How to avoid the Calcutta-splutter...
posted by Richard Green on 11/01/2020

Inspecting the finer points of Kolkata. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Call it what you like, from Berlin Hurlin' to the Karachi Crouch, a dose of food poisening while on holiday is unwanted and unpleasant, but not unavoidable.

I've often been asked how to avoid getting food poisoning while travelling, especially in India. The truth is that I've never been one to obsess over travel hygiene, in the sense that the usual hygiene you'd use at home tends to suffice. And I bristle somewhat at the sight of tourists brushing their teeth in only and obsessively with bottled water, or only daring to eat bananas as their 'street food' experience.

One reader even asked me if they could contract 'Delhi-belly' by handling money, and so wondered if it was possible to sterilise their bank notes? Well it's true that bank notes get into flimsy and filthy states after prolonged use anywhere, but it's impractical to sterilise them or to avoid handling them. 

Here are a few sensible precautions...

1) I'd say that the best thing to do when travelling in India – or others countries like it – is always to wash your hands before eating. This is easily done as you are simply falling in line with local custom. Even the most modest roadside shack will have a tap and sink to one side of it, and locals use it religiously prior to eating a meal.

2) Ice and salads were the bogeymen, but most ice is made from treated water these days, especially in hotels, and salads are generally washed in treated water too.

3) It makes sense to eat at busy restaurants (the high turnover means food is more likely to have been freshly cooked) and avoid ordering off piste – it makes sense to eat Indian food in India, Chinese food in China and so on. Personally I tend to steer clear of bolognaise or goulash on what is otherwise an Indian (or other local) menu.

4) Street food gets more than its fair share of blame, but it’s a crying shame to miss out, and if something is sizzling right in front of you should be ok. Keep in mind that most cases of food poisening when travelling come from touching your food with your own unwashed hands.

5) Drinking-wise, bottled water is the best way forward, but it's not very sensible to buy a bottle stored in the open down a dusty side street and then put your mouth around the opening. If you can. do as the locals do and perfect a way of drinking from the bottle without your lips touching the bottle.

The East London cathedral that was a Blitz beacon, played an asylum in 'Batman Begins', and is full of sewage...
posted by Richard Green on 20/05/2019

The Abbey Mills pumping station, aka the Cathedral of Sewage. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Walk onto Three Mills Green in Bromley-by-Bow, glance across the grass, and you'll see an ornate building with oriental-looking dome on the top. It might look like a Russian Orthodox church outside of Omsk, or a fine art museum near Novosibirsk, but actually it's a Victorian sewage pumping station in East London. 

The Abbey Mills pumping station takes its name from water mills that belonged to Stratford's Langthorne Abbey - a Cistercian monastery founded in 1134 - but everyone knows it locally as the 'Cathedral of Sewage'.

From the Greenway - a walking/cycling route atop the Northern Outfall Sewer. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's a masterpiece of Victorian public works engin­eering, and was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as part of his grand plan to alleviate pollution in the River Thames. The filthy river caused many outbreaks of typhoid and cholera - one such outbreak caused 10,000 deaths in 1853. It was thought these deaths were caused by a 'miasma', or bad air, and so Londoners continued to drink from their polluted river and wells.

Things came to a head during the Great Stink of July and August 1858, when unusually warm summer and an extremely polluted Thames conspired to cause a stink so bad that the curtains of the Houses of Parliament windows were doused in deodorising chlorine and lime. 

The Cathedral of Sewage beyond Three Mills Green. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It wasn't only raw sewage being dumped into the river, but also water waste from breweries, paper mills, and abattoirs. The wisdom of the day was that as the river flows to the sea then the sewage would end up there too. But London is a tidal river and high tides pushed sewage back upstream and even up outflow pipes. This was an especially difficult problem for parts of the river's south bank from Rotherhithe and Lambeth, that were several feet below sea level and who's sewers stopped discharging into the Thames, and instead at high tide (and several hours around it) suffered horribly from pipes backing up with effluent.  

William Heath's 'Monster Soup' (1828) and the horrors in a drop of Thames water

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1858 M.P.'s were seen scuttling around the Houses of Parliament holding handkerchiefs to their noses, and the library became a no-go area. The brilliant chemist and physicist Michael Faraday - read about his London Lighthouse on My Bathroom Wall - sent a letter to the Times entitled 'Observations on the Filth of the Thames', and become a rallying point for the need for something to be done. 

There had been lesser stinks before, most notably in 1855, but the M.Ps were newly accommodated in their recently rebuilt Palace of Westminster,and their proximity to the fermenting sewage in the Thames proved their wake up call. Despite many member's of Parliament holding their noses at the expense and complexity, the fearful stench lead to swift action - with an act of Parliament was drawn up, debated and passed in just 18 days. 

