Before it was an explicit part of my job, going for long walks in unfamiliar places and looking at the built environment was just a nice hobby. I never bothered to work out the particular style or the architect back then – partly because I had no handy device on which to do so, but also because it didn’t really matter to me. I liked the mystery. These days I’m still looking up at buildings, but mostly for work. Writing about them often seems like a strange job and the main difference nowadays, is that I get to have a nosey inside them. In between these times, I’m face down like the rest of us: sharing, searching, sifting, scrolling. Occasionally a parodying voice in my own head will try and guilt me out of the habit, and I’ll try and pay a bit more attention to what’s going on above my eyeline. But inevitably I end up (like everyone else) looking back down at my screen.
One day a couple of years ago I was walking back to my home in London. I remember glancing down, locking eyes on a manhole cover. It was circular, smaller than most others and had a surprising graphic simplicity. In the middle it read “SE5” and around the edge, “YOU BEAUTY”. Manholes and similar covers have been a part of UK cities since Roman times, if not before. In the mid-1970s a stone drain cover was found in Strathclyde, Scotland, which dates to the 2nd or 3rd century. The thick slab is decorated with a floral pattern with gaps between its leaves through which water would drain into a rudimentary sewage system. More common today are the cast iron manhole covers from the mid-eighteenth century and beyond, that pepper our streets with overlooked indicators of what lies beneath the pavement. Many of the most familiar ones are covered coal holes, recognisable for their circular or star-like patterns; these were used to store coal for domestic heating before the 1956 Clean Air act encouraged the use of oil and gas. Simply speaking, manholes are just points of access for the industrially indoctrinated, those who tend to the vital systems beneath our pavement slabs.
A couple of weeks later I found another, again by accident, which read, “THE HIDDEN RIVER EFFRA IS BENEATH YOUR FEET”. My feet? This cover was speaking directly to me, highlighting the former tributary of the Thames that ran from Upper Norwood to Lambeth Marshes. The centre of its circle was decorated with an undulating lattice that looked a bit like branches or a mesh of interlocking streams. Thinking of the Effra, I felt my steps along the street in relation to a wider network of arterial movement in south London. The cover’s message also made me aware of the vertical strata around, the layers of infrastructure from the hidden river through to pipes, pavement and pedestrians. Like pylons and satellite disks, manhole covers serve as visual shorthand for the intensely complex systems they guard. Their surfaces are informative and illustrative, marked with text, symbols and patterns which indicate some function occurring beneath: BT and THAMES WATER and POST OFFICE; TFL and TELEGRAPHS are some of the more familiar ones, names that echo and repeat through quiet corners of the city like graffitied tags.
Months on I saw a third. It was November and a little dark, so I didn’t immediately clock it and kept walking, but its unusual shape caught my eye and I doubled back and knelt down to take a closer look. This one had a polka dot pattern, a teapot in the centre and a cartoon smiley face with its tongue poking out. Around its edge it read, “WE’RE ALL BETTER OFF WHEN WE’RE RECEPTIVE TO THE THINGS THAT OTHERS HAVE TO OFFER”. The message echoed a broader point about manhole covers and the systems they serve. It’s a well-worn truism that we only notice infrastructure when it fails. We grumble about tube escalators when we have to take the stairs, angrily notice the roads when we cycle through potholes, and become best acquainted with our toilets when acting as desperate amateur plumbers. Similarly, we typically only notice manholes when they are surrounded by red plastic fencing and somebody’s inside, fixing a leak or reconnecting your Wi-Fi.
Yet these more rogue offerings – of local history, neighbourhood appreciation or a quaint aphorism – do something a little different. They draw attention to the buzzing and bleeping systems truly connect us as citizens, inhabitants of the city. There’s a nice irony in discovering them while glued to my phone, like coming face-to-face with the root of the signal, the source of the Effra. It disarms the smoothness of digital networks and their screens, makes them seem textured and tangible. Every street is littered with codes and references; some explicit and functional, some more poetic and misleading. They provide nice relief from screen-time guilt - they inspire a curiosity that can’t always be deadened by looking them up, these doorways into the networks that really do connect us.
George Kafka is a writer and editor based in Athens and London.