opportunity arrived, I was ready. I welcomed the invitation to go down the deep shaft at Kirtling Street, alongside the Battersea Power Station complex. Here was the theoretical – if inexact – centre point of the magnificent Tideway Super Sewer.
With high winds and many weeks of irritable showers, it wasn’t easy to confirm my appointment. But a date and time in late November were offered and I prepared myself to enter the cage of the improvised lift, to be swung out, then lowered from a tall crane, in order to make that metaphor of a descent into the depths of unknowing a survivable experience. We would be carried down through a layer cake of geological permissions: London clay, resistant bands of flint and limestone, fossil-encrusted mysteries, carboniferous forests, and black lagoons from the time of tropical swamps. ‘Suppose the floor gave way and the whole fucking thing drained into some unguessed world of caverns deep in the earth?’ Cormac McCarthy wrote in The Passenger. ‘Your plate-eyed krakens with their eighty-foot-long testicles. Then a big smell and then nothing. Whoops. Where’d everybody go?’
As civil engineering, the 16-mile-long bore of the Super Sewer is an achievement to set beside Bazalgette’s web of sewage pipes and tunnels. The Tideway project demonstrates an extraordinary force of will in driving against natural obstacles of river and ground. Against shifting political sands, ministers coming and going through revolving doors. Against the drain of futile Brexit bureaucracy. And serious protests from Thamesbank inhabitants and climate change activists. Generations of drill heads shed their expensive teeth against 35 metres of hard rock, before chomping through thickly laminated silts and clay, through the Upper Shelly beds, through groundwater and meltwater from the glacial era, through the spectral traces of remote creatures embedded in hollows. But is the Super Sewer necessary? Is it worth the expenditure? The pain and the nuisance inflicted on a length of the Thames? A workforce of four thousand labours day and night to meet their targets. ‘If the wheels ain’t turning, no one is earning,’ is the chant. ‘We love to play with big tools.’
The Super Sewer is big, but everybody knows that it will never be big enough. Up to forty thousand tonnes of earth are shipped weekly to a landfill site in Tilbury, where a new dock has been constructed to receive it. Each barge, carrying 1600 tonnes, brings employment back to the river. (Potential captains do their training, negotiating London’s bridges and tides, on a virtual Thames, at a simulator facility in Oxfordshire. In a neighbouring hangar, a thousand samples of soil excavated from the Super Sewer tunnels are studied by silver-bearded geologists.) In new flats close to construction sites where pile-drivers shape cofferdams, the continual pounding, day and night, is an intolerable acoustic burden. The cofferdams are required to detour around recovered stakes of ancient blackened wood, Anglo-Saxon fish traps. Experienced divers submerge in lightless filth. Triple-glazed windows and complimentary holidays don’t help the Thamesbank witnesses. The collateral damage of excavation has forced them to yield their privileged views and move out. The assault on the fabric of London is pitched by promoters as unavoidable, the only way to deal with a crisis equivalent to the Great Stink of 1858. The Houses of Parliament had to be draped in linen sheets soaked in disinfectant. Now the battle for popular sympathy is renewed with spreadsheets and the rolling ‘data walls’ of Andy Mitchell, the CEO of the delivery organisation for Thames Tideway Tunnel. Multiple screens function like the crystal ball of Dr Dee. Teams are trained to ‘visualise’ problems before they happen. ‘We are determined to raise the bar in every way,’ Mitchell says, ‘not least the way we treat local communities.’
Boot size submitted, head measured for helmet, waist taped for orange trousers, I prepared for my Super Sewer descent at Kirtling Street. But the wind proved too high for the cage. We rescheduled for the following day. Another night of intermittent deluge. A morning of bitter showers. Upstream and down, affronted outlet pipes will be coughing up their ration of wet wipes and raw sewage. The third attempt, scheduled for a Friday, was perfect. Cloudless sky and shimmering river: London revealed in all its Wordsworthian majesty. But, even in a 24/7 world of perpetual activity, there are weekends and shortened Friday sessions. Another message from Taylor Geall informed me that my visit was no longer convenient for the site team. But I was too fired by the promise of the new day to let it go. I made a journey of reconnaissance, in the belief that no hole, however sublime, can be properly understood until its circumference has been adequately explored.