The pumps raised the waste water 12 metres at the site so that it could continue it's (otherwise) gravity driven flow from north London towards the filter-​​beds at Beckton. The steam-powered engines were replaced by electricity-driven ones in the 50's and the station was in use until 1998, when a new zinc-​​coated station located just south of the 'cathedral' took the up strain. 

Dr Zhivago meets a sewage pumping station in E15. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

A pair of 65m chimneys once flanked the building, but these were demolished during the Second World War as it's said that Luftwaffe pilots were using them as beacons to guide them towards London's East End docks. This is possibly apocryphal though, as the main reason for raising the towers was that since the station had switched over to electricity they were redundant, and it was feared that a bombed chimney could well fall onto and destroy the rest of the station.  

Sketch from the Illustrated London News showing the original ornate chimneys. 

Adding strange credence to the jokey cathedral moniker, is the fact that the pumping station was given so many ecclesiastical echoes. The whole plot is designed in the form of a Greek Cross, often seen in church construction, plus the central dome is octagonal and churchy.  

It's unsurprising that the Gothic exteriors and interiors of the original pumping station have appeared in many TV shows and films. It was the 'Arkham Asylum' in the 2005 film Batman Begins and appeared in Franklyn (2008), and in the A-ha 2006 video of Cosy Prisons, and in Coldplay's 2009 Lovers in Japan. And it's due to make an appearance in the upcoming 'After Frankenstein' film, currently in pre-production.

From sewage pump to Frankenstein's castle. Photo 'After Frankenstein'

Joseph Bazalgette was elected as Chief Engineer to London's metropolitan board of works from its founding in 1856. And he was certainly the right man for the job. His bold solution was to construct miles of new sewers, and using pumping stations to get the sewage from west London to Beckton and Crossness in east London, so it could be flushed into the Thames at the ebb tide twice daily, and float away from the city and into the sea.

The best views of the station are from the adjacent Greenway - which is also a remnant of Bazalgette's plans. It's the Northern Outfall Sewer that he built to transport waste water from North London over the the East End. And although you might not think it, when you are strolling along either the Albert or Victoria Embankments in central London, you are actually walking over another legacy of Bazalgette's solution to the Great Stink. He built these new river banks to get rid of the tidal mud and to run conceal new sewage pipes built inside them.

A 1920s view of Victoria Embankment. Photo Leonard Bentley

Bazalgette’s ingenious system has served London well for 150 years, but in that time the city's population has more than quadrupled and the network of sewage pipes and tunnels is under strain. So a 25 kilometre long Super Sewer is under construction that will run from West London's Acton storm tanks to Abbey Mills, where it will connect to the Lee Tunnel and emerge at the Beckton Treatment Works. 

Incidentally, sewers don't smell as rank as you may think - as 98% of the material running through the sewers (including run-off rainwater) is liquid. So compost-like is a more accurate description. The men who work in the sewers are still known by their Victorian name of 'flushers'. And most of London's fibreoptic cables for broadband and telecoms have been laid inside the sewers, with the actual cables being too large for the rat population to chew through. 

It's surprising enough to realise there is such a stunning building that is just a large sewage pump, but in fact there are others. Most interesting to visitors is the so called 'Cistern Chapel'; the pumping station built on the south bank of the Thames at Crossness. The spectacularly ornate and colourful interiors have been renovated, and the building is now a museum. See www.crossness.org.uk

The Crossness pumping station, now a museum. Photo Flickr/ Steve James

One more thing...the nearest train station is Abbey Road on the DLR, which opened in 2011, just before the 2012 Olympics came to what is now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Many unsuspecting tourists find their way to the station in the mistaken belief that it's where the Beatles were snapped for their album cover marching over the pedestrian crossing outside the Abbey Road recording studios. The good people at London's DLR have put a humorous poster on the platform to explain the mistake and direct people to Abbey Road on the Jubilee Line. 

The cathedral of sewage with the Greenwich Prime Meridian laser behind. Photo Gordon Joy/Flickr


The Abbey Road DLR (Docklands Light Railway) station is a five minute walk from the Abbey Mills pumping station, which is best viewed from the raised Greenway path - actually the mound conceals the large sewage pipes bringing outflow from North London. Alternatively, Stratford is on the Central and Jubilee tube lines, from where the station is about a 25 minute walk, or one stop to the Abbey Road DLR. 


Thames Water have offered guided tours of the building, or Open House London sees 700 buildings opened to the public over a weekend in September. The building is popular, so it's essential to book well in advance. 

Some luggage packing tips to ensure you always arrive with what you need...
posted by Richard Green on 13/05/2019

Applaudable packing panache, but with room for improvement

The over-arching rule for packing is not to pack too take too much - the world has grown small, and most things are available in most places should you need to buy something that you have forgotten. And always leave room to buy local souvenirs, handicrafts, booze or clothes.

