Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Viewed from Stratford’s Greenway, Abbey Mills Pumping Station rises into view like a temple.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

The elaborate waste pumping station is a Victorian creation by the master of sewers himself; Joseph Bazalgette and is often described as a ‘cathedral to sewage’ (or the Cistern Chapel!)

All this for sewage?!

I like to imagine it as the result of Bazalgette being fed up that all his engineering genius was hidden below ground, so he took his chance to show off in plain sight.

What does Abbey Mills do?

Built in a Greek cross and looking like an Orthadox Church. Bazalgette shouldn’t get all the credit, it was also designed by Edmund Cooper and the architect was Charles Driver, built between 1865 and 1868.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

London has a natural North-South slope so mostly the city’s sewage flows downhill. Historically there were a few places where it needs an extra ‘lift’ and one of these spots is Abbey Mills. There are other pumping stations in Chelsea and Thamesmead, but this is the only fully operational one now.

Here’s one of the huge sewage pipes that pumps London waste out to the treatment works at Beckton.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Over the threshold, you see that ornamentation is still on a par with functionality.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Apart from a few exit signs and safety notices, there’s no escaping the fact it’s beautiful.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

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A Closer Look

You’ll spot details everywhere, the doors and covered in Celtic brass and copper florets;

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

And, of course, it’s worth looking up, especially at the Russian Orthodox-style octagonal lantern.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

The whole design is a fabulous mix of Italian Venetian, French Gothic, Flemish and Byzantine – with each flourish seemingly chosen on aesthetic grounds rather than conforming to a set style.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

And – believe it or not – this is the paired down version.

Printed boards show the original colours that decorated the interior.

With the entirety painted in lurid technicolour, it would resemble its dolled-up (and easier to visit) sister station; Crossness.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Historical Clues

Incredibly, the exterior was once even more elaborate. When first built the station had two high chimneys on either side, looking like Mosque minarets;

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Early 20th century photo from an information display inside the station.

The two chimneys were demolished at the outbreak of WWII because of the fear they’d be toppled over and fall onto the vital pumping station.

Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

The huge bases of the chimneys are still visible in the grounds, but our guide said there were no plans to resurrect them.

Visiting

Because it’s a working site, Abbey Mills is notorious hard to get inside. You’re best bet is Open House Weekend (when I managed to book onto a free tour). They also do run tours during London Sewer Week, but apparently this had a two year waiting list! Whoever knew sewage was such a popular attraction?

Discover more East End history

The Spirit of Spitalfields is my 90 minute walking tour through Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shoreditch. Full of contrasts and known as the “cradle of migration”, the East End is an area of constant change with an ancient history. Placed on the fringe of the encroaching City we will discover the past, present and future of this vibrant and bustling area of London.

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Inside Abbey Mills Pumping Station

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