I knew that Nine Elms, the warehouse zone alongside a working riverfront, had changed. It still had a Royal Mail depot and the New Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, but the wharves and timber docks and coal yards had long departed. Back in 2006, when I invited two of our most engaged and imaginative explorers to contribute to a collection called London, City of Disappearances, they both chose aspects of Nine Elms. Will Self, who knew the ground well and lived close at hand, picked the Cold Store. ‘Although longer than it was broad or high, and from Vauxhall Bridge resembling a great sarcophagus, or the sole remaining buttress of a mighty defensive earthwork, the impression this disappearance leaves in my psyche is resolutely cubic.’ Self lamented his ‘rutted wilderness’. He appreciated how critically we are stitched into the particulars of the places where we choose to make our home. Patrick Keiller, a scrupulous observer from the misted windows of trains, added the Nine Elms Coal Hopper to his album of found architecture. The site was demolished in the winter of 1979-80, before being squatted by a car breaker. The Hopper lives on in Keiller’s archival captures. Decades ahead of the game, he tried to interest influential figures whom he thought might be persuaded to support some sort of active and sustainable afterlife. He saw the way the river story was travelling. ‘Gasworks architecture of this kind now survives in London only as the ruins at Beckton, where the hoppers were transformed to represent Saigon for Stanley Kubrick … The conversion of industrial structures to cultural and other uses is now a familiar feature of urban development.’
Emerging from the Victoria Line underground station at Vauxhall, I was confronted by rearing stalagmites of new development, ill-assorted towers crammed tightly against one another, against other sites still under development. Pedestrian access to Nine Elms Lane and my sewage shaft was blocked by a series of metal barriers, strings of yellow and black incident tape. A new hotel, promising ‘Aesthetic Pleasure’, colonised the public pavement. Shunted onto Wandsworth Road, the only visible source of reviving coffee is a giant Sainsbury’s complex, fed by banks of escalators, and offering that familiar experience of duty-free airport shopping. Of parading through aisles of goods you don’t want, while putting in time to recuperate between security protocols. The other shoppers seemed mesmerised by a plenitude of choice. They moved so slowly in contrast to the neurotic, raw-nerved scrabbling and swerving of the zombies on the street, staring into their handheld devices in the hope of finding some way out of the overnight labyrinth that is Thames City. For every inch burrowed into the ground, there is a yard pushed skywards by alien towers, very much present but divorced from the surrounding landscape. The newly christened Thames City is an island of investment counterbalanced between the MI6 complex at Vauxhall Bridge (with attendant sewage shaft) and Battersea Power Station. The ground literally throbs and pulses. With the thump of pile-drivers. With relentless boring machines. With continual streams of reversing lorries, stacked up and waiting their turn. With buried communication networks. It is when the background nuisance stops and there is a brief moment of unsupported silence that the panic really starts. Navigating contemporary Nine Elms is like being a ghost walking through future ruins after the whistle of the V-2 rocket cuts out.
