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Where there’s a grille: the hidden portals to London’s underworld

From flues in statues to the Camberwell Submarine, a new book celebrates the vents, shafts and funnels that help the city breathe in all manner of disguises

Camberwell Submarine
Camberwell Submarine | Photograph © Judy Ovens

"A gas lamp still flickers on the corner of Carting Lane in the City of Westminster, adding a touch of Dickensian charm to this sloping alleyway around the back of the Savoy Hotel. The street used to be nicknamed Farting Lane, not in reference to flatulent diners tumbling out of the five-star establishment, but because of what was powering the streetlamp: noxious gases emanating from the sewer system down below.

The Sewer Gas Destructor Lamp, to give the ingenious device its proper patented name, was invented by Birmingham engineer Joseph Webb in 1895, and it still serves the same purpose today. As a plaque explains, it burns off residual biogas from Joseph Bazalgette’s great Victorian sewer, which runs beneath the Victoria Embankment at the bottom of the lane. It is the last surviving sewer-powered streetlamp in London, but it is one of many such curious vents, shafts and funnels scattered across the city, servicing the capital’s underground workings in all manner of unlikely disguises, now brought together in a fascinating gazetteer, titled Inventive Vents.

“We were led to the topic by Eduardo Paolozzi,” says Judy Ovens, cofounder of Our Hut, the architectural education charity behind the project. “We had always admired his robotic metal sculpture in Pimlico, but never realised it was actually designed as a ventilation shaft for an underground car park.”

Paolozzi’s striking metallic totem pole set the team, and their army of volunteers, off on a subterranean treasure hunt. Listening for unusual hums emanating from statue plinths, looking out for wisps of steam rising from kiosk rooftops, and consulting engineers’ maps, they have charted a plethora of hidden portals to the secret worlds that rumble away below the streets of the capital, compiled using the Layers of London website. From sewage pipes and road tunnels to tube lines and emergency government bunkers, the bowels of underground London have to expel fumes, suck in fresh air and allow people to maintain its mechanisms, all of which require access to and from its depths. The range of novel disguises in this 100-page book is remarkable, opening our eyes to an entire genre of structures hidden in plain sight, as varied and unexpected as the functions they serve.

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