Drainspotting Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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A Cyberman, from 'Doctor Who', emerges from a drain.

As you wander through the streets of either the place where you live or perhaps as a tourist in another city, you may notice someone gazing intently at manhole (or drain) covers, scribbling furiously in a notebook and taking photographs. You would probably be wise to give them a wide berth, but if you're of an inquisitive nature, you could approach and ask them what the heck they're up to. Chances are you've stumbled upon a drainspotter1.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
- Oscar Wilde

Drainspotting, not to be confused with the somewhat dorky pastime of trainspotting, is a relatively new hobby that has become popular with many people the world over - particularly in Japan. Though, instead of looking up from the gutter, as Mr Wilde suggests above, drainspotters gaze intently into gutters in search of something special.

Watch Out! Men At Work

Manhole covers, the predominantly round and heavy metal covers that prevent people from falling into the sewerage system and getting eaten by giant alligators or rats, are to some considered works of art. Many covers are simply just lids over holes, while others are adorned with beautifully cast and sometimes painted images, or titbits of historical information, and as such are worth looking out for. Some covers have been made with a specific design in mind, while others are relics of another time. The rarities are those that have been decorated with street art or used in performance art - like 'The Worthing Drainspotters Association' - and as such are entirely unique. Finding one such as these is like digging up treasure for a drainspotter!

Drainspotting, then, is like any other hobby that involves collecting, as drainspotters will either take photographs, or even make rubbings of covers they find2. These images are then collated in scrapbooks or even online photo albums, such as the one found at the Drainspotting website, where other spotters can compare notes. Some have gone so far as to write down the unique serial numbers of some drain covers, then trace the history of the cover through to the year of manufacture and even the artist responsible, if applicable.

There is friendly competition amongst fellow spotters to have sets of covers with like designs or numerical series, or the most 'rares' - just like many other hobbies, such as Magic - the Gathering or coin collecting. It must be said, though, that it's considered bad form to go and take pictures of a rare drain cover (like an ancient Roman one) found in a museum. True drainspotters only search for covers still in use, but not all are as enthusiastic to travel the world over in search of the most unique, so there's plenty of room for casual spotters.

Taking It Up

Drainspotting can be a wonderfully entertaining and addictive hobby, although there are a few inherent risks involved. Drainspotters are often tempted to prise covers from their place, and this can cause accidents to digits, not to mention the danger of falling down the uncovered hole! However, the joys of drainspotting far outweigh the risks, and if you look carefully you're sure to find something you may not have otherwise seen.

Just remember though, if you take up drainspotting, beware of approaching lampposts as you keep your head to the ground...

1Or just some fruitcake, so do be careful.2Notice it's drainspotters, not drainthieves. Manhole covers are sometimes 'collected' by people, or even stolen for their metal, but that's not what drainspotting is all about.

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