Improvising down an unlikely path, I came across a wreath of red-gold hops, a memento to the vegetable market looped over a blind chipboard passage dressed with repeated graphics of summer fruits. Passing through an arch under the railway, I emerged, head spinning, in a maze of overshadowed avenues too novel for my map. After a number of frustrated and increasingly claustrophobic attempts, I stumbled into the garden space allocated to the armour-plated, blindingly silver block of the reassigned United States embassy. It squats like a giant linebacker on its grassy knoll. The Stars and Stripes fly stiff and proud from a tall flagpole, asserting authority over the territory, the river, London. This is the real palace. A straggle of supplicants with guilty bags shuffled towards a checkpoint. Large men with dark suits and dark glasses waited for their big black cars, chatting to close-cropped athletes in black T-shirts. Everything looked so clean, so resistant to the unlicensed rambler. Nobody at any of the attendant pavement cafés had any idea where to find the conceptual art gallery around the next corner. The whole intimidating riverside development felt like a set of dubious quotations trying to live up to the catalogue. Has anybody actually swum in that Sky Pool of unnaturally shimmering water spanning the twin towers? Even residents such as Nadeem Iqbal, in a two-bed flat valued at £800,000 in the shared-ownership development by Peabody Optivo, can only gaze. He is denied access to the four hundred sacred tonnes of purified liquid available to EcoWorld Ballymore residents, which threatens, at any moment, to burst in a catastrophic torrent onto the insignificant beetles scuttling below. In virtual visions, a single model floats through the air like an elegant green bubble in a carpenter’s spirit level. And what a spirit! The very essence of narcissism and privileged difference.
But all these wonders, the Sky Pool, Embassy Gardens, the fifty-storey DAMAC Tower, all the burgeoning ‘silos of residential units’, as the architectural critic Rowan Moore calls them, create one terrible problem. They are not just streets in the sky: they are another city, another country. A Super Strip Mall of protected debt and solipsism. The developers are based in Dubai, in China and Malaysia. They employ celebrity architects. They don’t art-wash, they art-hose: algorithms of seduction, sculpted leisure courts, performance atria, competitive cocktails. Offshore investors may not deliver the homes promised to struggling Londoners, but they do have the latest baths, pools, showers and en suite facilities. Seen from across the river, from Vauxhall Bridge on a winter’s evening, or from one of those dazzling and cleaned up aerial panoramas, the sunset skyline could be Qatar, without its drop-in stadia, risen overnight from a wilderness of rail tracks and abandoned warehouses. Jonathan Liew, in a World Cup diary for the Observer, wrote about trying to reach a deserted park beside the ‘glittering’ ocean. It was a tempting retreat from the football action. To reach this oasis, he had to fight his way across a six-lane dual carriageway. The ocean was ‘only marginally tarnished by the enormous sewage pipe flowing into it’. And pumping the waste of all those overweening towers into that glittering sea. In our faux Gulf state, VNEB (Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea), the pipes beneath the spectacular surface are not vast. They are Victorian. You would struggle to stand up in them. Roots of ancient trees are pushing through the brickwork.
The real Victorian survivors in our plural city are the tunnel crews, the midnight flushers. The brave gang of men and women tasked with crawling through pipes where they are obliged to stoop and wade, in order to clear wet wipe blockages and recalcitrant fatbergs, before that liquid profusion can be redirected to the Super Sewer. These specialist subterraneans, in their modest white vans, summoned at all hours to free reefs of used bandages, to purge the brick intestines of gorged developments, belong in the pages of Mayhew or Dickens. They are the uncredited invisibles of the sewage system, wading though shit and slurry in the old way, testing the crumbling walls and reeking tunnels with sophisticated instruments. The basic task has barely changed: keep London flowing. The flushers are the prescribed laxative for a costive set of tubes, hopelessly inadequate for the task they have been set. The Victorian toshers who used to paddle through the drains and culverts, risking everything, frequently caught in the surge, dipping for bounty, have gone. The contemporary recreationalists in waders, wielding their panning sieves in the sewage swamp of Channelsea, have retreated downriver. The Olympic era backwaters are now the most polluted rivers in England.
Blessed with another innocent morning, I made my way to Kirtling Street for my fourth attempted rendezvous with the storyteller, Taylor Geall. This time it was going to happen. The skies were azure, with a few wisps of cirrus cloud setting off the forest of mismatched Nine Elms towers. I was early, then discovered that our meeting had been postponed for another hour. It was rescheduled for midday, which felt like the appropriate moment for a Dantean descent into an underworld accessed halfway along the chain of Tideway shafts and pumping stations. At five past twelve I rang Taylor to check that I had identified the correct site office. He was delayed, trapped on a bus, somewhere in the Vauxhall system. But he was on his way. Waiting on the street, I noticed that the usual boasts about connecting us in new ways with the river contrasted with a sign attached to a former bus stop, announcing that the service had been discontinued.
