Sunday, November 11, 2012

'Open Doors Weekend', at St Bart's Hospital and Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, 10th November 2012

It's the weekend of the Lord Mayor's Parade!  The day when the guilds put on their glad rags and compete with each other for the most stylish float.  Crowds gather from miles around to watch the dignitaries process through the hallowed streets, their golden Cinderella like coaches stately travelling past landmarks known worldwide.  So when all this was going on, why was I in Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, or in a partially completed hospital building?

Open Doors feels like an offshoot of 'Open House', but I'm not sure if the two are connected.  at any rate they share a similar philosophy .  There are many fantastic locations in London that are usually inaccessible to the general public, both these events aim to allow us into these interesting spaces to have a look around.  Whereas 'Open House' tends to focus on historical buildings or the insides of landmarks, Open Doors allows us to look around ongoing construction projects.  One thing I quickly realised on both of the visits I embarked upon was that both sites had an ulterior (but wholly innocent) motive.  In showcasing how complicated and how huge these projects are, they were running a slightly covert recruitment campaign.  This meant that a lot of the language used was unbashedly technical, which to be honest I don't mind so much, I'd rather be talked up to than talked down to, even if I don't understand everything.

My alarm buzzed at 8am on Saturday morning and somewhat groggily I rolled out of bed, hopped on a bike and headed to St Bart's Hospital.  I stood a little bit bleary eyed in the site entrance hut, waiting for the other people booked on the trip to arrive.  After 10 minutes it became apparent that no-one else was going to show.  Bill James, the Senior Project Manager then turned up, with a bit of a disappointed look on his face at the lack of interest.  He optimistically asked me if I was studying large scale construction, or possibly looking for a job in construction.  I said that I was just here out of curiosity, and to get something to write about.

He took me off to get kitted out for the occasion and so, with hard hat, high visibility vest and gloves on we headed into the building site.  Leading me behind the building he explained exactly what they're planning to do for the redevelopment.  Quite a lot of this flew over my head.  From what I gather many of the older buildings were ridden with asbestos and not fit for purpose.  Patients were often dismayed at the crappy conditions they were expected to put up with.  So to improve things they're redeveloping much of the site.  The old Queen Mary wing has been demolished, with the facade of the George V building being preserved.  New patient accommodation is being constructed to the rear with a large atrium in the middle.  Bill took me up in a lift to the roof of the new building, which is dotted with pipes, cables, patches of gravel and various bits of construction equipment.  It felt a bit illicit wandering around up here, even though I was being shown around by the actual boss of this multi-multi-million pound project.  

This is what it will look like when it's finished.
From the roof we descended through the building itself, each floor of which is finished to varying degrees.   The top floors are still skeletal, with bare concrete everywhere and construction equipment still in place, but as you head deeper down you begin to see network and telephone cabling, door fittings and so on.  It's a strange experience seeing a building looking so naked.  

All the way through the building, Bill is informing me of neat little facts, like the use of 'leadite' (which apparently doesn't contain lead) in constructing the nuclear medicine department.  He explains the massive safety redundancies in place to keep the building safe, proudly showing off the sprinkler systems and explaining how it is almost impossible for this building to catch fire.  I'd suspect he might be suffering from a touch of hubris, but frankly he radiates competence to such a degree that I believe every word from this mouth.  I have my doubts when he tells us that a plane could crash into the building we're in, and we'd be absolutely fine.   But hey, this guy knows his building.

I think in the end I found Bill more interesting than the construction project he's in charge of.    He knows each and every aspect of this place inside and out: if I ask what something does he's happy to explain it to me and tell me how it fits into the nervous system of the building overall.  I ask when the hand-over date is for the project, and he tells me that asking that is one of the 'never asked questions' of building.  It's his arse on the line if something screws up here and the building is late, or if there's a flaw in the construction.  It's a big responsibility to bear but he seems supremely confident that he's got everything under control.

As we leave the site we pass a wall covered in pictures of the worker's children.  Bill explains that they're trying to get rid of 'macho culture' in the industry.  Workers shouldn't unnecessarily risk their safety when working here and this wall helps them remember what's important.  It's a nice, human touch and although I haven't got any points of comparison, St Bart's Hospital looks like a nice site to work on, and Bill would be a great boss.  

When I told him I was next heading to Beckton Sewage Treatment Plant, he wrinkled his nose in disgust and told me that the place stinks to high heaven.  Not a ringing endorsement, but I never expected a sewerage plant to smell of roses.

Beckton Sewage Treatment Plant
The far east of London is an undiscovered country for me.  I've never been this far out on the DLR before, places like Gallion's Reach DLR feel faintly exotic to me (although just to be clear, they're not exotic at all).  As we stepped off the train we spied a minibus awaiting us at the station to take us over to the sewage works.  I found myself wondering what kind of person would sign up to this kind of thing.  On getting on the minibus I was a bit surprised to see a pretty normal looking, smartly dressed and young crowd.  I don't know what I was expecting; sewage enthusiasts I suppose.  There was also a rather unpleasant farty smell on this minibus, which I initially figured must be leftover atmosphere from the previous trip. But I later realised that this was just a particularly noxious guff from persons unknown.  It struck me that whoever let off this stinkbomb would only have had to wait 15 minutes before everyone would have assumed the foul smell was a natural product of the sewage plant.   Exceptionally poor timing, my flatulent friend.

