Saxon Kings, sanitary queens, striking little match-girls: East London has it all

Abbey Mills pumping station, photographed by Andy Worthington

What does Saxon King Alfred have in common with Mo Farah? It turns out that the waterworks Alfred initiated 1200 years ago to trap the marauding Danes in Essex led in an almost unbroken line to the choice of the 2012 Olympics site, where Sir Mo marauded his way to two gold medals.

I learned this today on a test run of the Cholera Walk that London guide Sophie Campbell will be leading before the Song of Contagion show this Saturday. Mixed in with a fascinating social history of London, ranging from drains to striking match factory girls, you get to wander through the stunning wildflowers of the Olympic Park, and discover how King Alfred’s engineering works made the Victorian obsession with drains both necessary and possible, leading eventually to the beautiful Byzantine architecture of the Abbey Mills pumping station. (Really, in what other culture would machines designed to pump shit out of a city be named after the Queen’s four favourite children?) Sophie takes us on an exploration of culture, community and notions of development, showing how water and sewage have been central to shaping East London from the city’s beginning to its present post-Olympic reinvention.

Two people had to cancel yesterday, so if you’re quick, you might still be able to book a ticket for the walk. We’ll end up close to Wilton’s in time for the last performance of Song of Contagion for those who haven’t had a chance to see it yet. Tickets for that here.