It’s December 2018 and Charlie Ewart is inspecting the sewers beneath the English seaside town of Sidmouth. Suddenly, something horrific looms up from the dark – like a monster straight out a terrifying movie. And this congealed mass of trash, oils and grease – known as a “fatberg” – has grown to a colossal size.
Back in the days before effective sanitation, people around the world often used to be dependent on natural water sources like rivers to wash away sewage. And as a result, disease and sickness were widespread, eventually leading people to begin developing a more hygienic approach.
But even though underground sewers are more commonly associated with modern metropolises such as London and New York City, the idea has been around for thousands of years. In fact, basic wastewater systems have been found in buildings on Skara Brae in the Scottish Orkneys that are thought to date back to 3000 B.C.
Later, various civilizations in both Ancient Greece and China are thought to have experimented with plumbing and sanitation. However, it was the Romans who really took household hygiene to the next level. And in roughly 600 B.C., they built the Cloaca Maxima – one of the first sewage systems in the world.
But despite these early advances, the European cities of the medieval era marked a return to unhygienic living conditions. And although closed sewers and flushing toilets were gradually introduced, the situation remained dire. In fact, by the 19th century, the lack of sanitation in areas like London had become a major health risk.
Finally in 1859 work began on a sewer system that would carry waste down the River Thames and away from the heart of London. And around the same time, cities such as Paris, Hamburg and Chicago began constructing their own solutions. As a result, incidences of diseases such as cholera and typhoid were greatly reduced.
Today, the vast majority of the world’s cities are equipped with underground sewer systems. And in the few places unlucky enough to go without, such as Port-au-Prince in Haiti, some 2.5 million people are still at risk of catching preventable diseases every day. In fact, since 2010 more than 9,000 have died from cholera there, according to the United Nations.
But given how vital the world’s underground sewers are to the health of the population, there are plenty of people who seem to show them a worrying level of disregard. And in many of our major cities, sanitation systems are struggling to cope thanks to the damaging items that we flush down our toilets and sinks every day.
Indeed, in the pretty seaside town of Sidmouth in southwest England, the authorities have become painfully aware of this problem. Once a small fishing village, the coastal community in Devon became a popular resort during the Georgian and Victorian eras. In fact, a number of grand buildings remain from the times when the country’s high society would holiday in the area.
However, in the 1960s, affordable foreign holidays arrived, and the amount of tourists visiting the British seaside rapidly declined. But even though some resorts have still not recovered to this day, Sidmouth has managed to retain its Regency charm. In fact, it’s now considered one of the best places in the country to retire.
Thanks to its location on the beautiful Jurassic Coast – and a famous annual folk festival – Sidmouth continues to welcome large numbers of visitors every year. And on top of that, over 13,000 people call the seaside town their home. But what are all those people doing to the sewers that flow beneath Sidmouth?
Back in either Regency or Victorian times, a sewage tank was built beneath Sidmouth. Apparently, human waste would simply be held in the tank before being released into the English Channel. But even though this removed the problem, it did little to create an appealing bathing environment around the resort.
Over the years, the town of Sidmouth struggled to maintain clean bathing waters while still disposing of its waste. Then, in 1989 the UK’s water industry was placed in the hands of private companies. And at South West Water, a scheme was launched to make the region’s coasts more attractive to swimmers.
To that end, South West Water built a pumping station near Sidmouth’s grand Regency-era esplanade. Under the new system, sewage flows through the antique holding tank before being pumped two miles inland to the village of Sidford. There, it is treated before being let safely back out into the sea.
As a result of this new system, the Sidmouth seaside has become a clean and attractive place. However, the same can’t be said for the sewers themselves. In fact, the bad habits of the town’s residents and visitors have resulted in some grim blockages forming in the tunnels beneath the streets.
By December 2018 Charlie Ewart, a sewer worker from Plymouth in Devon, had already spent 15 years clearing blockages from underneath England’s southwestern counties. But that month, while conducting a routine inspection in Sidmouth, he stumbled across something horrific.
After descending through a manhole, Ewart discovered a vast fatberg trapped inside the sewer’s old holding tank. A congealed mass of fat, grease and waste items such as wet wipes and sanitary products, these blockages are created when residents flush things that they shouldn’t down their toilets and into the system below.
“I saw it and thought, ‘What on earth?’ It was completely unexpected,” Ewart told The Guardian in January 2019. “It’s really eerie in that bit of the sewer and it does look like something out of a horror scene, all congealed and glossy and matted together with all kinds of things,” he added. And sadly, the smell of the fatberg wasn’t any better than its appearance.
At a staggering 210 feet, Sidmouth’s fatberg is longer than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy is tall. In fact, it’s as big as half a dozen double-decker buses. And apparently, it comes with its own disgusting aroma – like the scent of a dirty toilet combined with the smell of rotted meat.
According to experts, the fatberg could have been slowly growing beneath Sidmouth’s streets for as long as three years. But how did it manage to go unseen for so long? Apparently, South West Water’s pipes stretch for over 10,000 miles, which helped keep the monstrosity concealed.
