Brighton Sewer Tour

By now, the four days of Brighton & Hove Open Door should have passed with a great number of people seeing mysterious buildings and structures for the first time. This includes a lucky few who would have entered a thick door beneath the Palace Pier, only to re-emerge an hour or so afterwards from a manhole on the Old Steine.

The Brighton sewer tour has become a local institution. Of course, not all 300 miles are open for viewing but that’s fine by me. This story really begins in 1865 when around 44 miles of brick sewers ranging from 12” to 8ft in diameter were introduced to the town of Brighton.

The new system, skilfully based on gravitation, was designed to drain wastewater into the sea at three outfalls: one near the border with Hove, one near the Albion Hotel and one at Black Rock. These outcrops today make ideal spots from which to fish when the tide is right. At this stage, the system was intended for water but many buildings were connected to it illegally. This is unsurprising as sewage was still often drained into cesspools behind buildings and collected during the night.

It wasn’t long before public demand led to further construction – a main trunk sewer which intercepted the others. It runs parallel with the shore from Hove to an outfall at Portobello in Telscombe and forms the basis of what we have today. It was built in 1871-4 to the designs of Sir John Hawkshaw, again in brick, at a length of 7.25 miles with a diameter ranging from 5ft to 7ft. Stormwater overflows were constructed too at the Old Steine and at Black Rock.

Although the Victorian system is still remarkably effective, it is under so much more pressure now than it ever was. Also, sea pollution as a consequence of lack of capacity during storms is fortunately much less acceptable than in the past. This is why Southern Water built Europe’s largest stormwater storage tunnel deep beneath the seafront. It is 3 miles long with a diameter of 20ft. Whilst that is undoubtedly large, it very nearly filled during that awful wet period several years ago.

Tours have been running since the 1960s and take place between May and September. The cavernous spaces beneath the Palace Pier and Old Steine are surprisingly spectacular – and the smell really isn’t that bad.

See www.southernwater.co.uk for details.