By Milo Morrod, Tiffin School

The astonishing success of vaccines in battling the Covid pandemic has proved that science and human ingenuity can achieve the seemingly impossible. But it’s not the first time it’s happened - and in the 19th century it was a unique site next to the Thames, just a short walk from my home in Surbiton, Surrey, that had a profound effect on public health. The filter beds - like a series of giant baths covering several acres - helped save thousands of lives by providing clean water at the height of a cholera pandemic in London.

And if there has been a battle raging in Europe over the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, there has been a different kind of power struggle - between developers and locals - over the future of the Seething Wells filter beds which has now lasted for a quarter of a century. First, developer Persimmon tried to win permission to build 59 flats on the site. And more recently a development company based in the Isle of Man has tried to build a floating restaurant and a large number of houses on pontoons, as well as creating a riverside walk.

But the Liberal Democrats and the local Green party have fiercely opposed the plans, which were voted down last summer. As Kingston and Surbiton MP Ed Davey has said: ‘The Surbiton Filter Beds are a “blue lung” for our riverside, with precious birds and bats and a unique and world important history.’

As for the Greens’ Sharon Sumner, she’s made her views plain, too, describing the years-long power struggle for the future of the filter beds as a ‘war of attrition’. And it’s not over yet, with yet another twist in the tale now emerging with an independent survey for Kingston Council declaring the filter beds ‘at risk’ of losing their status as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation. Why? Because the actions of the current owners has, it is claimed - thanks to the cutting back of vegetation - ‘significantly altered the value of habitats’. Despite this, a new petition signed by 10,000 people was hugely in favour - no less than 90pc - of the site being made into a proper conservation site. There is even talk of an outdoor lido being built, as well as a visitor centre. 

As a local resident, I can say with some confidence that a lido built by the Thames and just across the water from the historic glories of Hampton Court park, would be a highly attractive way to honour the memory of a site which was once on the front line of the war against another infamous pandemic.