The Cathedral on the Marsh

I’ve already shared this video on Twitter and Facebook but wanted to post it here as a more permanent record. Two weeks ago I fulfilled the ambition, held since I had seen Nic Stacey’s and Jim Al-Khalili’s quite wonderful BBC documentary on thermodynamics, to visit the steam engines at the Crossness sewage pumping station. Three of the four engines stand idle, in rusted silence, while the fourth – oiled and glossed with fresh paint – huffs and shucks with mechanical life. With my iPhone camera I tried to capture some of the poetic rhythm of its motion.

I also took some photographs, which you can find on flickr.

There is something noble in creating a vaulted cathedral for these magnificent engines, which did such foul work. I was reminded of a line from Kenneth Clark’s television history of Western art in which he describes the grand rooms within the old naval hospital at Greenwich (a few miles upstream of Crossness) and pauses to reflect: “What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall.”  The hospital opened its doors in 1712 but was converted into the Royal Naval College in 1873, just a few years after Crossness itself started pumping.

I shall have to pay it a visit – that can be my next ambition.

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