Monday, January 09, 2012

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets

Thanks to Citizen Reader who recommended this book.

London is like an iceberg. There is more than meets the eye, and much of that is below the water line. Because of the might of the Thames River, there is always water to consider. Forgotten tributary rivers that have been paved over, Roman walls and foundations, ancient catacombs, subterranean prisons, utility tunnels, sewers, and the most famous commuter trains in the world lie below the city's streets, buildings, and parks. Most residents and visitors fail to consider how extraordinary these features are. All are remarkable feats of engineering completed at great cost and some loss of lives, and without them London would not be the great historic city that it is, according to prolific British historian Peter Ackroyd in his recent book London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.

While London is considered by many to be a pleasant place to live now, it was at various points in history miserable. Before modern sanitation, the smell in the streets and on the Thames was horrendous. Disease epidemics killed many residents. Ackroyd recounts how many centuries of tunneling eventually got the city to its less than perfect present. Huge rainstorms can still cause the forgotten rivers to flood. Even without extreme acts of nature, pumps have to run full time to keep the underground from flooding and the city from sinking. Generally, the complex system of sewers and floodgates works, and millions of people move about underground, avoiding gridlock in the streets.

Underground London has played a major role in history, especially in the World Wars. Ackroyd recounts stories of how Londoners worked, sheltered, and even entertained below the city when it was besieged by German bombs. There were even 52 lending libraries in the underground as Londoners tried to make the best of their hardships.

London is a small book with thirteen illustrated chapters that can be read in a couple of evenings. London Under will interest any reader who has been to London or wishes to go.

Ackroyd, Peter. London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets. Nan A. Talese, 2011. 228p. ISBN 9780385531504.

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