London: Crossness Pumping Station

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If you’ve done any kind of reading on Victorian Britain, especially on cholera, the Great Stink, or Bazalgette, you’ll have heard of the Crossness Pumping Station.  Officially opened in 1865 by Bertie, the (then) Prince of Wales, Crossness was one of two main pumping stations (the other being Abbey Mills) for the new London sewer system, and was rumoured to have a splendid interior with cast iron detailing.  Therefore, when I heard Crossness was having one of its rare opening days last weekend, you couldn’t have kept me away.

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By necessity, Crossness is located pretty far out in East London, near Bexley, I believe, and down a random road of an industrial area.  As you can see, even the exterior is impressive, and the whole complex was immense.  Admission was £5, and this is another one of those place where you must bring cash!  We never seem to have any for some reason, but the nice man at the admissions desk allowed us to pay after our visit via bank transfer, rather than having to drive all the way back into town to try to track down a cash machine, which was very much appreciated.  This is also a place where you must wear the obligatory hardhat (I seem to visit a lot of those lately) which is provided for you, and Crossness goes one further and requires flat shoes, probably because of all the gratings (does anyone really try to tramp around an industrial building in stilettos?  I suppose they must, or the rule wouldn’t exist.).

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There’s no getting around the fact that this place is basically Steampunk heaven.  Giant steam-powered, noisy machinery, gorgeous Victorian architecture, and volunteers dressed in period costume all contribute to make it so, yet most of the visitors were older people.  I don’t really get the whole Steampunk thing (why does the past have to involve time travel and random gears and goggles?  Can’t we just appreciate the past for what it was?) but the atmosphere in here was admittedly fantastic.  Crossness’s website refers to it as a “cathedral on the marsh,” and it don’t think they’re far off; it is like an amazing shrine to Victorian ingenuity.

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Before I go any further, I should perhaps explain how the pumping station worked, at least as far as I was able to understand it from the signage scattered around.  Essentially, all the sewage of London flowed out through the sewers as far as Crossness, where it was pumped up (hence the name) into a reservoir, and then held until the Thames was at high tide, when it would be released out to the sea.  Now, bear in mind that the waste wasn’t treated in any way, so tonnes of raw sewage were just being dumped in the sea, but better out than in, right?  At least the Thames wasn’t quite so stinky anymore.  Obviously, although they have the machinery up and running on open days, it’s not really doing anything, but it still looks cool.

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One of my favourite observations on Crossness is something I read once in regard to the opening luncheon with the future Edward VII.  There’s a picture of all the men in attendance in their top hats, as was the style at the time, and then another one of them all sitting down to lunch in the Engine House, sans hats.  The author very sensibly wondered what had happened to all the top hats in the interval, and as I can attest, there really isn’t a good storage place in there, especially if the station was operational.  Maybe they set up special tables somewhere?  I wish I could remember what book this was from; Inventing the Victorians is my best guess, but I read so many damn books about the Victorians, it’s hard to say, though if anyone else knows, please comment!  Anyway, this anecdote is an interlude to allow me to cram more pictures in this post, since this place was awesome looking, and I’ve had a real dearth of pictures on here lately.

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One of the things I’ve enjoyed about starting this blog (besides visiting the museums, obviously), is all the connections I’m starting to see between the various places I visit.  For example, the above tiles had a sign explaining that they were made in Jackfield, which was exciting to me since I was just at the Jackfield Tile Museum a few weeks ago.  I’ve always gone to a lot of museums, but since I’ve been blogging about them, I’ve been visiting at least two new places every week.  I know England isn’t that big, but seeing how all these little random places are somehow interconnected is fascinating to me. And, the above tiles look eerily similar to the tiles on my doorstep, so now I’m thinking those might be Jackfield tiles too.  My, such excitement!  It doesn’t take much, sadly enough.

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Getting back to the actual Crossness experience (after that lengthy detour), you are just left to wander around up and down various sets of stairs that lead down to basements and up to a massive loft area.  There are volunteers stationed throughout who seemed happy to answer questions, and there are enough signs to get a general idea of how the machinery worked. It’s not an actual museum, and only half of it is restored, so it’s more of a chance to gawp at some excellent Victorian machinery than anything (and this is coming from someone with no mechanical sense whatsoever, so it must be good).

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That said, there were still a few neat little displays which perfectly appealed to my love of scatalogical humour.  The above obese Bart Simpson style rag-on-a-stick was part of a larger sampling of material people used as toilet paper throughout history, including hemp (lovely and soft), and corncobs (unless you want piles, I’d avoid them).  There was also a small case of chamber pots, some background information on the Great Stink and the creation of the pumping station, and a collection of other steam powered objects, including a teapot waterfall.  It wasn’t a huge amount of stuff, but everything was nicely labelled.

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I think you can probably tell that I definitely enjoyed this trip to Crossness.  It was incredible to be able to see something that was so instrumental to the sanitation of Victorian London, and indeed, something I’d read so much about prior to visiting.  Their next open day is 23 June, and I recommend planning a visit if you haven’t already been.  Not to sound too cheesy and cliched, but it really was like getting to experience an authentic piece of history, in a way that visiting something like a living history museum just isn’t (even though I stand by my love for Blists Hill!).

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Random shot of the Thames Barrier which we stopped at since we were quite near it, but I can’t comment on the visitor’s centre as it was already shut. Still fits into the theme of the post though, I think.

4/5 for the Crossness Pumping Centre.  It’s not a museum, but it’s definitely a curious destination.

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