If London is the recumbent monster it is so often made out to be, then a vast part of the creature’s vital organs and bodily functions lie hidden from view below the tarmac epidermis. The arterial Tube is the most familiar and the most celebrated, but it sits alongside a veritable extended metaphor of other conduits, crypts and souterrains. There are the intestinal sewers, largely the product of the great Victorian civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, and the modern-day fibreoptic nerves through which is piped the televisual slurry produced (in part) by his descendant Peter. There is also another buried railway – which might be described as a sort of lymphatic system running alongside the veins of the Tube – which was used exclusively by the Royal Mail before the usual gang of bean-counters and pen-pushers decided it was no longer commercially viable. And, of course, there are the bones of the city, ranging from fractured remnants of the Roman wall to the deep-pile concrete foundations abutting it.

This is a rich seam, and Stephen Smith has mined it comprehensively for his engaging volume. His first-person narrative takes us along subterranean tunnels knee-deep in Domestos-scented sewage, through Cold War government fallout shelters, to abandoned Tube stations, safe-deposit vaults and a hairdresser’s salon with a fragment of Roman basilica in the basement. Smith also provides the reader with countless intriguing facts to break the ice at intriguing-facts parties: for example, the British warrior-queen Boadicea is apparently buried beneath Platform 10 at King’s Cross, and the reason that the vertiginous north London suburb of Muswell Hill has no Underground station is nothing to do with its elevation, and everything to do with a plague pit that was unwittingly exhumed during the tunnel excavations.

In certain places, it has to be said, the boundaries of Smith’s metropolis are questionable. Do the culverts beneath Hampton Court really count as “London”? And the Medieval abbey that lies under a Sava Centre in Merton may be part of a sprawling conurbation now, but would have been quite distant from the city in its day. (An edition of the far future will probably cover the crypt at Windsor, or a nuclear bunker in Kent.) It is also a pity that there are no photographs accompanying the text, but this is a minor qualm; one dank burrow tends to look much like the next. The evocative prose more than substitutes for the lack of visual stimuli. Smith shows that the ground beneath the capital is not arranged in a series of sensible archaeological strata, but is a fascinating mishmash of eras and styles. As above, so below.


First published in World of Interiors issue 260. Reproduced with permission.

Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets

by Stephen Smith  (Little, Brown)

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