Don’t walk the Greenway unless you like the smell of sewage. Let me rephrase that: unless you can tolerate the smell of sewage, a bit. I can’t think of many people who actively enjoy the smell of sewage*. Let me start again.
If you start at the east end of the Greenway, you’ll be smelling some sewage. The Gallions Reach Shopping Park (where we got a pre-ramble latte) really leads on the “consumerism + stench” experience that all the young people are talking about. Thankfully, the sewage smell recedes rapidly** as you head west towards the Olympic Site. Not that this olfactory theme park ends there – regular wafts greet the rambler along the length of the route. This is the stale water smell of sewers, though, not the more vibrant pong of bacteria feasting on what another organism spills.
I’m being rather coy about this, but of course the Greenway is a sewer. Not just any sewer – Joseph Bazalgette’s Northern Outfall Sewer, a sewer built to serve all of North London in the 1860s onward. It’s huge – over 4 miles long, and Bazalgette famously used high estimates for population density and per person, er, capacity, and then doubled the diameter of the required sewer – resulting in the watery behemoth we see today. In its day it used pumps and gravity to spirit away all of North London’s sewage, dumping it into the Thames at a safe distance to prevent the river currents carrying it west, as occurred in 1858, precipitating the Great Stink. The Greenway must be over 25 feet wide and elevated over the surrounding landscape, but it’s difficult to tell how much of that is sewer. Water engineering scholars?
One of the genuine highlights of the walk is the Abbey Mills Pumping Station – a classic bit of Victoriana, twinned on the south bank with the Crossness Pumping Station (which occasionally opens to visitors). Sadly behind barbed-wire fences (presumably because it houses the new pumping station as well), it is at least visible from the path, a “Cathedral to sewage” in all it’s glory. If you’re looking for landmarks at the east end, the “Beckton Alps” are landscaped piles of toxic waste*** created by the nearby Beckton Gas Works – which were the filming location for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
It’s a walk I’d recommend – the Greenway ploughs a (nearly) straight-as-an-arrow path through the history of the docklands, from the pre-development Beckton with its wastelands and Thames beaches, through to the work-in-progress that is the Olympic Park. As long as you enjoy the smell of excrement.
*and they were on the ramble, so at least someone was happy.
**possibly there’s some kind of diffusion equation drop off, but who’s smelling
*** this is very much the approach taken to dealing with slag heaps in Telford Newtown – the town that CASA academic Sue Batty helped design, and I grew up in