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Sunday, August 19, 2012

London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets


For several years during the nineties, I spent a minimum of two hours every workday using London’s Metro to make my way from Richmond to Uxbridge. Although there was almost no underground travel on that route, I did use the underground portions of the system on weekends to explore the city – and always found it hard to believe that the earliest portion of the Underground (the Metropolitan Line) opened in 1863, just as America’s Civil War reached its mid-point.  All those travel-hours left me passively curious about the history of the Underground and the visionaries who dared build it. 

Recently, that curiosity was reawakened by Peter Ackroyd’s London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets.  Although the book is not entirely devoted to the underground train system, the two or three chapters dedicated to the Underground will serve as a good primer for anyone interested in its history.  Ackroyd also offers a three-page bibliography that will be helpful to those readers wanting a more detailed understanding of the underground rail system.

There is a hidden world, one with a long history, beneath the streets of London.  Amongst all the cables carrying gas, water, telephone, and electricity are natural springs and rivers that still flow as they always have.  Catacombs beneath cemeteries and church graveyards house the ancient, and not so ancient, remains of London citizens.  The remnants of Roman amphitheaters and gang hideouts are as out of sight down there as the massive sewer system that carries the waste products of London’s millions.  Most fascinating to me, the London Underground still includes a number of “dead stations” that have been closed down over the decades – many of which still display the same posters and signs that were current on the day the stations were first bypassed. 

The tunnels beneath London are home to a small animal kingdom, as well.  Most prominent, as regular Tube passengers can attest, are countless Russian brown rats and mice, but there are also large populations of frogs, eels, mosquitoes, and cockroaches in the wetter portions of this vast underworld.  I also remember seeing a stray dog or two and numerous pigeons that appeared to be hopping rides from one station to the next in search of their next meals.  

Peter Ackroyd
Because of the catastrophic damage that would result if the tunnels were sabotaged, the London underworld is a “forbidden zone” to which entrance is limited strictly to those with legitimate need of access.  As a result, it is almost impossible for any one individual to study the whole of what lies beneath London’s streets.  Ackroyd does, however, manage to explain in concise terms the magnitude of what is buried here beneath one of the world’s greatest cities. 

The book includes chapters on the London Underground, rivers beneath the surface, the sewer system, animals and insects, pipes and cables, and how the underworld can affect the psyche of people.  There is much of interest in this little book of 228 pages (a page count that includes the bibliography and index) but Ackroyd’s style can make for tedious reading at times.  This is particularly the case in those chapters devoted to the underground waterways, chapters in which the author traces, almost block by block, the paths of the rivers and streams.  Patient readers, however, will come away with a solid, if basic, understanding of just how amazing the London underworld is – and will be left wishing that someone would further explore it to learn what more it can tell us about the city’s past.
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