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Back to the future

Is looking to the past a good way to deal with current energy problems? Dan Carrier makes the case for a few history lessons

07 January, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

A horse-drawn delivery van of the London, Midland and Scottish railway in Bloomsbury, 1943

JANUARY 7, 2030. You step out of your home on a cold winter’s morning, and unplug your electric three-person bicycle buggy from the lamppost it has been charging from all night.

The power stored in its super-lightweight batteries, which will zip you to work and back, has been generated from a source beneath your feet that for centuries had helped other Londoners go about their daily business.

And as this newspaper’s first edition of 2021 asks our readers what your vision is for the borough in a decade, let us consider what low-carbon technologies and resources do we no longer use, and could they be re-shaped to fit life in 21st century London?

Let’s start with generating some clean power in our neighbourhoods.

A painting in the Camden Local Studies Archive, dating from the early 1700s, shows a watermill complete with mill pond at the foot of Parliament Hill. Fed by a stream from the Heath that is the source of the River Fleet, it helped grind the corn for the daily bread of our long-gone neighbours. It also illustrates a source of free, green power currently not used.

The Fleet’s waters travel down two streams from Hampstead and Highgate: they combine in Kentish Town, then head through Camden Town and onto Farringdon. The water eventually reaches the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.

Running for four miles, the river was gradually enclosed – but its waters are still flowing through pipes, added to by an urban drainage system that includes the rainwater that flows off streets.

In 2012, Heath managers City of London announced new legislation and long-term concerns over the safety of water courses on the open land. They had to embark on £22million scheme to make ensure the Heath ponds were safe in the advent of storms and flood risks. And while engineers were working to rebuild dams and drains, the sheer volume of water flowing off the Heath – millions of gallons weekly – was even more apparent.

The Heath’s hills, 433 feet above sea level, are riddled with springs due to a geological feature formed by an ancient river valley that stretches across the south of England. With an 80ft thick layer of sand and gravel at their height, the hills are the source of the Westbourne, Tyburn, Brent rivers too.

And their flow had traditionally powered all manner of pre-fossil fuel industries – as recently as the mid-18th century, a snuff mill turned by the Fleet could be found in the middle of King’s Cross.

Rather than look to uncover sections of the Fleet – as a recent study by urban design teams at University College London considered – why not harness this free power to light our street lights and provide electric charging points?

Companies in the USA have invented super-efficient miniature hydro-turbines that can be placed in drains.

A hydro firm, LucidPipe in Portland, Oregon, build mini-turbines that can send energy to be stored in batteries at the foot of lampposts. They are easy to access through a manhole and could be installed along the length of our subterranean rivers. If Thames Water can build such huge civil engineering projects as the Tideway Tunnel, then this already-proven technology could be another way to cut out reliance on fossil fuels.

After grinding the corn at the Parliament Hill watermill, no doubt our long-gone miller would load sacks of flour onto the back of a horse-drawn cart to sell on to bakers – and horses on London streets are still well within living memory.

At the turn of the 1900s, there were 11,000 horsedrawn Hansom cabs, while public transport employed 50,000 nags. Added to this were the thousands used by private firms and individuals, and up to the 1960s, horses were used for door-to-door milk deliveries and recycling provided by rag and bone men. From street names that remind us – Horseferry Road, The Haymarket, the Hippodrome (Horse Course in Greek), to buildings such as Camden Town’s Stables Market, the echo of this massive industry that has disappeared in a matter of a few decades is all around us.

Could we encourage four-legged transport again – be it a donkey and trap or dray horses for larger uses – to help alleviate the air pollution health crisis we face?

In Camden 2030, all private cars would have to be electric, as would all public authority vehicles, from the emergency services to dust carts.

Households would be encouraged to join Horse co-ops – a place where grooms, riders, carriage drivers, blacksmiths and vets would work. You’d turn up to collect your slinky cart for your journey – or book online a trap to arrive to collect you. Those with the money could buy their own – but the collectively-run service would be cost effective and would guarantee animal welfare and safety.

And our new fleet of horses and donkeys could tackle the issues over deliveries. Transport for London and the Post Office could combine to establish stables across the capital. Haulage firms going to homes or businesses would sign contracts with TfL to do the donkey work. Imagine depots with a raft of stables for horse-drawn vans to deliver shopping and supermarket car parks giving space over to stabling.

It would provide new employment, offering opportunities to train as a blacksmith, farrier or horse groom. The manure generated – a problem in Victorian times – would be given to farmers, cutting down the carbon-heavy reliance on industrial agricultural fertilisers.

Speed of delivery should not be a problem – as drivers will testify, it would be hard to move any slower in London, and it could encourage smarter planning and logistics and improving the supply chain for manufacturers.

Above all, the clip-clop of a horse and cart down a Camden backstreet would bring us all pleasure – and with the quiet hum of a water turbine beneath our feet lighting the way for their early morning deliveries, maybe looking back is part of building a better future.

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