John Nash's Walking Diary

The Crossness Engines

Sunday 19th October 2008

I'm up early for a walk with the Plums, starting at Plumstead Fire Station and walking on top of South London's Main Sewer, through Abbey Wood and Thamesmead to its ultimate destination - Crossness sewage treatment works. The reason for walking there today is that there's an open day at the old Victorian Crossness Engines, which are undergoing a long, expensive and painstaking restoration by a group of dedicated enthusiasts.

I make a sizeable French stick, stuffed with ham, pickle, brie, and spinach leaves, pack a rucksack with this and a waterproof coat, and walk down the ravine and past the Slade Ponds where there's a heron standing motionless (as they always do) on the pontoon. I get to the Fire Station at five to nine. There’s no one else here yet, and still no one here five minutes later. It dawns on me that I've arrived an hour early! Had I brought my diary with me I could have spent an hour in the café writing, but I haven't, so I walk back up the hill to home and have a cup of coffee there.

Dave knocks for me, and I walk back down to the police station with him and Ray. The Heron is still motionless on the Slade pond, but takes off as we walk past. This time at the fire station there's a crowd of a dozen or more walkers. Curiously, I'm the only one wearing shorts. Are we going to be walking through swathes of nettles, I wonder?

We cross Plumstead High Street, and walk along a sidestreet that crosses beneath the railway line and takes us to the huge embankment of earth fifteen feet high that conceals the pipe. We ascend a flight of steps and walk along the footpath on top of the pipe which passes Greenwhich Council's huge new recycling plant and refuse depot on our left, and some pretty awful looking housing on our right.

About a week ago there was a feature on the news about Japanese Knot Weed, which is very difficult to kill, and is spreading across the country like crazy. The embankment is covered with a tall, hollow stemmed, broad leaved shrub that to my eye looks just like the plant I saw on the telly. I do hope that I'm wrong. It's everywhere, and I believe that its roots can go down tens of feet and penetrate concrete and brickwork. just think what damage it could be doing to the sewer pipe, and what havoc it would wreak if the pipe were to collapse - there would be shit all over Thamesmead. (Come to think of it, would anyone notice any difference? )

It must be about a two and a half mile walk to the Crossness Engines, and we can see, and smell the new sewage treatment plant as we approach. As we enter the site, marshalls direct us towards the very ornate old Victorian 'cathedral of sewage', and we pass a row of static diesel and steam engines restored and owned by enthusiasts. We also pass a charity stall, and I buy a jar of homemade Seville orange marmalade for my Mum and Dad.

We enter the 'cathedral', collect hard hats, and go into the powerhouse of the operation. The first 'steaming' of the engines is due in just a few minutes time and the huge galleried engine house is quite full with visitors marvelling at the feat of engineering towering before them and waiting to witness the spectacle of seeing the 50 tonne cast iron beam engine, the biggest ever to be built in the whole world, rocking on its axis, and the enormous flywheel turning. I go down an iron staircase into the bowels (a most appropriate term to use here!) of the building to see the pump pistons which are still seized in their bores and have been disconnected from the connecting rods. There are a couple of gentlemen dressed in smart Victorian costume with top hats down here operating the steam engines, and whilst I am down here the engine starts to move, very slowly at first, like a giant awakening from a deep sleep, and gradually increasing in speed.

I go up the stairs to the ground floor to see the flywheel rotating, and the crankshaft and piston con rod going around in a pit in the floor. Above us the huge cast iron beam rocks up and down. this is mechanical motion on an incredible scale, built in the days when this country was a superpower, capable of building the biggest and best in the world. The thing that surprises me today is just how silent it all is. I had expected a machine of this size and power to make a thunderous roar as it moved such heavy weights, but there's hardly a sound from it.

After about twenty minutes the motion of the beam and flywheel slows, and the giant machine comes to rest again. I make my way out of the engine house, hand back my hard hat, and make my way to the cafeteria for a nice cup of tea and meet up with some of the other walkers.

There's a small museum of artefacts and old toilets in the old Boiler house, together with some old photographs taken during construction of the original sewage works, and a wall upon which is printed a hundred or more colloquial names for 'the toilet' -yes, there are that many! Having had a good look around and got my monies-worth, I go outside to where we are slowly re-grouping. There’s a working, scale model of a steam powered Traction engine which is about six feet long, seats two and could probably pull a juggernaut uphill.

We agree to take a different route back. This takes us along a mown grass footpath between banks of dense brambles alongside a very noisy road. Eventually we cross the road and head off across Erith Marshes, stopping briefly at a bird watching hide that gives us a view across the only part of the marshes that is devoid of any wildlife! Elsewhere there are horses, swans, geese, moorehens, and kids riding trial bikes.

We reach a kind of civilisation at Thamesmead, and stop to look at the large lake there which has a few swans and ducks on it, and loads of rubbish and litter in it. Not a pretty sight. It does make me wonder whether the litter problem could be largely solved by abolishing ring pull cans and plastic drinks bottles, and re-introducing screw top recycleable glass bottles with a £1 deposit on each, refundable at the point of purchase.

The footbridge across the road that separates Thamesmead from Lesnes Abbey has a new mural painted on its walls, it is very well painted, and surprisingly has not yet attracted very much graffiti. We walk up past the ruins, and up through Bostall Woods, which is quite a steep climb at one point. Luckily there’s a bench seat at the top where we stop for a breather, and pose for a group photograph. from there on it is a bit flatter through the woods with lovely old gnarled coppiced tree boles lining the footpaths. We reach Bostall Heath where our group fragments and people make their various ways home (via a pub or two in some cases!)

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