London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, by Peter Ackroyd

10783451Peter Ackroyd’s brief London Under is the kind of history I adore. It’s weird, jumbled, and astonishing. London Under was written after Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, presumably using information and trivia that didn’t make the cut in the larger work. I’m glad Ackroyd wrote it, because this stuff is too good not to share.

Each chapter focuses on a different category of things Londoners have found or made while digging under their streets: burial grounds, shrines, old wells, sewers, subway tunnels, etc. Nothing is presented in chronological order. This may annoy some readers, but I think it makes sense for the book. London has been around for so long and people have been digging underneath it for so long it only makes sense that the layers of history are out of order. Of course, this lack of “order” makes it look like Ackroyd’s brain overflowed onto the page after all his research. I have no problem with this.

There is another challenge to some readers. If you’re not familiar with London’s geography, you may want to have a map handy as Ackroyd follows the path of a now buried river using water-related street names and wandering urban pathways. But that leads me to another thing that I like about this book. Names are curiously long lived in England. Many of the road names refer to things that aren’t there anymore, many of them supposedly healing wells. Londoners also preserve their history with the subway tunnels; they often follow ancient roads to avoid disturbing archaeological remains.

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First trial underground railway, 1862. (Via London Courant)

That last is a recent development. During the nineteenth century, many Roman and medieval finds were destroyed to make room for something new. In one chapter, Ackroyd writes of some workmen who stumbled onto a Roman shrine, complete with a spring that still flowed, sometime in the middle of the 1800s. They demolished it. Being American, I can’t fathom people who destroyed the history of a city that’s been around for millennia. (Eddie Izzard once quipped, “I’m from Europe, where the history comes from.”) I wonder how much was lost as the Brunel family (and the others that followed) tunneled their way under London and the Thames in the 1850s and ’60s.

At a little more than 200 pages, London Under is a fast, delightful read for weird history nuts like me. I wish Ackroyd had spent more time on the ancient discoveries than he did. The thrust of this book seems to be that Londoners just can’t help tunneling and digging under their city, rather than focusing on the amazing things that have been found in the process.

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