February 2005: On the Southern Outfall The vast pipe cut across the land, running parallel with a road so quiet the nearby flats seemed deserted on the grey afternoon. The pipe was easily taller than the warehouses it passed along its course. A footpath, edged by stray winter heliotrope and oilseed rape, ran along the structure’s top and, walking it, I had a fine view of the modern high-security prison a quarter of a mile away. Every hundred yards or so the northern edge was marked by what looked like a viewing platform but was actually an access point into the dark interior. Irons, their surface etched with interpenetrating triangles like Tibetan yantras, led through to places I would never see. Towards its end the tube turned slightly and ran directly into the side of a brown blockhouse. In doing so it was presumably sheered of the soil and grass covering which had clad it through its journey above the factories and the streets. To the right of this terminal point, where a striped barrier blocked the road, stood a pre-formed fibreglass shack. Bored faces stared out at my arrival from its scratched Perspex windows. Beyond the security hut the road disappeared over a small rise. There was a suggestion of watery light emanating from whatever was over that hill, and gulls, their white mass blotched by the odd rook, wheeled above a high dirt embankment topped by sinister-looking structures. This is the end-point where Time stops, and the city, obsessed with its own events, passes no further. The guard, smoking and corpulent wandered out to ask me what I wanted. I tried to get him to describe the function of the various plants and structures visible from the gate but he hardly seemed to know this was a sewage farm. I wandered back down the road, the way I had come and turned left into a narrow zone of brambles and willows. Here a footpath ran alongside a new road, one not marked in my 1962 edition of the Geographers’ Atlas of Greater London. On my left a tall embankment rose to dense masses of elder and sycamore. A brown horse, browsing along the path, started on seeing me and ran on ahead. Cars rushed past along the road as I climbed up the embankment at a point where the dense shrub-layer was replaced by wavering masses of Chervil. I had hoped to see over into the large aeration lagoon whose edge was undoubtedly formed by the large earthwork seen from the gatehouse shortly before. Bad luck! It was too far off, but between its edge and myself lay a clearly visible lower pool. Two silvery pipes mounted in a concrete plinth abutted over the water’s surface and clear liquid rushed through here. Masses of gulls floated beneath the pipes. Every few seconds the birds would rise and collectively cling to the face of the concrete, the whole act accompanied by screeching and mewling. Above them, where stranded sick-looking trees topped the edge of the lagoon, rooks gazed down on the grey mass. Further off, outlined against the sky, what looked like a train carriage straight out of the Wild West stood propped up on concrete stilts above the lagoon’s surface. I stood aghast, my mind straining to comprehend this curious place.
A wave of late sunlight burst across the embankment and I turned round and looked south to where I knew the belt of wooded hills hid the remains of an abbey dating from before the dissolution. In the middle distance, over the road, a large area of pasture broken by dried stems of dock gave onto rows of nineteenth century houses and a grim-looking church. I heard the crack of a stick below me and a fox climbed the embankment. This light brown, black-nosed beast lurched upwards until, on reaching the top he stopped, having noticed me sitting there. After a moment’s halt he ran off under a large globule of brambles, reappearing on the further side, his body pressed close to the ground, his head craned to spy on me. Something in the fox’s demeanour – a curiosity evident in his face perhaps – assured me there would be no sudden rush to escape my presence and in this I was correct. Nosing cautiously forwards from out of the shrubs he edged towards me, backing off momentarily when I turned my face the better to view him. Having approached to within four metres or so, Reynard sat back on his haunches in a manner identical to any other dog, his front legs straight and supporting his upperbody and head. The black bulls-eye of his nose twitched as if he were checking me out for a ham sandwich but I only had my tobacco. His grey/brown ears never stopped moving, first forward then back, picking up all the local sounds. Ten minutes passed while he and I continued to scrutinise one another. It was a momentary truce in the war between our respective systems, an uneasy negotiation between the human and the natural. There was a completion in this act – the two of us sitting ten feet apart and absorbing the warmth of the evening sun. Eventually, though, I had to go. As I descended the bank I turned and looked back. Reynard still sat, tilting his head and watching me leave. As I traced further ahead along the path to where the substation stood in its silence I felt I carried with me a gift: so often, I find, this probing is rewarded; so often something is delivered up.
Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou walks London's Southern Outfall Sewer