Monday, April 07, 2008

Subterranean Worlds - Pushing Back the Tide

The first in a series of short essays that I'll collect here concerning Subterranean Worlds. Some of them might be about works of fiction whilst others will be about what lurks beneath out city streets - enjoy!


The Victoria embankment of the river Thames is the prefect place for a stroll. The street takes you from the old City of London, past the Temple and leads all the way to Westminster, the route lined with trees while the Thames laps gently below you. But the route is a fake, the parcel of land a man made construction that was used to push the river back and hide some of the many tunnels under the city.

The work was begun in 1865, designed and engineered by one Joseph Bazelgette, a truly visionary individual who brought the sewers to London. Before this date the Thames was the only means of removing all human excrement, waste and pollution from the vast and growing capital. It was in no uncertain terms a massive sewer spreading disease through the capital, and people were dying.

Cholera was rife with ten of thousands of people dying in the years leading up to the ‘Great Stink’. Thought to be brought on by Miasma – foul air, the government of the time was finally pressed into doing something.

The ambitious plan was to push the Thames back and lay underneath the new street three massive sewer pipes that would be connected to 1,100 miles of small piping to remove all the sewage from the city before dumping it untreated further down stream.

Not surprisingly this was a massive feet of engineering, and luckily for us Bazelgette was a forward thinker. Not only did he realise that the correct shape for such large pipes would be oval and not round but he built them in such a way as to be scaled up for future use. The same pipes are still in use today (thankfully the sewage is no longer ejected untreated into the river).
Bazelgette and the building of the Victoria Embankment form part of the background for the novel ‘The Worms of Euston Square’ by William Sutton.

At the same time that Bazelgette was sorting out the sewers London was also going through the process of having an underground rail system built into its foundations. It seemed only right that while the bank was open they would also put in a rail line. Today, sitting above the sewage pipes are the lines for the District and Circle services, just a few metres down below the surface of the road.

The fact that the road and area used by so many is in truth artificial can best be seen by two pieces of archaeology still evident above ground. The first is the water gate that can be seen in Victorian Embankment Park shown in the painting ‘River by Moonlight’ (I can’t find an artists name). In the painting the Thames is seen lapping at its foot, but now the gate is located in the park, some 150 yards from the river and down in a hollow.

Further evidence is given by the steps that lead nowhere by the side of the MOD. Queen’s Mary’s steps as built by Cristopher Wren once led from the now vanished Whitehall Palace as built by Henry VIII. Originally the walk led some 70 feet out into the bed of the river, but they are now marooned and stick out of the wall of the MOD building.

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