Interview with Mathilda Fowler. Part 2.

Walk Seaward

For the second part of the interview with Mathilda Fowler about her Seaward residency at Post-Projects, we talked about the walk she led, from the gallery space all the way to Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. She talks about the wild fruit and herbs that grow along the sewage pipes, her interest in defensive architecture and our need to separate ourselves from our own poop.

Below the interview you can also watch a video piece made for the exhibition called, Incorporate.

[for part 1 click here]

Walk Seaward, guided walk, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

Mathilda Fowler: The residency was called seaward because the word 'Sewer' is from the old English for something that travels towards the sea. The walk was initially intended to be a complementary event to the residency, but it transpired to be something a bit more important than that, but I'm still trying to get to grips with in what way.
The walk followed the route from Post Projects in Deptford, to Deptford pumping station, and then along the Southern Outfall sewer. The Southern Outfall sewer is where all the smaller South London sewers flow and become this gigantic artery of sewage. It carries waste through New Cross, Greenwich, Woolwich, and Plumstead all the way to Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. The sewage used to just go there because it was down river of London, so you could just deposit it in the Thames. Nowadays it is all treated and then made clean and beautiful and lovely... before they deposit it back in the river.

In London you have the Northern Outfall Sewer, and the Southern Outfall Sewer: equivalent systems on either side of the Thames. Both of these outfall sewers used gravity for a lot of the drainage, so they move from high to low land. When the Southern Outfall Sewer reaches low land, the sewer pipe stops being underground. The walk was about 10 miles. We walked through the city, following the underground pipe, which was built mostly under main roads as a sort of subterranean mirror image. The pipes match the width of the roads for surface drainage. And the roads are a natural network that connects all the houses.
You follow these main roads, and as the land level drops, it turns in to the Erith Marshes. At that point, the pipes come out from underground, but are hidden by a grass mound in to which they are built, called, 'The Ridgeway'. These two massive sewage pipes then run all the way to Crossness in an incredibly straight line, through this wild part of London. It's not pretty countryside, just wasteland, but you can walk along it all the way to the sewage treatment works, and then round it to the point at which you can see the pipes go back in to the water.
So when we did the walk we followed the pipes as far as we could, to the treatment works. But the point at which the pipes stop being subterranean infrastructure, and become something visible, that's the interesting bit.
Even when we weren't thinking about the sewers or talking about the sewers, you could smell them. Along the roads, inexplicably at some points.

Once you get to the Ridgeway, you leave the built up areas, and there are access points all along the way. Little parapets with hatches leading down to the pipes, and you get wafts of sewage as you pass those. Interestingly, along the Ridgeway, there is an awful lot of wild fruit and vegetables growing there. Loads of wild fennel, everywhere. I don't know why. You would assume the pipes are well sealed, but at one point along the route, there are lots of bulrushes growing along the side of the Ridgeway. Bulrushes only grow where it is wet and marshy, and normally they grow in lowland, but these are up along the mound where the pipes are. There has to be a really significant amount of leakage.
There are pears, and blackberries and apples. I picked some blackberries and made a pie which I fed to people. Nicola, who is one of the people running the project space, has a very sensitive gag reflex, and I couldn't talk about the blackberry pie with her because it made her feel so sick. I will say, that before I picked and ate the blackberries, I found a document relating to some sort of regeneration project to do with the Ridgeway, and they had run some tests on various fruits growing there and they are absolutely fine, no chemicals or high levels of anything bad. But still, when you are eating them raw, there is still this association in the back of your mind.

The problem with the Ridgeway is not just the occasional smell of sewage, there is also a lot of human shit around in the wasteland. People seem to go there to have a poo. There is a dirt path flanked by bushes and trees, and it is used as a dumping area. It goes through some nasty places, at one point it passes Belmarsh prison. It also seems to be that along this route, all of South London's rubbish and recycling is brought. There are rubbish trucks and a huge recycling centre.
Although there is a sewage treatment works there now, that area used to be where the sewage was dumped back in to the river. The area was very depressed for a long time, and quite contaminated. There are council estates around there. In the crudest way possible, it seems like where the city just dumped its undesirables.
There is a huge estate at the end of the sewage treatment site called Thamesmeade which was built before the sewage treatment works were in place. In the early 20th century they weren't treating it at all, and the modern sewage works were only built in the 60s or 70s. There was sewage processing before then, though I'm not sure to what extent!

Before I decided to focus on the sewage system, I had an interest in hygiene, or a kind of hygienic aesthetic, or architectures of hygiene. And also how that relates to a social situation. A longer term interest of mine is in defensive design or environments, where things are designed to protect the people or the architecture from destructive elements; potentially a very political situation. So you have airports with carefully designed traffic flow systems, and reinforced structures; pillars wrapped in blast proof kevlar etc. but at a microscopic level you have materials that have antimicrobial agents, resist MRSA etc. there is a whole spectrum of defensive forms. I suppose the sewer system is the probably the most important piece of infrastructure that exists in a city, and it is defensive. It separates and protects a population from its own waste.

The Victorians initiated a hygiene project. The culture of hygiene is incredibly important, morally. That develops architecturally up until the early 1920's where you have these sanatoriums and palaces that worship sunshine and healthiness. At the point of building sewers, it was a case of having to subvert the waste. To put distance between ourselves and it.

Walk Seaward, guided walk, 2009. Mathilda Fowler

Matthew Giraudeau: Did they have to build the sewers underground?

MF: I went to an interesting talk by Kelly Shannon, who is interested in water urbanism, she was giving examples of overground sewage systems in Mumbai slums. They become pathways, because they are the only part that can't be built on. But, in a 'Modern' city it seemed important psychologically to distance yourself from your waste, to rise above it, not to be confronted with that idea. So it has to underground.

There seems to be a huge desire to separate ourselves from our waste, and to get rid of any allusion to our animal nature.

There is a huge industry based around helping us pretend that we don't shit. Have you seen the Neutradol adverts? It is one of these air fresheners that doesn't mask the smell it neutralizes it. There is a housewife and her she goes in to her bathroom, and the toilet is smelly and angry and it berates her for being stinky and shitty and it's basically saying, “oh haven't you done a smelly poo”. She has friends coming round, and she is really ashamed, but then she uses this product and the toilet starts belching flowers. Just a total rejection of the idea that we shit.


Incorporate, digital video, 2009. Mathilda Fowler