Monday, September 12, 2016

A Sewer Love Story

Last year I looked forward with great anticipation to the Brighton Sewer tour, which had been on my bucket-list almost since I started out on my journey of toilet obsession. But alas, a month before the tour was to take place I got an e-mail saying all tours for the year had been canceled due to flooding. Determined to have a sewage adventure of some sort I searched and found the Paris Sewer Museum. I put out an open call to my facebook friends, and found a partner in crime, undeterred by the thought of a weekend of sewage, toilet hunting and eating snails. Despite my having a horrible hacking cough the whole time (arguably the authentic bohemian experience?) that trip turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  I am now engaged to my patient, long suffering travel companion... and he even proposed with a sewer rat puppet.

Six months after getting engaged my fiancé and I finally managed to go down those Brighton Sewers, which are at least partially to thank for bringing us together. So with nearly three years of anticipation riding on them those sewers had a lot to live up to! They did not disappoint.

Our tour began at 9:30 and we waited on the wall outside the entrance with a group of other sewer enthusiasts. Mostly couples, a few families and a few lone travelers. We had a full group of 25, which is the maximum they take.

As we entered were issued with hard hats and rubber gloves and taken into a small room for an introduction. Four guides, all of whom have worked the sewers for many years took it in turns to give us health and safety and a bit of history.

The story parallels that of most large cities in the UK: Brighton's sewers were built in the 1860's in response to population growth and exciting diseases like cholera. Improvements have been made since then, but much of it is still the Victorian system.

Until fairly recently parts of the sewers were tidal... that is when there was not enough water from the household waste to keep things moving gates could be opened twice a day to let in the high tide and flush out the chambers. You can still see barnacles on the walls.

When they are flowing they flow fast! One tunnel we were taken to see moved at about 30 miles per hour... fast enough to knock you over if you stand in it (not recommended.) If you  are standing in sewage and feel yourself going down the first thing you should do is close your mouth. As our guide put it, "You've established you're going for a swim... you don't need to drink it as well."

Sewer men generally work between 2am and 6am as the safest time to go down is while everybody else is asleep (it used to be midnight and 4am, but night clubs have shifted that.) They clean out grit and grease that block up the sewers. Most of them remember when cleaning grit had an added bonus in the form of coins, rings, gold teeth, pocket watches and other treasures that made their way into the sewers. But these days instead of shoveling grit by hand they pump it into a truck.

We walked through the large overflow tunnel and climbed a ladder to emerge in a park a few blocks away from where we began. I wonder if people thought it was strange to see an army of people emerging from the sewers, or if by now the locals are used to it.

We hiked back to the start of the tour to wash our hands, collect our backs and receive goodies and pamphlets. Most of the gifts and indeed much had to do with keeping drains clean. As one guide explained it, the drains coming out of your home are usually only 4 inches thick... so if you let grease start piling up it doesn't take long to obstruct them. Actually most of the point of the tour seemed to be not to indulge curious lovebirds with a sanitation fixation, but to spread the gospel of clean drains. A worthy cause indeed!

I suppose the only appropriate way to end this post is to say that I hope that my marriage will be as enduring and the sewers. That we will treat our relationship with care and respect and not dump grease, wet wipes, ear cleaners or dead goldfish on it (metaphorically or literally.)  That though there may be grit to clean from time to time, we may find the gold and false teeth to make it worthwhile.

wedding vows: check!

Happy Family

One of our tour guides with Ratty


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