London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets
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In this vividly descriptive short study, Peter Ackroyd tunnels down through the geological layers of London, meeting the creatures that dwell in darkness and excavating the lore and mythology beneath the surface.
There is a Bronze Age trackway below the Isle of Dogs, Anglo-Saxon graves rest under St. Pauls, and the monastery of Whitefriars lies beneath Fleet Street. To go under London is to penetrate history, and Ackroyd's book is filled with the stories unique to this underworld: the hydraulic device used to lower bodies into the catacombs in Kensal Green cemetery; the door in the plinth of the statue of Boadicea on Westminster Bridge that leads to a huge tunnel packed with cables for gas, water, and telephone; the sulphurous fumes on the Underground's Metropolitan Line. Highly imaginative and delightfully entertaining, London Under is Ackroyd at his best.
petition to the company, requesting that they be given permission to grow beards as a protection against sulphurous deposits. The locomotives themselves were given the names of tyrants—Czar, Kaiser and Mogul—or of voracious insects such as Locust, Hornet and Mosquito. This was a tribute to their power. One of them was named Pluto, the god of the underworld. The first fatality occurred in the autumn of 1864. A railway guard at Portland Road station noticed a couple at the top of the stairs. He
known as the Tube, a name that has persisted ever since. When the Central Line was inaugurated in the summer of 1900 it became known as “the Twopenny Tube” because of the flat price of the tickets. The building of these tunnels deep beneath the earth had dangers of its own; by the early years of the twentieth century they were bored by a rotary excavator that had knives at its front digging out the earth and depositing it onto a conveyor belt. Yet the atmospheric pressure at these depths was
pale yellow, on the Central Line. White atrophied creatures are often known as cavernophiles. Stray dogs, lured by the warmth and the chance of food, come into the depths. Pigeons hop on and off the trains at convenient stations. A form of mosquito, not otherwise known in England, breeds in the tunnels with a captive population upon which to feed. The species, known as Culex pipiens, entered the system in the early part of the twentieth century and has been expanding ever since. A magazine, BBC
underground—the miner or the “flusher” of sewers—were to be feared. They were contaminated. They were closer to the devil. Radical political groups, characteristically using terror and violence as their weapons, are still known as “underground” movements. When a system of underground railways was first proposed in the middle of the nineteenth century, a popular preacher declared very seriously that “the forthcoming end of the world would be hastened by the construction of underground railways
the ocean. It smelled of a chemical manufactured in Birmingham. His memory was very accurate. The administrators of the Underground had decided to pump ozone onto the platforms to counteract the sour smell of the tunnels. It was a bizarre attempt to make the world beneath the surface smell of the sea from which it had once emerged. It made commuters slightly ill. Betjeman, on another occasion, recalled “the pleasant smell of wet earth and graveyards that used to hang about the City and South