If Taylor was the official storyteller here, I thought that the book I was reading while I hung about must have been composed by the unofficial mythmaker. The Black Locomotive by Rian Hughes is a post-Ballardian novel with strong graphic elements. Text is interleaved with maps, charts, grids. And by manipulated digital photographs as sophisticated as anything produced by the Tideway publicists. Hughes is addicted to the poetry of industrial design, the visionary aspect of cargo manifests and lists. There are pages of ‘technical specifications’, chequerboards of ‘metal cladding’, and cross-sections of ‘built environment’ installations. Here was the ideal story with which to cook up levels of expectation, and dread, before I climbed into the suspended cage. Hughes has anticipated my excursion and the moral implications of all our compulsive burrowing. He understands ‘public outreach’ by major engineering projects as a method of dressing hard sciences with a ‘friendly humanities façade’. He conjures just what I am beginning to sample, the intoxicating smell of fresh cement: ‘silica, lime, iron ore, fly ash and water’. And there is always water. ‘The urban petrichor of airborne particulates and hydrogenated street-food cook oil’ thrills the senses of those who haunt the security barriers of great construction sites. A group of characters in The Black Locomotive, barely tolerating the presence of a commissioned artist, successfully breach the mysterious ‘Anomaly’ hidden beneath the point where a Crossrail boring machine hits an unyielding obstacle. There is a plunge into deep time, into a zone where time has no meaning. ‘The shaft was the negative equivalent of a skyscraper, an absence driven into the ground rather than a presence raised above it.’ As above, so below: Londinium infernus. Buried layers with organic shapes, Hughes writes, are ‘more like an architect’s model’.
I am almost disappointed when Taylor arrives and I have to break away from my Hughes-inspired reverie. But the novel has set me up nicely for my walk into the Super Sewer. The Black Locomotive even identifies the location of the shaft as a place of origin. ‘Growing from a village on the river near Vauxhall Bridge where the River Effra meets the Thames, Troia Nova became Trinovantum; King Lud, who legend has it is buried at Ludgate, renamed it Caer Ludein.’ Taylor is open and courteous. And we have twenty minutes to chat before our guide, Ignacio Tognaccini Sainz, the project manager, is free to take us inside. This is a friendly operation. I do not detect any of the familiar wariness and cynicism towards nuisance visitors. Taylor is proud of the response to the shaft by previous outsiders: Paul Whitehouse (‘One of those two fishermen’) is making a solo television series. He was taken to Greenwich, where he found the tunnels ‘awesome’. Three generations of Bazalgettes came down at the weekend, along with journalists from the Evening Standard.
Tognaccini Sainz is affable, lightly bearded, and brisk. He explains that the Tideway Company is owned by a consortium of investors, including British pension funds, and that the tunnelling at Kirtling Street is a joint venture between a Spanish company, Ferrovial Agroman, and Laing O’Rourke. The contract for this central section is worth £746 million. Ferrovial are experienced in railway and road construction projects. They worked on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and the Crossrail tunnels that inspired Hughes’s dark fantasies. Ignacio has a trusted Spanish team, but Brexit has complicated progress, with a number of his regular workforce defeated by burgeoning bureaucracy. In fact, the engineering success of the Super Sewer appears to be a self-evident repudiation of Brexit’s paranoid insularity. The crucial machinery at Abbey Mills, where the connection will be made between the new tunnel and the Lee link to the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, is German. The site manager is French. The Tunnel Boring Machines used at Kirtling Street were manufactured in France, shipped to a specially extended dock, then assembled on site.
