What was the pull of the southern outfall sewer? Waste disposal converted into green utility, a paragraph in a government urban open spaces report, greenwashing a soon to be deleted New Labour quango.
The night before the walk I perused satellite images of the Crossness sewage treatment works on Google Map. A perfect geometric mat of cylinders inside neat squares with a green baize border nestled snugly against the southern bank of the Thames at Cross Ness Point. Grass it over and the indentations in the ground would be as mysterious as the Nazca Lines.
We arrived an hour later than planned at Plumstead Station, the grey sky hanging ominously low. A tourist snap of the Plumstead Radical Club and off under the traffic island to the beginning of the Green Chain Walk – Plumstead to Lesnes Abbey branch.
At first this seemed a far more visual landscape than an audible one. You want to gaze and wonder at Bostall Woods rising on a high dark ridge from the Plumstead Marshes. It was the monks of Lesnes Abbey just beyond that ridge who first drained the marshes and fought a constant battle against the flood tides of the Thames.
We needed to force out some content for the show and soon dropped into our stride, and began to tune into the sounds drifting in off the flatlands – the metal clanking on the Woolwich Industrial Esate, seagulls and water foul descending on the lake at Thamesmead Estate, the low hum of an electricity substation. We took this all in the elevated view afforded from the atop the covered sewage pipe.
Thamesmead takes you by surprise from the raised embankment of the sewer. Like the Brunswick Centre and a couple of towers from the Barbican picked up and dropped on a conveniently empty patch of land, like a giant had put them down there whilst shuffling around the other city centre blocks and forgot to put them back.
We squabble over whether it is a modernist dream gone bad with a helping hand from Stanley Kubrick or a thoroughly decent place to live – Brutalism-on-Thames. I put forward my belief that Debordian psychogeography came out of a strident critique of the failure of the modernist dream. The concrete Corbusian landscapes the modernist architects created and its channeling of human movement, spirit and soul along its preordained routes antithetical to the psychogeographers’ notion of the city as a place of drift and free association liberated from notions of planned space.
Nick fantasizes that the only other deep topographer in the world lives atop one of the towers chronicling and archiving the life of the region. He might be right.
The view afforded from the 16th storey of the estate would be a vast panorama from its location just shy of Cross Ness – a promontory jutting out into the Thames. Northwards, the imagined topographer could look across Hornchurch Marshes to the high grounds of Essex around at Chigwell and Loughton. Eastwards would offer a view well out into the Thames estuary over the flickering beacon of the lighthouse at Jenningtree Point. Westwards would be low ground as far as I don’t know where, but the Northern Heights of Hampstead and Highgate would most likely be in view to the north-west on clear days. And to the South the vista would stretch beyond the boundary of the city and into Kent.
There was no need for a map on this walk, ascend the raised footpath and yomp along till the path runs out. So much of our usual banter about route, maps and compasses was irrelevant for now (until we reached the end and found ourselves utterly lost).
Soon we had reached terminus. The path just peters out into a thorny hedge near the gates of the plant. The sewage colony slumbering behind the security barrier. It’s a peaceful spot. A landscape incomparably large in London, a flat 37 acre site punctuated with brick buildings and pylons. Every Londoner should make the trip this way once in their life, Nick would make this a compulsory pilgrimage. Without the sewage works here at Cross Ness and over the river at Barking its doubtful London would be the city that it is today – consumed as it would have been by the Great Stink of the free floating effluent choking up Old Father Thames.