With a full (and a bit whiffy) bus we started out to our destination.  As we pulled in through the gates we got a quick explanation of what was around us.  We saw huge bubbling lakes of human shit and piss, the source of what is known locally as the 'Beckton Stench'.  Tesco have built a superstore next door to the works and apparently spray perfume into the air so their shoppers don't gag.  We're shown the new roof they're putting over the shit pits to stop the smell, apparently at the expense of Thames Water.  The way I see it if you build a supermarket right next to a huge sewerage plant you forfeit the right to complain about the smell - what did you think was going to happen.  Having said that, if I lived in Beckton I may feel a bit differently.  Fortunately, today is a good day for the stench, and while there's the occasional gust of foul air it's no worse than, say, rush hour on the Northern line on a Friday morning.

We're also shown a water desalination plant that is apparently "off the record".  I never thought a desalination plant would ever seem so sinister, but there it sits, clad in smoked black windows, no-one able to see what's going on in there.  What, apart from removing salt from water, can they possibly be doing?

Alan Barker on the left, and a nice man whose name I don't know on the right.
Soon after we pulled into the visitors centre, where we headed upstairs and met Alan Barker, deputy project director of the Lee Tunnel Project.  Alan Barker knows more about large scale tunnelling projects than anyone else I've ever met.  He begins by giving us a quick explanation of why we need a big tunnel like this.

In the late C19 London stunk.  The Thames reeked so badly that the House of Commons was unable to sit even with curtains soaked in calcium chloride put up.  A solution had to be found.  The man who provided it?  Sir Joseph Bazalgette.  His brick-built sewerage system transported London's waste far away from the City where it could be dumped far out to sea.  It's a mind-boggling feat of Victoria engineering, much of it still in use to this very day.  But we have a problem; and they're known as Combined Sewer Overflows.  This is a safety valve  for when it rains too much. To keep the system working these overflows redirect sewage from the Abbey Mills pumping station into the River Lee.  Which isn't great for the River Lee, or the Thames into which it empties.

Abbey Mills Pumping Station - a very pretty piece of sewage infrastructure
To prevent this sort of thing happening the Lee Tunnel is being built.  It'll act as a kind of giant storage tank, gently sloping 2km down from Abbey Mills to the Beckton plant where we are now. When operational this tunnel will stop about 16 million tonnes of sewage entering the River Lee (and by extension the Thames) each year.

The 'Busy Lizzie' Tunnel Boring Machine
The scale of this kind of thing is stupendous.  To avoid everything else that's under London Thames Water has to burrow deep into the London chalk, eventually excavating 870,000 tonnes of spoil.  To do this, we have the monstrous Tunnel Boring Machine, named 'Busy Lizzie', that crawls like a giant metal earthworm under the city.  She weighs 1,600 tonnes, is 120m long and moves at about 100mm a minute.  It's an impressively big bit of hardware, but then everything in this project is gargantuan in scale.

It's a very big shaft
After the talk we get ourselves dressed up in helmets and high visibility gear and are driven over to have a look at the Beckton Overflow Shaft.  Peering into it is gives you an automatic shiver of worry.  It's a foreboding looking chasm, sinking deep down into the ground with obvious way in or out.  Faintly at the bottom we can see water trickling down the sides, forming a small pool at the bottom.   To get in and out, a crane has to lower men down in a basket and once you're in you're not getting out.   Questions are asked about the tunnelling procedure, and we're told how it would be a bad thing if they hit a fissure in the chalk.  I ask "What would happen?".  The response, "it would be bad".  I press a bit further, "the shaft would flood with water and we'd either have to pump it out or freeze it.  Fair enough. 

One big hole.
Staring into such a big hole as this has the effect of making you feel personally insignificant, while also impressing upon you the scale on which man can effect change upon his world.  We're told that they envisage the Lee Tunnel being used until about 2162, which feels as unimaginably futuristic to us as 2012 would to Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1862.  

What today has impressed upon me is that London is a massively complicated work in progress.  Cities must not only strive to improve themselves, but like the Red Queen in 'Alice in Wonderland' we must run incredibly fast merely to stay in the same place.  Infrastructure we put in place now are gifts to future generations, our descendants occupying a London that may be unrecognisable to us in social and cultural terms, but nonetheless built on our shoulders, much as we build upon the shoulders of those that came before us.

This might not be the most glamorous, high-profile side of London life, but it's important to get to grips with what is going on under the skin of the city.  Big thanks to Open Doors, Skanska and Morgan Sindall for agreeing to open their sites to the public, and huge thanks to the staff that gave up their weekends to show curious people like me around unique parts of the city.

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