We are whisked through a nest of prefabricated Portakabin offices, and kitted out with helmet, boots, jacket, trousers, gloves, glasses. The boots are heavy. Walking to the lift I feel like an astronaut going the wrong way. While we lurk, keeping clear of working parts, and looking with interest, and some apprehension, down the shaft, we are issued with the final item of kit, a bulky device, something like a substantial sound system, to be hung from the shoulder. ‘Just a precaution. Health and Safety.’ Its function is not explained, but I take this to be an Emergency Escape Breathing Device, supplying fifteen minutes of oxygen in a crisis. Smoke, fumes and buried anomalies: let’s go. Plenty of scope for solution opportunities, plenty of orange suits doing small things to big walls. Plenty of clipboards and white helmets with Tideway logos. The universal protective glasses make this feel like a serious kind of academic field trip, digging for misplaced royals or plague pits.
The workers are busy and good-humoured, the usual bantering and independent bunch who have seen it all and overcome. There have been welders from the Highlands muttering folk songs to stave off the tedium. Family men from the Midlands and the North. Irishmen and Welshmen. As well as competent European managers, liaising with geologists and marine archaeologists, there are muck-and-sweat labourers tending the membrane of the tunnel. At Abbey Mills, when the tricky business of the concrete sheath was complete, and walls were sprayed with high-velocity Shotcrete, a solitary man was tasked with wiping down the surface with a 50p convenience-store sponge. Even one stray hair out of place, a blown leaf or an importunate insect, might trap something unpleasant floating in the sewage stream on the way to Beckton. The slightest imperfection could detract from the pressure required. The wiper got through a bag of sponges. He looked ready to be reassigned to a car wash on a pre-development corner in Shoreditch.
Out we swing from the crane and down, smooth and steady, to the bottom of the shaft. This doesn’t compare with the jolt of dropping into a Welsh coal mine and crawling in heat towards the anthracite. The tunnels, to west and east, are immense. They stretch into the distance. A trickle of murky water spoils the immaculate presentation of the extended bore, a grey telescope into the future. There are no moon buggies or bicycles. We set out to walk. The tunnel is lit as a series of hoops, dropping down, curving away to some remote pinprick of illumination. We are heading towards the link to the Heathwall Pumping Station. This tributary inflow looks far too slender to cope with what is promised, the deluge arriving from the riverside development at Vauxhall and Nine Elms.
We have come far enough to want more, much more. Will we be permitted to inspect whatever is happening around Vauxhall Bridge? The confluence of the Effra and the rumoured Secret State communication tunnel between the MI6 fortress and the MI5 building on the other side of the river. And why stop there? To pass on for seven miles under the river, in this silence, with the splash of our heavy boots and the echoes swallowed and bounced from curved walls, would be special. Hughes said that down here, below whatever we were now below, there was another metropolis ‘made from parts of London’; an anomaly floating in deep time, in the race memory of Triassic swamps and black lakes. ‘In the middle distance was a tall narrow pyramid with a jagged broken tip, very like the Shard.’ When there is nothing to see but the arc of smoothed concrete, strange pictures, flashes of elsewhere, of before and after, are projected on the chilled skein as an absence of content. But we are not going in that direction. This is a demonstration, not an expedition. We are turning back. My brief tour is done.
Perhaps picking up on my superstitious response to the elongated cave of the sewage tunnel, stretching away to infinity, Ignacio told me that the female boring machines, Ursula, Millicent, Rachel, Selina, Charlotte, Annie, had been blessed by a priest. It was a tradition, ahead of the voyage into darkness. Machine and workers received a benediction. And a statue of Saint Barbara was placed at the entrance to the tunnel. Father Kevin Robinson of Our Ladye Star of the Sea Church was taken to the Greenwich site by the tunnel manager, Rob Smith. There is a photograph of the officiating priest, black clad, warm scarf, arms spread wide, mouth agape, as if measuring the scale of the biblical flood that would soon be pouring downriver. Michael Rawson, sub-dean and canon pastor of Southwark Cathedral, who was taken down the seventy-metre shaft at Chambers Wharf, wore his ecclesiastical robes and read a blessing from his laptop.
