An old sewage pumping station in London might not be the obvious choice for a weekend outing, but the colour + shape blog is all about exploring fantastic interiors and I'll always go the extra mile to see fabulous design and decoration, even if it takes me to the most unlikely places. I'll plumb the depths of spaces old and new, domestic or otherwise, and in this case, industrial. So onwards and, well, downwards actually, right down the pan! Off I went to see the place dubbed the 'Cistern Chapel'.
Located by the Thames on the old Erith Marshes, within the borough of Bexley, Crossness Pumping Station was originally opened in 1865 as part of Joseph Bazalgette's answer to 'The Great Stink' of 1858, when an intensely hot summer caused the stench of the heavily polluted river to overwhelm the city, and more specifically, the Houses of Parliament. Once MPs were affected, so much so that the building's curtains were soaked in lime chloride to alleviate the foul smell, huge investment was sanctioned for a massive civil engineering project and a new sewerage system was created. At Crossness, steam-powered pumps diverted sewage from the new tunnels into a reservoir from which it was released at high tide to be carried out to sea. It had a dramatic impact; air quality and drinking water were greatly improved and cholera virtually eradicated. The station was in use until 1956 when work began on a new treatment plant and in the following decades the buildings and their contents were abandoned, left largely to the elements and vandalism. Grade I listed in 1970, in 1985 the Crossness Engines Trust began its restoration, focusing on the Beam Engine House and Prince Consort, the last of the engines to have been in use 30 years before. All four engines were named after members of the royal family; Victoria, Albert Edward and Alexandra sit alongside each other in a vast, lofty space that is still part rusty, but part resplendent.
Wow! The Victorians certainly knew how to do public works with style. As soon as I donned my hardhat and stepped inside I was amazed at the thought of this beautifully structured, highly crafted building, with its ornate decoration, being built for such a functional purpose. A celebration of sewerage, it is at once clear why it has been called 'The Crossness Cathedral', it rightly elevates what was a vitally important undertaking at the time. Surrounding the four pumps is a mass of decorative cast ironwork formed around cylindrical columns that rise up from the ground floor through to the upper levels. Like entering a church, you instantly look up to the light and are drawn to the central octagonal arcade, which supports a frieze of regimented yet twisting leaves and tendrils. Above these sit panels, one of which commemorates the site's contractor William Webster, and the others are emblazoned with the monogram of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which was formed in 1855 and, with Bazalgette as Chief Engineer, was responsible for the new sewerage system. This is repeated in the cast iron screens that fill four sides of this stunning central space, the letters intertwined within circles surrounded by symmetrical floral pattern and fleur-de-lys. The column's capitals are also swathed in botanical embellishment, acanthus stand upright whilst ivy-like leaves and delicate bell shaped buds curve and drape outwards. Such opulent and organic decoration does seem oddly incongruous with the building's purpose, and with the rich Victorian hues of crimson red and deep forest green, alongside creamy white and accents of royal blue, the colours and structures of markets such as Leadenhall and Covent Garden come to mind. However, the building does reference the areas served by Crossness, above the original north entrance the royal coat of arms is surrounded by six shields derived from those of Westminster, the City of London, Middlesex, Kent, Colchester and Guildford, the latter two representing Essex and Surrey respectively.
Two further arcades at either end of the space support the beam fulcrums and ascending the stairs you reach a scrolling balustrade with twisted posts sitting at the top of the octagon on the highest level. From here you can appreciate the elegant groups of elongated arched windows with iron sashes and panelling below, as well as viewing the enormous beams. The restored Prince Consort was in action, rising and dipping smoothly through the perforated cast iron flooring, the scallop-shaped design representative of the rippling river outside, but also allowing the engines' heat to rise to ventilation points above. By contrast, the rusty patina of the untouched beams shows the incredible restoration work that has been undertaken at Crossness and this is apparent all around as worn surfaces are juxtaposed with gleaming, glossy paintwork; it is possible to see a column or screen divided, the perfect 'before and after'. It is fascinating to see restoration work in progress and wonderful to have access to these strikingly different states rather than simply seeing a completed transformation. The restored ironwork has been stripped of rust; smaller elements removed and grit-blasted, and immovable parts cleaned with pneumatic needle guns, then coated with preservative before being repainted in colours close to those originally used. Whilst traces remained on the decorative features, the engine's painted livery was virtually destroyed, so is possibly less accurate in representing its original colours.
The interior of Crossness is magnificent and highly atmospheric as this cavernous space mixes steel girders with elegant detail and powerful colour, telling of the sense of pride that must have been taken in such craftsmanship and engineering. It certainly makes me reflect on our changing social values and how these impact architecture and design, in the same way I do when passing through a run-down railway station. Which places matter and which places don't, and shouldn't they all? Whilst I am often a lover of modern architecture, the nearby post-war blocks that house today's Thames Water at Crossness seem to beg this question.
Whilst it is the interior that undoubtedly steals the show, the exterior of the buildings at Crossness cannot be ignored. Italianate in character and contrasting Suffolk Whites with red brick arches, photos of the original buildings, composed of the Beam Engine House, Boiler Room, Valve House, Workshop and Campanile housing the chimney, show them as a gleaming and elegant group, and how wonderful it would be to see them fully restored to this condition. The Campanile no longer exists and the Beam Engine House was extended in 1898, the Triple Expansion Engine House added to its side. The original mansard roof was also later replaced. Yet, as it is, they are still beautiful buildings. All are in a cohesive and controlled style, labelled as Venetian Rundbogenstil (round arch style), yet the side entrance to the Beam Engine House (now within the added building) is a grand doorway in a style derived from Norman Romanesque, and as such they are perhaps typical of the eclectic approach often found in Victorian architecture. The semi-circular arches of the tall windows are frequently mirrored in the brickwork above, resting on rows of decorative corbels. On the first floor the neatly grouped windows are separated by stone columnettes topped with unique capitals; one of which may depict Joseph Bazalgette. It is not certain who was responsible for the buildings' design, but they are thought to be the work of architect Charles Driver (1832-1900), renowned for creating railway stations, and for his use of decorative ironwork. Similarities in the brickwork exist between Crossness and his buildings at Leatherhead, Dorking and Denmark Hill stations. An architect's watercolour depicting the proposed buildings, and signed by Driver, is held by the Crossness Engines Trust, but his level of involvement, whether concept design or supervisory, is unclear. During its working life, the Crossness site also featured a number of houses built for its staff on what then would have been a relatively remote location. Using the same brick they mirrored the working buildings and the Trust's guidebook interestingly outlines what is known of life at Crossness and the community that developed there.
The work of the Trust, supported by its volunteers and funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund amongst others, has made for a great visitor experience at Crossness. A neatly kept terrace between the Valve House and Fitting Shop provides an outside space from which to sit and survey the buildings, and the Boiler Room now serves as a space for a café, shop and exhibition that contextualises the pumping station, exploring the history of London's sewerage system and relating it to the domestic environment; examples of toilets and their paraphernalia from different eras, from cisterns to chains to paper dispensers (remember that crinkly kind at school?) It is an extraordinary place and testament to the importance of preserving our industrial heritage. As for interiors, Crossness not only gives us an incredible space full of glorious decorative features, demonstrating the engineering prowess of the Victorians and the status such public works were afforded, but it also reminds us to think beyond our immediate domestic surroundings, of the infrastructure that provides our daily comforts, that has transformed them and is part of our social history. Flushed with pride, who knew sewerage could be so splendid?