I’ve walked Fleet Street and Cannon Street in London. And Whitehall. I’ve taken the underground or tube more times than I can count. I’ve ridden buses down Charing Cross and up to Hampstead Heath. My knowledge of what was underneath my feet was, like most visitors and even many residents of London, was limited to the tube. Little did I know that I was walking over more than 2,000 years of buried history, secret tunnels, abandoned air raid shelters, closed tube stations, channeled rivers (several of them), old wells, and both formal and informal sewer systems.
Peter Ackroyd, writer, biographer, and cultural historian, has set me straight in London Under. It’s a fascinating, readable account of what lies under the streets, sidewalks, and buildings of one of the world’s great cities. It’s also made me aware of the outlines of abandoned tube stations, unobtrusive doors that lead downward, and the possible implications of what we mean when we say “underground.”
And what’s under London has shaped what’s on the surface. Streets often follow paved-over and channeled rivers (which explains a lot of strange twists and turns in the City of London, that square mile that is the city’s origin and financial district). Bus rides to and from Hampstead Heath on the surface are simultaneously boat rides down various rivers.
London’s history generally goes down about 26 feet. Ackroyd notes that one perhaps one of the few benefits of the German air blitz of London in 1940 and 1941 was the uncovering of a considerable portion of the city’s Roman history. All Hallows by-the-Tower Church was hit by a bomb and fire bombs, and the floor of a Roman residence was discovered. (Much later, excavations under the Guildhall uncovered the site of a Roman amphitheater.) Above the Roman layer is the Anglo-Saxon layer, topped by the medieval, Tudor and more modern layers.
Ackroyd looks at how London has channeled and enclosed its rivers; how underground London came to be associated with the criminal underworld; the history of London’s sewers (at one time synonymous with its rivers and streets); the construction of the underground rail system; the tunnels built for various reasons (including a tunnel which stretches from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall almost all the way to Parliament); and the use of the tube system and its stations during both world wars as air raid shelters.
For all of the iconic scenes in World War II movies showing people taking shelter in tube stations during the blitz, what Ackroyd points out was that it was a practice forced on the government by the citizens. At first, the Ministry of Transport forbade people using the stations as shelters, which the people obligingly ignored.
London Under is filled with unknown facts and well-researched insights, but it is more than a collection of trivia. Ackroyd is too good a writer simply to publish a trivia collection. Instead, he plumbs the terrain that is beneath London’s streets and buildings with a practiced and experienced eye, and sees through the darkness this great city is built upon.
Subterranean rivers of London – Wikipedia.
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