I wrote this piece for Time Out in 2005 and for some reason it’s never been available online. Until now.
It’s only as the filthy brown water rises above my thigh-high waders and my feet struggle to grip the tunnel’s slimy floor that I realise that drowning in a river of shit after breaking into a London sewer would be a really, really crap way to die.
It all began so well. I found Jondoe and Stoop, two urban explorers who get their kicks investigating drains, lost rivers and derelict buildings, on the internet and asked them if I could come on their next journey beneath the city streets.
We met near Farringdon. The plan is to explore one of London’s lost rivers, the Fleet, which once flowed from Hampstead to Blackfriars. Although long bricked over, the Fleet, like many of London’s old rivers, still flows underground through a series of pipes and culverts. Joseph Bazalgette integrated these rivers into his sewer system, using them as storm-relief drains to carry overspill into the Thames when the main east-west sewers were swelled beyond capacity. These days, heavy rain can still cause sewage to flow into the river via the Fleet.
Jondoe and Stoop have been in the Fleet before, but turned back when the stench became overwhelming for even these experienced drainers. This time, they are determined to reach the end. They believe no other UK urban explorer has made the trip, largely because it takes considerable planning to find a way into London drains. Urban explorers are driven by a combination of adrenalin and curiosity, and take their hobby seriously. This trip has been months in the planning. They’ve popped many manholes looking for the right entry point, and the weather has to be right – no rain for at least three days before we enter.
In a nearby car park, we change into waders, boiler suits, flourescent vests and hard hats – the latter more for disguise than protection. Carrying a couple of traffic cones, we’re suddenly transformed into construction workers, practically invisible to passers-by. Nobody bats an eyelid as we walk through busy streets to the selected manhole, stick some cones round it, lift the cover and climb down the ladder into the gloom.
We enter a feeder tunnel with a five-foot ceiling, which means we have to abandon our hats and walk with cricked necks. It’s cramped, damp, dank and dirty but doesn’t smell too bad. Stoop and Jondoe glide like skaters along the slippery floor while I splash clumsily behind, using slimy walls to keep my balance. We head downwards along a series of mini-waterfalls. The light and noise that intermittently emerges from the grates overhead suggest we aren’t getting deeper, but simply following the gradient of the road. It’s a curious feeling, being isolated in the dark but with occasional glimpses of London reminding us that normal life continues up above.
Eventually we reach the end of the feeder tunnel and swing into the Fleet itself using broadband cables that make useful subterranean handrails. It stinks in here and the air is heavy with a strange mist. Jondoe points north, to where the Fleet is blocked by the main east-west sewer. Ominous clumps of matter fester in pools all around. ‘Don’t disturb them,’ he says. ‘It’ll be full of gas that just sits there and collects.’
As he speaks, one of the hard hats we’d left by the entry point shoots out of the feeder tunnel on a wave and floats towards the Thames, bobbing along the shallow water that moves sluggishly down the centre of the tunnel.
We follow, heading south. The tunnel is around ten feet tall and wide, so we can walk two abreast. It’s about the same size as a tube tunnel. The smell slowly subsides, although lumps of faeces and toilet paper gather in places where they’ve washed against the brickwork. Otherwise, there’s just a trickle of brown water ferrying the odd cotton-bud downriver.
It’s no hellhole, but still a far cry from the Fleet’s sixteenth-century heyday as one of London’s key tributaries, when, flanked by wharves and warehouses, it was a centre of London commerce. It separated Westminster from the City and carried cargo to the Thames, was compared unfavourably with the four rivers of Hades by Ben Jonson, was briefly turned into a canal and then covered in portions from 1732, by which time it was little more than an open sewer.
But this was not the end of it. In 1846, the Fleet exploded, its sewage gasses bursting the street above, rendering King’s Cross Road impassable, destroying Clerkenwell poorhouses and smashing a Thames steamboat against Blackfriars Bridge. This river, it seems, has a habit of coming back to ambush those who thought it dead and buried.
Almost two centuries later, traffic and police sirens are audible overhead, competing with the constant crash of water that flows from numerous side tunnels, feeding the central trickle. Rats stop and stare as we walk past. I nervously keep my torch shining on them until we have moved on.
Before Ludgate Circus, the Fleet splits into two parallel tunnels, directly replicating the pattern of Farringdon Street overhead. Otherwise, it’s impossible to work out exactly where we are. The tunnel heads south, but is full of turns. At one point we notice large iron rings cemented into the wall. They are support for scaffolding, but look like mooring rings. Throughout, the Victorian brickwork is surprisingly beautiful for something that is so rarely seen.
After about two miles of trudging, we emerge into an enormous end chamber, more than 20-feet high and elaborate in design and construction. Two short tunnels lead from here, ending in huge metal flaps, which we assume open directly into the Thames.
After taking pictures, we head back. Immediately, we realise there’s a problem. It’s much harder to walk uphill against the flow of water. On the way down, the water was a stream, heading back, it’s more like a river. We labour onwards and upwards in the dark, but it’s tough work.
Stoop eventually says what we’ve all been thinking. ‘Is it just me,’ he asks, ‘Or is the water getting deeper?’
Water which before barely covered our feet is now above our knees, flooding downhill towards us at pace and rising slowly all the time. Wading into the tide, our clothes are heavy with water and our feet struggle to grip the slimy stone floor. Panicking rats scurry up the walls to get out the way of the bubbling water.
It’s frightening. Nobody knows we are down here and as our pace slows I begin to ponder our options. Should we press on, or brave a side tunnel, where a ladder may at least take us above water level, so we can sit it out. But how long would that take? And what if the water keeps rising and the side tunnel we’re in doesn’t have access to the street?
We reach a turn where the water has become a torrent and Stoop tries to brace himself against the tide but instead starts sliding backwards towards me, threatening to skittle us all into the dirty water. For a split second I consider what an undignified death this would make, and with one final effort we press on, forcing ourselves to a point where we can stand without getting knocked off our feet. But we’re exhausted.
Then Jondoe shouts, ‘That’s where we came in!’ It is indeed. We pull ourselves up into the feeder drain via the broadband cable and watch the river below us boil to a frenzy. The Fleet is back with a vengeance. Later Jondoe explains, ‘Somewhere further up the sewer they must have been doing some maintenance and so diverted the flow down the Fleet.’ It is, he says, something he’s never experienced before.
Twenty minutes later, after an exhausting walk through the smaller drain in the course of which I bang my head several times on overhanging pipes and bricks, I haul my battered, sodden body up the ladder and into the sunshine. It’s bright outside. The air smells clean. Half-a-dozen people across the road pay us no heed as we emerge from the manhole and sit slumped in the road, moving only to remove our waders and empty them back down the drain.
We trek back to the car in soaking socks, leaving a trail of footprints behind us.