Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars The other side of London, 20 Feb 2014
This review is from: London Under (Paperback)
This is an easy and intelligent read that will delight any fan of Peter Ackroyd's writing and any fan of London. Its structure means that there is no heavy commitment and it can be read in many different ways, not just sequentially. It is really an extended essay. Anyone who wants a detailed description of all the wonders to be found underneath the city should consider this an overview and introduction, then look elsewhere for more information.

Having produced the best-selling and well-received London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd has written this book about what lies beneath the city. It is a short companion piece in 13 chapters spread across 182 pages. His style is readable and erudite with short, well-formed sentences and occasional literary quotations and references; this culminates in the 7 pages of the last chapter, "Deep Frontiers", which is all about literary references. It is the sort of book where the chapters can be read in any order and at any time.

He discusses the forgotten natural waters of London, the streams and rivers, now underground. Then there are the man-made waters, the pipes and conduits (thus Conduit Street, Lamb's Conduit Street) and the water mains. There are the sewers, the tunnels, the Tube and the secret world of the government bunkers. The author is always entertaining and informative.

Underlying underground London, literally, is its geology. The London Basin is made up of chalk, sand, gravel and clay, all heavily compacted and lying on a deep bed-rock. In this compaction tunnels can be created and pipes laid. Originally the water table rose to the surface in many places to form natural springs. Then there were the London rivers (Fleet, Wandle), streams, brooks (Walbrook, Stamford Brook) and bournes (Tyburn, Holborn, Westbourne), all now lost to the surface but still there, underground, in pipes or bricked-up as sewers. One pipe carries a stream above and across the platform of a tube station.

The pipes and tunnels carry drinking water, electricity cables, gas, telephone lines and glass fibres for the Internet. Most famous of the tunnels, because they can be seen and used by everyone, are the tunnels of the Underground railway. The first lines were shallow, created by the cut and cover method. Their first passengers could have worn top hats and frock coats and arrived at the Underground stations by horse-drawn cab. Around the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century the very deep tunnels that we now think of as the Tube proper first appeared.

As well as the geology there is the history and the archaeology. Every deep tunnelling operation uncovers finds from London's long history: flints from the Palaeolithic, Celtic Iron Age objects, Roman buildings, plague pits, Medieval, Elizabethan and Georgian artefacts.

Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the text. Many of these are 19th century, particularly from the "Illustrated London News" and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. There are no maps or plans, which would have been useful. There is a bibliography and an index.
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