At the only corner shop in the area, I queued behind a line of construction workers with their cellophane sandwiches to take away some plastic water and a banana. I left the apples for Taylor Geall. The day was still bright, the river path enticing. I decided to walk back east, tracking all the Tideway shafts and pumping stations. Some were modest interventions where the security men were happy to chat. They were proud of the operation. They understood the links in the chain of enterprise. They did their best to live up to the company pitch: WE’RE HERE BECAUSE WE LOVE THE RIVER THAMES. Vauxhall Bridge is the first major assault course, a cofferdam pushing out from Terry Farrell’s blind-windowed MI6 folly into the river. An outlet close to the bridge releases the surging overflow of the Effra. There is a potent urban myth that an occupied coffin once floated here from West Norwood Cemetery. Vauxhall Bridge is a border. The glass panels along its walkways have been smeared with gestures of angry red paint and broken signatures superimposed across the turrets and cameras of a security bunker so blatant that its main function is to be rented out as a film set. I’m interested to see how the new builds of Nine Elms, taking their cue from Farrell, have aped the fondness for impenetrable green glass and weird Vorticist angles. The immediate neighbours of MI6 have been built to look like a municipal leisure facility that didn’t know when to stop. The river path is closed at this point and pedestrians are offered a ‘temporary diversion’ to Vauxhall Bridge. I hang on. I can see the works on Victoria Embankment from the Surrey side. Directly across from the Houses of Parliament, stretching the length of the Albert Embankment, is a wall of poppy-red hearts, placed there for Covid victims, as a tribute and an accusation. Nudged against Westminster Bridge, Chinese wedding couples, with brides in flowing white, are being arranged against their chosen London backdrop for a nuptial video.
The evening closed in at the King Edward Memorial Park in Shadwell. This was still an active Tideway site. It was possible to register elements of the work in progress. Here in the damp winter darkness, in a small riverside park, there was relief from the agitated traffic streams of the Highway. The local poet Stephen Watts, a Shadwell man, wrote about a ‘House on the Highway’ and how it felt ‘like vertigo shoved backwards’. That is precisely the atmosphere that swirls around the points of access to the shaft. The vertigo is supplied as a condition of entry, down broad steps to a submerged park, a quiet relic from another era. At some remote date there will be an improved and ‘expanded’ park, ‘allowing visitors to get closer to the Thames’. Before the enclosures happened and the diggers were fired up, you couldn’t get any closer to the river without falling in. Now that walk with a view is an ‘Exclusion Zone’. Now there are yellow barriers and massive red cranes. And pipes hooped into sculptural configurations and dressed with flaring lights. Now the ceramic tablet on the side of the ventilation shaft for the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the memorial to the navigators of the 16th century who set sail from this reach ‘to explore the northern seas’, is out of bounds. Half the old park is given over to the cars of the workforce. But the Shadwell men in hard hats are helpful, as were all the others I met on my Super Sewer rambles. A Sikh man in orange suggests an alternative route, a better way to get back to the road. The man at the fogged window of the security checkpoint sits beside a minatory sign: CATCH IT, BIN IT, KILL IT. I thought at first that he was talking about rats, riparian vermin pouring out of their old habitats. But it was the virus, the returning plague of the river in winter.
The following evening, wandering through the fringes of De Beauvoir Town, letting scenes from the Super Sewer settle in my mind, I came across a construction wall erected by the Benyon Estate: ‘Family owned and family run’. A group of children between the ages of nine and twelve had been invited to write brief accounts of their expectations of London a thousand years into the future. The stories were presented across a chipboard wall. Azad feared that ‘the skin of the earth was peeling off.’ ‘Boris Johnson’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson is the prime minister of England,’ he concluded. Christabel, who must have followed the Hackney drift to the coast, reported that ‘Hastings is very crowded. I’m unsure of this place … The air is very polluted.’ Dahya said: ‘I can smell the stinking sewers … The land is incredibly great with magenta light. Society is run by cyborgs.’ Evidently it was high time for the Super Sewer to be replaced. Doreen imagined it all. ‘I am in the year 3022 and I can smell a strong perfume … It’s a whole different world underground.’
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