Peter Ackroyd is an outstanding biographer who has written excellent books on Shakespeare, Chaucer, J.M.W. Turner, and Isaac Newton among others. He is also an accomplished novelist. My favorite books by Ackroyd though are his biographies of places. He has written about Venice and London, as well as my favorite, the Thames. In this short book, Ackroyd takes us underneath London to explore the lost passageways, abandoned Tube stations, buried rivers and streams, and hidden treasures that lie beneath the busy streets and lives of contemporary London.
Any place that has been around as long as London (since about 43 CE) has as much of its history buried beneath the surface as it does above the ground, and Ackroyd is an able guide to archaeological London. But his book goes much further than just looking at old foundations from Roman or Medieval times. Ackroyd’s “London under” is both a place of refuge, as in both world wars when the Underground stations were used as shelters from air attacks, and of fear, where darkness obliterates the senses and hidden gases can choke you or explode in balls of fire. Ackroyd also likens London under to the nervous and vascular systems of the city, pierced by tunnels that carry wires, cables, and water to the inhabitants.
Whether he is exploring the ancient sewers of the city or unraveling the path of the buried Fleet River and other subterranean streams, Ackroyd’s skill at telling stories carries the narrative along. He does not simply compile dry facts, but rather uses these facts to both tell a compelling story and to create a delightfully atmospheric mood. The people who created the tunnels and passageways are brought to life here as are the nonhuman denizens of London under: rats, dogs, and, according to Ackroyd, “a form of mosquito, not otherwise known in England” that breeds in the warm moist environment.
If you are interested in London, or city histories, or just want to take a fast-paced, vicarious tour of the world beneath our feet, you cannot do better than London Under.
Check the WRL catalog for London Under