This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I can still taste it. The thick fug, the stench. A gas so hot and odorous it felt like liquid wisping down my throat, a kind of bin-water dry ice. A smell so foul, so incomprehensible you wonder how evolution has allowed our senses to continue to let it register. It was the smell of 8.6 million people's indiscretion. The waft of a slob metropolis. Welcome to London's sewers: They're in a bit of a pickle.
It was a perfectly fine day to dip my toes into the effluence of a city. A lovely warm morning in Whitehall, a place where men in bowler hats open doors for lazy rich people in their lazy clothes, the kind of rich people who can spend thousands on an outfit and still end up looking like they got it from Jacamo. Opposite the manhole I was about to descend into was a hotel called the Corinthia, and it was the muck of its cisterns, baths, showers and sinks that I'd be wading through. Perhaps it won't be so bad, I thought. Perhaps I will be able to forage for whole oysters, good enough to eat straight off the pipe, instead of the Peperami and Irn Bru dysentery hammered down the pipes by the proles elsewhere in the city.
My contact, Becky, was sitting on the step of the van parked near the manhole. She was already suited and booted, as were the rest of the team, a mixture of harrowed looking older men and eager young welps. One of the guys described himself as a "sewer nerd," such is his love of the complex architectural magnificence of London's shit-filtering system.
They kitted me out with everything I'd need to not get covered in or swept away by a tidal wave of said shit: a hard hat with a light on, a harness, two different types of glove, a white protective suit, and a pair of boots that came up to my ass. We were all also fitted with what the guys call a "turtle," a kind of emergency breathing apparatus in case the miasma of lost lunches became too much to handle.
It was time to be lowered into the madness. Apparently, there are different types of sewer "tour." This one was a fatberg tour, people's interest in them being piqued by slow-news-day stories about 15-ton lumps of congealed alabaster hell being discovered beneath the ground we walk on, like new subterranean continents made out of human waste. Other tours take people down so they can marvel at the brickwork, little more than a trickle of slurry brushing past their wellies. Ours would be a bit more intense.
Leaning over and looking into the dark hole wasn't as daunting as I thought it'd be. It was just like looking down a stinky chimney. It was only when two of the crew had gone below, their hat-mounted lights illuminating the darkness, that the apprehension started. The bottom of the pit was encrusted in a thick soup. It did not look inviting.
I was helped into the goo by one of the team. What I found wasn't at all what I was expecting.
Instead of the flowing brook of liquid crap and friendly looking mice I'd expected to find, there was a thigh-high river of fat running as far as torches allowed the eye to see in either direction. I'd expected to find basically an underground system of streets, punctuated by the odd gigantic, bus-sized fatberg but the sewers literally were a fatberg.
As I stepped down off the ladder, the pressure of the highly compacted fat immediately constricted, making sucking noises as it locked itself back round my legs. I felt like I was getting the bends off cooking oil and degraded napkins. My arteries shuddered.
This stretch of sewer was truly dystopian. The gorgeous Victorian architecture, the helix brickwork spinning away overhead into the different tunnels, is undeniably remarkable. How it has lasted for so long is mind-destroying; the place that, surely, is the most susceptible to erosion still going strong after over 150 years. But what we're doing to it is sad. Clinging to the wall was a blackened, loamy bank of dark lard, riddled with white worms and weird bugs, and shining, almost moving, with deep orange fly eggs.
The smell was just a bit musty to begin with, the sort of thing the London Dungeon pumps into its exhibits to simulate what a Jack the Ripper crime scene may have smelt like. But as soon as Gari, one of the team, tore open a ream of fat with a shovel, a hot reek assaulted your nasal passage. An indescribable odor, not shit, not vomit, not blood nor cum, but something else entirely. It was as if you'd opened the world's biggest dishwasher mid-cycle, the steamy stench of a thousand dirty plates, a thousand unfinished meals in various stages of digestion and decomposition, being blow-dried directly into your lungs.
Not to mention the stuff found in this apple crumble of inhumanity. I spotted a condom—used, I presume—screaming in the fatty rubble. "I'll get that, I'm not afraid," said Gari, bravely. The stretchy latex of the 'dom proved hard to yank out from the tough sewage, but Gari managed it, pinging brown water all over my pristine white jumpsuit.
He presented me with a caviar-swipe of gunk, almost steaming with scent. I recoiled and took time to look at what else laid in this bed of filth. Crisp packets, chocolate wrappers, lip balm, pens that could be stood up in the thick muck. Overhead was the sheen of condensation, the wet gasses moistening the masonry. There were three fibre-optic cables running along the curved ceiling, a thousand fire tweets and U Ok Hun? Facebook statuses whizzing over my head while I tried to navigate my legs through this bog of nightmares.
After I'd had enough of being surrounded by soiled bottles and Tic Tac packets and tampon applicators, it was time to climb the mucky ladder to freedom. My photographer went first, and even just one fewer hard hat torch inside the tunnel made it considerably more terrifying. I realized then that there is no good way to die in a sewer.
Then it was time for a wash. But instead of the Ebola camp disinfectant shower from the future I was expecting, there was a cooler full of bleachy water and some sliced-up tea towels.
I spoke to Phil Thorne, the leader of the crew, a grizzled sewer expert. I asked him how bad the Whitehall sewers were, really, and how you might go about trying to fix them. "This is bad. This is very bad. Leicester Square, right at the bottom of Piccadilly"—his voice trailed off, it sounded full of foreboding and remorse—"it's all bad. It's not as bad as this, but it is bad. We're trying to put chemicals down there the break up the fat. We had this sort of big cake which releases this enzyme every so often. It breaks up the flow, so it can move it on."
But will the big cake work? Or one day soon will the effluence underground come spilling up from the sewers to fill our streets with human shit, providing lazy satirists with a handy metaphor for our lazy 21st-century existences?
"It's working. But it takes time."
The restaurants, bars, clubs, and hotels in the area are all responsible for funneling fat and grease and oil down the pipes, but all of them blame each other for it.
Sewers are inherently bleak places. And yet somehow humans have found a way to make them even bleaker, by coating them in a phenomenally large amount of soupy, crunchy, mustard yellow ultra-fat. The fatbergs and the swamps of oil are horrible reminders of our collective laziness.
Next time you're chucking your roast dinner run-off down the sink, think of Phil. Think of his team. They're doing the best they can, but it's a massive problem at Thames Water, and until people stop being dicks with their waste, we've all got a one-way ticket to Fatberg City.
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