Having fun with infrastructure
Over the past few months we have been laying to rest some of the big beasts of Victorian infrastructure in our street: huge cast iron water main pipes. Well, when I say ‘we’, I mean Thames Water, and the laying to rest of course entails ripping them out of the earth rather than burying them.
After a series of spectacular burst water mains – the last two happening only eight weeks apart, just when the owners of flooded properties had been able to reoccupy their houses in time for Christmas – Thames Water got its way and was given permission to carry out a comprehensive replacement of the pipes rather than the ‘balloon-squeezing’ repairs that inevitably caused a new leak to pop up somewhere else.
All this has completely changed the character of our street, which is usually a busy rat-run. The flooding itself was always exciting (those at the bottom of our road with front gardens lower than their front doors would not describe it like that, I’m sure) – waking to the sound of rushing water rather than traffic, and looking out to see a brown river in full spate coursing down the street.
Soon kids were out in their wellies, floating paper boats down it, and, as the waters receded, poking at things with sticks. For a brief period last autumn the sand swept into the corner of a traffic-calming promontory formed a mini-beach, where toddlers pottered happily while their mother soaked up some rays in a deck chair with a glass of white wine: ‘playing out’ had made a come-back.
Now, though, our closed-off section of street is the nerve centre of the whole water main reconstruction process, and we are now only halfway through an eight-month process of pipe renewal. Early mornings are strangely quiet, and the absence of traffic means you can really appreciate the variety of birdsong from the railway embankment opposite.
But by 8 a.m. work is hotting up. Where once I could pull up the blinds, contemplate the weather and get dressed accordingly, unseen by anyone except the trees across the road and the plump wood pigeons that teeter around in their branches, now there’s a danger that a large JCB will come bowling along, with the driver at first-floor window height.
In fact, the whole street is something of a theme park for exotic plant: Little and Large diggers with caterpillar tracks, jolly yellow wheel-barrow-type things that look a lot of fun to drive, and every so often an immense crane arrives, sometimes with a cab that looks like something from a steam fair ride. Once the heaviest of these gets going, the earth moves: the house judders, the glasses rattle, and every picture ends up crooked.
There’s even rather a carnival atmosphere: some of the diggers have flashing green and yellow lights, and at one point work to join the new sections of pipe took place inside a blue marquee with white castellated trim; the sections of pipe going in at one end and out the other looking like gigantic guests being politely tended to by the unseen hosts within.
The men* doing the work are cheery and friendly (with the exception of the mean-looking ones handling the security dogs, but I imagine this is the professional demeanour required by the job description), greeting residents, not laughing too loudly at my tentative query about rescuing a section of pipe to have as a garden feature, and even, on one occasion, apologising for swearing as I walked past (but could it be – dread thought! – that I have come to resemble Mary Whitehouse?).
At the moment I feel I am at the epicentre of Important Developments in the Onward Progress of our Great City (just call me Ms Bombastic) – it’s going to be very dull when they all pack up and go home.
*And they are all men, but you’ll be pleased to know that the Head of Operational Delivery is a woman.