Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streetsby Stephen Smith 2004
Synopses & Reviews
Beneath the Streets of London
Published: November 10, 2011
Is that vast labyrinth beneath London the Eighth Wonder of the World or the Ninth Circle of Hell? I’ll admit to a bias. As a longtime commuter on the infernal Long Island Rail Road and a rider of a subway whose signs are in fluent fuhgeddaboudit, I know what I like in a train system. Even as an American pre-teenager growing up in London, I marveled at the Underground and navigated it alone with ease and awe. I’m opting for Eighth Wonder.
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The Secret History Beneath the Streets
By Peter Ackroyd
Illustrated. 228 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $25
Don’t make me go down there again. The prolific Peter Ackroyd, having written histories and fictions covering every square inch of London above ground (“London: The Biography,” “Thames: The Biography,” “The Great Fire of London,” “The Lambs of London”), has turned his attention to the world below, dashing off a windy treasure called “London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.” He seems obsessed with reminding us that the living aren’t meant to linger underground — and when we do, that we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter the dead and occasionally the undead. “There may be monsters,” he writes. Mind the gap indeed.
Twenty-first-century readers may not be in danger of slipping deep beneath London and never emerging, but a fascinating, chilling chapter on the use of the Underground during World War II, when tens of thousands of people sheltered there and created an alternate city, complete with its own newspapers, suggests how close we can come. It’s the second half of “London Under” that tells this story of the Tube — the true reward of the book — but Ackroyd makes readers work for it. First he takes us on a tour of the ancient subterrain. The current London is sinking, and as it does all the Londons before it are rising up. The 30 compressed feet of clay, gravel, wood and stone where these Londons meet has coughed up basilicas, markets, amphitheaters, bathhouses, taverns, temples, a Roman ship sunk by a stone cannonball, even a mammoth. And, of course, bodies. Many, many bodies.
Ackroyd follows seemingly all the rivers, streams, pipes, sewers and tunnels that ever crisscrossed the city. Since many routes are mirrored in the streets above, he enumerates warrens within warrens of place names, at times sounding like a London cabby who has “done the Knowledge,” the legendary test of such map memory. It’s lovely to hear the names, though. Even without meaning they have melody: Cowcross Street, Turnagain Lane, Budge Row, Tooting, the Wandle, Cockfosters.
The hero of this narrative is Joseph Bazalgette, the city engineer who after “the great stink” of 1858 devised a sewer system that is largely still in use today. Before Bazalgette’s sewers, London pretty much routinely smelled rank, its rivers the repository of first resort for its filth. (“The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,” Ben Jonson wrote in a poem about the River Fleet.) Ackroyd puts Bazalgette in the pantheon of London builders with Sir Christopher Wren and John Nash. His were cathedrals that grew below ground.
Plenty of other “mole men,” diggers with missions both practical and psychological, make up this history. One took his inspiration from a shipworm when he built the first tunnel beneath the Thames — 4,000 years after the Babylonians had constructed theirs under the Euphrates, but still just the second under-river tunnel.
About the same time, Charles Pearson was seeing his derided proposals for subterranean train lines take shape. Ackroyd fills the final chapters with wondrous tales of that project: its earliest successes and failures, its characters and its lore. The first escalator to the depths? “A man with a wooden leg was employed to ride up and down,” Ackroyd informs us, “to instill confidence in the nervous passengers.” The first trainmen? They petitioned the railroad company for permission to grow beards “as a protection against sulfurous deposits.” An early commuter? Oscar Wilde, who rode to his job editing a women’s magazine. The first trains? They were christened Czar, Kaiser, Locust and Hornet. And, of course, Pluto — god of the underworld.