Draining Paddington Basin in AD 2000

Early in AD 2000 the Basin was blocked off and the water back-pumped into the main canal until the water in the Basin was thigh deep. The tops of a few battered hulls of old boats began to protrude out of the water. The developers had hoped to find some interesting craft which could be restored and displayed as part of the history of the canal, but all they found were a few old barges, impounded by the Waterways Authority years before for the non-payment of dues. Slowly the boats had rotted and sunk, unnoticed in the general decay of the Basin.

In the water were thousands of fish. Indeed the water was cleaner than it had ever been and the fish, undisturbed, had thrived. A special team from Framlington Fisheries was commissioned to remove the fish and transfer them unharmed to the main canal. A slight electric current was passed through the water, briefly stunning the fish which floated to the surface, where they were lifted individually by hand into floating tanks. Nets were not used as these damage the scales and start infections. The fish soon recovered and swam comfortably in the tanks which were towed to the barrier, lifted up and poured into the canal. Altogether 24,000 fish, including a 20 lb. pike and a bream which weighed nearly 30 pounds were transferred unharmed to the canal. There were also over 250 eels, some over a metre long.

Having drained out 60,000 cubic metres of water, the Basin was cleared of silt, old boats and other debris. Among the mud were found a Mills bomb and, on the day before the official opening and start of the works, an 1890s German howitzer shell. Hurriedly the area was cleared and the police were called. The shell contained 7.5 kilograms of high explosive and had never been fired, but luckily decades of dirty water had disabled it. Bomb disposal experts threw it in the back of a lorry and drove off. Presumably someone had carried the shell on a boat as a souvenir and it had fallen into the basin.

When the basin was built in 1801, it was lined with clay. No doubt there was wooden piling all round to which barges were moored, but the whole basin was sealed with clay. About 1900 the basin was emptied and a concrete bed laid, surrounded by walls in blue engineering brick.

Running down the centre of the basin was a shallow channel about 18 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep for the sludge and debris to be swept into. Periodically after this the basin was drained, swept, and the debris lifted into barges stranded on the basin floor. When the basin was refilled, the barges floated and the debris was carried away. It was clear from the survey that patches of ground below the basin floor had sunk on several occasions and been repaired with different mixes of concrete. Some repairs were marked with bricks bearing dates ranging from 1905 to 1930. In 1999 the silt removed was too contaminated to be used as compost so, when the metal scrap had been removed and sold, the rest was spread in a land fill site.

The Basin partly cleared of silt in 1999

Bricklayers at work restoring the walls


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Updated January 29, 2011