It’s a commonly known fact that the most interesting places in the world are underground. In some cases, this is because nature sneakily creates vast, weird and wonderful formations of rock and water and whatnot beneath us, unseen. In other cases it’s because man has built impressively intricate subterranean structures that most people don’t even know are there. The latter is the case for Brighton’s Victorian sewers, spanning some 44 miles of tunnels, leaving the hapless souls above clueless as to their existence. Southern Water are noble enough to trudge through with members of the public from time to time, however – so I got a look at what’s down there.The sewer system in Brighton runs under the whole city, with four major channels – one coming in from Hove, one from Kemp Town, one via London Rd and one via Lewes Road. These tunnels were built in the middle of the 19th Century, for a city that was previously served by a system of cesspools.
Relying on manual labour to build them, and gravity to power them, the Victorian tunnels under Brighton are expertly designed to drag the city’s waste towards the seafront, filtered for solids by things like scumboards and a reverse egg-shape design that controlled the speed of the water.
Now, the water doesn’t flow to the seafront, but to treatment plants to the east (and under the Volks marina station, there’s an absolutely huge tunnel – unfortunately not part of the tour). All this has been built a world apart from the city above, where you’re unlikely to imagine there are people pottering about beneath, sometimes even jetting about on boats, scraping fat off the walls and the like.
The sewer tour took us through the point where the four sewer tunnels more or less converge, just north of the pier. It’s incredible to see how developed all these tunnels are, directly below the busy roads of Marine Parade above.
On show: the various chambers that allow this sewer system to operate, the overflow tanks, the storm valves and ladders into the water. And the water itself. Which was about as grim as you would expect. The picture above shows the collected waste of the imperishable produce that people hurl into their toilets: sanitary towels, cloth wipes and other undesirables. Which our guides took every opportunity to deride.
The sewage workers’ job is a glamorous one. They have to stop these tunnels from blocking up by carefully monitoring all that solid waste that the system was not designed for. Keep it to the Three Ps they told us – Piss, Poo and Paper. Naturally. We were reminded on a few occasions how dangerous it is down there, too – a sudden storm could cause a flash flood that leaves you with no change. Though they have all sorts of warning systems in place, so they said. You’re more likely to buy it by slipping on the wet floor and land face-down in crap-water.
The sewer itself doesn’t smell as bad as you’d think, though they did warn that the rats scurrying around the walls and rails are liable to leaving diseases behind. So touching orifices was advised against. You can’t help but imagine their day to day life is less clean, as they did mention that the tunnels we were shown had been hosed down and disinfected.
In all the tour showed only a fraction of the tunnels that span the city, culminating in a massive unlit tunnel that led to the point where the two major north-running tunnels meet. And lo, we got to climb out of a man-hole cover in the middle of a busy square. Fulfilling any young man’s dream.
There are some things in life that everyone should aspire to do. Exploring the world beneath your city is one of them; and hats off to the Brighton sewer workers for putting on such a cheery and entertaining tour. My biggest regret when I left Moscow was that I never got to see the enormous underground bunker in the centre of the city. Never again, I said. And here I stand today, an accomplished man who has seen what lies beneath Brighton.
If you want to take the tour yourself, check their site here. But you’ll have to wait until May now, as it becomes too dangerous after September.