Moreover, the tank itself is reaches a height of almost ten feet, extending to the width of the entire street. This meant that waste continued to flow around the fatberg, keeping officials oblivious to the mass that was forming deep within the sewers. And because the pipes are only inspected sporadically, the fatberg went undetected until Ewart made his discovery.
Although officials in larger cities have come to expect objects like this, Sidmouth’s authorities were startled to find one in their small community. South West Water’s Andrew Roantree explained the significance to the Sidmouth Herald in January 2019. He said, “It shows how this key environmental issue is not just facing the UK’s cities, but right here in our coastal towns.”
Apparently, it’s also believed to be the biggest fatberg ever found so near the sea – and the largest that South West Water has ever found. According to experts, it could take as long as eight weeks and a budget of £130,000 before the monster is removed from Sidmouth’s sewers.
Among the people tasked with destroying the fatberg was Ewart – the worker who first found it. He told The Guardian, “We are going to be using small shovels and something called a mattock – this is like a lighter version of a pickaxe so we won’t tire as quickly. We also have special high-pressure sewer jetting equipment and something to suck it out in bits.”
Grimly, Ewart said that the sewer would still be working during the removal process. He admitted, “Depending on the flows, we could be wading through a lot of muck.” But luckily, the team would be equipped with special breathing apparatus that will allow them to navigate the sewers.
“I think this fatberg is going to be soft on the outside but hard in the middle,” Ewart continued to The Guardian. “I’m not too sure what’s within it yet, there’s a lot of wet wipes and sanitary wrappers, but I’ve tried not to look at it too closely yet, especially as I’m going to be staring at it for eight weeks.”
But despite the grim task ahead of him, Ewart claimed that he was looking forward to tackling the fatberg. He said, “It’s not a job for everyone but I take a huge amount of pride in what I do. People don’t think about it when they put things down the loo or sink, but someone has to deal with the consequences.”
And the problem isn’t just in Sidmouth alone. Thanks to the popularity of disposable products such as wet wipes, consumers are increasingly creating blockages in the sewer systems that they depend on. And with many people also pouring oils and fats down their drains, there could be many more fatbergs on the horizon.
“The proliferation of wet wipe-type products has started to generate a real problem,” South West Water’s Andrew Roantree told The Guardian. “The wet wipes tend to create a matrix that all these other things get caught up in.” And with the addition of fats and oils, these blockages soon snowball into monsters like the one that’s launched Sidmouth into the spotlight.
In fact, Sidmouth’s fatberg has given the town international fame – albeit not for the best of reasons. Apparently, the story has appeared in news outlets as far afield as the United States and Australia. And back in Devon, visitors have been making their way to the esplanade in search of the notorious beast.
But the story doesn’t end there. That’s because in January 2019, a pop-up shop called Stop the Block opened on Sidmouth’s high street. There, visitors could find out all about the fatberg, and even view the huge blockage using virtual reality technology.
However, the main point of the shop was to educate visitors about the region’s sewer systems – and explain why products like wet wipes shouldn’t be flushed. Roantree told DevonLive in January 2019, “The Sidmouth fatberg has inspired people from around the world to consider what goes down sinks and drains.”
Moving forwards, Roantree hopes that the fatberg could inspire a more permanent change in attitudes. To this end, he offered advice in his interview with the Sidmouth Herald. He said, “If you keep just one new year’s resolution this year, let it be to not pour fats, oil, or grease down the drain, or flush wet wipes down the loo. The consequences can be significant, including sewer flooding in your own home.”
In fact, it’s believed that South West Water spends £4.5 million declogging its sewers every year, clearing the equivalent of 24 blockages a day. Meanwhile, some residents have argued that the agency – and its customers – shouldn’t have to cover the costs of a Sidmouth problem. But Roantree insists that the issue occurs across the region.
At home, Roantree even insists that his own loved ones take a responsible approach to waste disposal. He told The Guardian, “I’m married and have two girls. I have made sure to educate my family on what they put down the loo and sink,” he said. “My elder daughter loves makeup, but she knows not to put wet wipes of any kind down the toilet.”
Interestingly, this fatberg is only the latest in a string of similar monsters that have appeared in the news. Indeed, another one was discovered blocking a Victorian sewer beneath the streets of Whitechapel in London in 2017. Measuring in at some 820 feet, it was almost four times the size of the one found in Sidmouth.
Weighing 130 tons, the Whitechapel fatberg was eventually removed from the sewers thanks to a nine-week operation. And afterwards, it went on to form part of a popular display at the Museum of London. There, it educated the public about proper waste disposal in much the same way as Sidmouth’s pop-up shop.
Then, in April 2018 another fatberg was discovered some three miles west under London’s South Bank. And even though its exact size is still unknown, some suspect that it could be even bigger than the one found in Whitechapel. As well as fat and wet wipes, the blockage is thought to contain traces of performance-enhancing drugs.
“We and other water companies are facing a constant battle to keep the nation’s sewers free from fatbergs and other blockages,” Alex Saunders, the waste networks manager for Thames Water, told The Guardian in 2018. But in the face of such a struggle, perhaps Ewart has the best advice. He said, “Put your pipes on a diet and don’t feed the fatberg.”