Monday, September 2, 2013

London Under by Peter Ackroyd

London is an ancient city. The Romans established a settlement their a thousand years ago, but they weren’t the first inhabitants of the valley. It sits on soil into which everything slowly sinks. Rivers that brought life to the valley became choked with filth and were buried. The ground under London is thick with history, and the infrastructure of a modern metropolis mingles with the remains of its ancestors. Peter Ackroyd describes what is beneath the surface of that great city in London Under.

Ackroyd goes back to the earliest settlers of the area and the archeological remains of their lives. Their holy places were overbuilt by Roman temples. The temples dedicated to Roman gods were overbuilt by churches. Old paths became Roman roads. The filth of a city covered these roads and turned them back into dirt paths. Modern people paved them anew with brick, and later asphalt or concrete. It’s all still there, though, one thing layered over the other, but often still following the outlines ancient paths.

As you might expect from a man with who has worked with water, some of my favorite chapters relate to the rivers and sewers. London was built around rivers. As the population grew, these rivers became open sewers, carrying away all manner of waste until they were too filthy and stinking to bear. These rivers were enclosed and became underground sewers. As the city grew, it overwhelmed the sewers and turned the Thames into a stinking mess. Eventually it inconvenienced Parliament enough that they engaged the problems seriously in the 19th Century, putting in place interceptor sewers that carried the waste away from the city. Many of the sewers that are now more than a century old are still in use.

Another feature of London that fascinates my engineering side is the Underground. The city has the oldest underground railway system. The first lines are more than 150 years old. It was built in bits and pieces by competing private companies, though now it is a unified system. The Underground has become such a part of London life that a literature related to it has developed. The tunnels have been the settings of novels and the inspiration for poems.

World War II and the Cold War were another significant phase of buried construction. The British government built many tunnels and bunkers to protect government resources threatened by war. During World War II, so many people sought shelter in the Underground that the government was forced to provide shelter space for people escaping the bombs.

Like any modern city, London now has an extensive underground infrastructure. Pipelines carry drinking water, sewerage, electric and telephone wires, fiber optic cables and all the other things that connect people to services in their homes and workplaces.  These important systems are hidden underground, out of site and possibly too often out of mind, where their work apparently does not disturb the sleeping remains of the many things that had come before.

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Ackroyd, Peter. London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets. New York: Anchor, 2011.