I am currently in London for the three days of the London Book Fair, still in touch here thanks to the technology, and will be speaking on Wednesday as part of a panel on the subject of Social Reading. My sincere thanks to The Reading Agency for the invitation as well as the opportunity to be sitting on a panel with the legendary tweeter who is Orkney Library.
I love going to the smoke because, though I was born in Exeter, I grew up on the very outskirts of London which, cost permitting, made it readily accessible to us as children, and for school trips, and whilst I may feel my heart has been in rural Devon for a long time now, there is always a bit of me that thrives on the London buzz....and then the coming home.
So in amongst all the Nature Table reading I am keeping my eye on the city life too, and when Peter Ackroyd's book London Under arrived I was intrigued. Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways (update on Team Old Ways very soon) is already making me acutely aware of what may be beneath my feet as I walk, whilst Bookhound's recent DIY redistribution of the garden, in the final landscaping after all the building work, is making us both acutely aware of what lies beneath our feet.
A shed-load of earth is what...
It is only when we (as in the Royal we) do a job like this that we sit in the midst of the gigantic molehills during Bookhound's alloted tea break and ponder firstly why we are never the lucky people to find the cracked pot yielding so many Roman coins that it takes two of you to lift it out of the ground. Like this one we saw at Bristol Museum, and which a man found whilst digging a fishpond... a fishpond I ask you ...we've gone half way to Australia and found one bit of a broken plate, a doll's arm and a teapot spout.
I am so disappointed in the ancestors.
Peter Ackroyd suggests that
' the temptation to bury precious objects is very strong especially in times of danger.'
Clearly not enough of that around these parts.... have you ever found anything interesting??
I'd be really happy to know at least one of you had.
Anyway, once we get over that let-down we sit and wonder about the hand labour that would have been involved in the fields around us in years gone by, and having now read London Under I am marvelling at the idea that there really can't be much earth left to dig out beneath the metropolis and so much of it done pre-JCB.
I am afraid this is one of those books that is chock full of 'Did-You-Know...' moments and I have regaled Bookhound with a bevvy of those followed by plenty of 'Guess-How-Much...'
It had just never occurred to me that whilst London sits on a bed of sand, gravel, clay and chalk making it eminently possible to dig down, Manhattan is established on layers of hard rock meaning the only way is up. And it would seem that London has never been able to stop itself digging down even further; vast sprawling networks of tunnels, chambers, catacombs, rivers, sewers (I'll come back to those) vaults (the Bank of England vaults hold the second biggest horde of gold bullion on the planet) command spaces and complete subterranean worlds.
Secret London accessed by invisible, unnoticed portals.
Who knew that 100ft below High Holborn there is a vast underground structure accessed via a very insignificant door at No.31. A lift will take you eight floors down to a network of tunnels, rooms, dining rooms, communal living areas and private cubicles... and that all connects via more tunnels to Covent Garden and thence to Trafalgar Square, a 'miniature city' according to Peter Ackroyd. I feel like I may be giving out classified informaion, but it is all in the book so fair game.
Each successive digging reveals more history too, a Roman Baptistry discovered underneath Oxford Street in 1865, a flight of sixteen steps down to a room with red brick walls and arches, a pool with spring-fed water in it to a depth of six feet... all destroyed and probably now the site of Top Shop or something.
And all far more than just the London Underground network and a few Cabinet war rooms as I had imagined. The Underground itself a very chaotic mess of obsolete tunnels too, I didnt know there used to be a tube station called The British Museum for example, and apparently if you look carefully as you leave Holborn Station travelling west you may catch a glimpse of the old tiled walls. The iconic tube map meanwhile a designer's effort to make some sense of it all, as you will know it you have ever tried to walk what looks like that short hop from Earls Court to Olympia because there are no trains running.
I love the idea that a man with a wooden leg was employed to ride up and down the first escalator in 1911 because everyone was too scared to use it... such a good advert. Yet each tube line has its own identity, almost a personality, and this made for fascinating reading... did you know that the Bakerloo line is 'disconsolate and brooding' and now I consider it, yes it is, and the Northern Line is 'intense and moody'.
But it was all the connotations of the underworld that Peter Ackroyd brings to life here that held my attention too. The way that life heads into the ground any way it can when it feels threatened and needs to feel safe, thus the war bunkers and the rush for the tube stations during the Blitz. The sense of foreboding attached to any notion of 'being underground' coupled with the sense of foreboding I felt as I read that London is slowly sinking into its foundations as the groundwater rises. I don't want to worry anyone living there, especially ahead of London 2012, but 15,400,000 gallons is being pumped out daily.
And then there are the sewers.
Living as we do without mains drainage and courting our close companion the septic tank, and with my background in ghastly diseases, I am always interested in sewers.
Did you know that London has Mr Bazalgette to thank for its 82 miles of main sewers and 1000 miles of minor ones built in the 1860s and still intact ??
And did you know that the deposits of fat gripping the sides are, in places, 40 inches thick??
And that picture at the beginning is after the cleaning...