That said, it never ceases to amaze just what things different people regard as essential. One friend of mine carried in his backpack a fairly large cuddly toy dog and a full sized pillow, for example. And 'The Man of the People' on the bathroom wall was a plastic toy found abandoned in a student bar in Lancaster, that I took on several long trips for no apparent reason.

Personal mascots and eccentricities aside, here are a few tips to getting it right, so that at least you know that at least that aspect of your holiday, despite what may happen on at the airport, on your flight, or transferring to your hotel at the other end, isn't full of surprises.

The art of practical packing...

Make a packing list, of essential everyday items that you may - in haste - otherwise forget. Things like a plug adaptor, sunscreen, mobile backup power pack.

Following on from the above, keep a small bag ready stocked with what you'll need for a trip. Or it could be a section of a drawer, you choose, but it means that you are less likely to forget something and are all set should you have to fly off at the last minute. A larger plastic bag is good for damp/wet swim stuff and towel when packing to return home.

If you are staying somewhere with an iron and board already in the room, then all well and good. If not then roll clothes before packing them, rather than folding them. It may sound naff, but it uses surprisingly little space and avoids deep creases of the kind that folding causes.

Pack small see through plastic bags for your liquids and gels to pass through security are a good idea for UK airports these days, but slightly more robust Ziplock bags are good too for keeping items together, and dry, like USB sticks, adaptors, and headphones. It's also handy to prevent any leakage from liquid toiletries that may be stored in the aircraft's hold.

I found myself becoming dangerously obsessive about the weight of my items on very long backpacking trips. Scan or photocopy only the section of a guide book that you need - say Kashmir rather than carting around the entire 800 page tome on all of India - is sensible.

Weighing your luggage at home to avoid excess baggage charges and unnecessary worry - either on a bathroom scale, or with a nifty hand held device. 

Buy luggage that itself is lightweight. It's pointless carrying around needless weight in the form of luggage, when there are perfectly strong and attractive lightweight options on the market.

Check your airline's website before travelling, to find out the weight and dimension allowances for carry on and hold luggage. This varies from one airline to the next, but the good people at Samsonite have done the legwork and have researched a comprehensive list of weight and dimensions permitted by airline - http://www.samsonite.co.uk/hand-luggage-size-restrictions-dimensions/

It might seem over cautious, but believe me, every day on every baggage carousel someone will pick up and take away the wrong bag by mistake. It's an easy problem to solve - just personalise your bag with a brightly coloured ribbon, sticker, or luggage label.

Some bags do go missing, usually only for a day or two, so packing with calamity in mind can't do any harm, and can leave you unruffled even in a lost bag situation. The key here is to split some items across your carry on and hold luggage - so for example, keep medication and other vital or* valuable belongings in your carry on bag. Add in a few pairs of underwear, swimming shorts, and enough clothes to see you through the first day away. If you are travelling with your partner, then you could split some clothes between your two bags, so you are both covered in the event of a bag going astray.

There are several companies that can take the headache and backache out of lugging your luggage on a journey, by collecting your luggage from your home and deliver it to your hotel. You can do this within the UK, throughout Europe, or across the world, and as well as suitcases, you can ship ski equipment or golf clubs. Book online or over the phone at least a couple of days before you are due to travel (you can track your delivery via the website after collection). A bag weighing up to 30 kilos delivered to another part of the UK is about £30 each way, or about £50 for deliveries to Europe. Ski boots and skis are about £50 each way to the Alps, or a golf bag about £60 each way to Portugal. 

Passport and camera yes; plastic plane - probably not

Contact Carry My Luggage, First Luggage First Luggage , and Excess Baggage Company

One more thing...I've been asked many times if it Is safe putting your address on a luggage tag for all the world to see? It's usually related to the fear of returning home to an emptied house - presumably by burglars burglars noting down the address realising that you're abroad.

You'd have to be incredibly unlucky to have your house burgled as a result of someone opportunistically happening to read your luggage labels, but it isn't unheard of. Indeed there have been cases of organised gangs using airport accomplices to gather addresses from passengers’ bags as they wait in the check in queues.

Either way, it's an unnecessary risk, as you don’t need to put your address on a label. I put my name, the hotel I am heading for, and my phone number, which will suffice in the even of the bag being misshipped - i.e. sent to the wrong destination.

Incidentally any bag that is temporarily 'lost' will likely be opened by the airline or customs authorities. In this case it can help to have packed something unusual inside your luggage - 'The Man of the People' let's say, as it will help identify the bag as a match for yours from the description you'll be asked to give of its contents.

Not a baggage handler protest, but Sacramento County Airport art. Photo Flickr/anselor

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