Going underground

Like any place inhabited by humans for centuries, London is a multi-layered city, its history piled up beneath the feet of the people who walk its streets. This was the subject of last night’s tremendous discussion with Dr Tom Ardill of the Museum of London and award-winning Blue Badge Guide Fiona Lukas.

Tom showed us just how Londoners from the Romans onwards had utilised the natural tributaries of the Thames. First the Walbrook in the Roman city, which soon became clogged with waste, then, later, the Fleet, which met the same fate, becoming notorious for its floating bodies of dead cats and dogs ( and sometimes humans, falling into the noxious Fleet was a death sentence ). It wasn’t surprising that, by the thirteenth century Londoners of the City were seeking for a fresh water supply further afield and they lighted upon the Tyburn. In order to bring its waters to the City they constructed the Great Conduit which ran south then east across London.

Engineers installing gas pipes along Oxford Street in the 19th century stumbled upon the remains of this and, in the 21st century, Crossrail again unearthed it. The Tyburn also supplied water, supposedly, to a set of Roman baths near North Audley Street and Oxford Street. There are references to these baths in a number of sources and a detailed description, but no physical evidence has yet been found. It is here, in ‘Plague’ where  crime is committed and where the detectives first meet George Bindel London sewer man extraordinaire.

Another fascinating element last night was Tom’s explanation about the plans of the Tyburn Angling Society, a quixotic enterprise which seeks to ‘daylight’ the River, bringing it back to the surface ( and destroying millions of pounds of Mayfair real estate, including Buckingham Palace, in the process ). As he pointed out, there are cities elsewhere in the world where this has been done, like Seoul in Korea and it is being done,  on a much smaller scale, with the River Quaggy in London.

Fiona’s description of the modern travails of London Transport with new London Underground stations was very interesting, especially the example of the new, very deep and very modern, Westminster station .  I never knew that the two District line tube tunnels were on top of one another not along side, but, when I thought about it, this made sense of the way the inside of the station was designed. I certainly wasn’t aware of the difficulties encountered because of the proximity of the station to the Houses of Parliament, not least the secrecy about why designs for the new station were repeatedly vetoed.

Learning about the ghost stations, often abandoned because too many stations had originally been built ( which meant that the tube journeys were taking too long, so often were the trains stopping and starting ) was also fascinating. Down Street, where Churchill’s wartime cabinet used to meet when the Cabinet Office War Rooms were unavailable, or Brompton Road. There is also Aldwych, formerly Strand, a station I used to walk past every day on my way to work in Bush House, close to, yes, a bona fide Roman Baths.

My own contribution was limited compared to the experts’ but I was able to talk about Whitehall, the formation of Thorney Island and its development into Westminster and cite a quote from Cassandra in ‘Plague’ about the concentration of power. My favourite contribution, however, related to a different exhumation, that of the remains in Old St Pancras Churchyard, removed to allow for construction of the London Midland Railway. A young Thomas Hardy oversaw the works and composed this piece of jolly doggerel ( which parodies, I think, the first of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems – any Hardy scholars reading this please tell ).

‘We late-lamented, resting here, Are mixed to human jam, And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!”

The whole of ‘Secrets of Subterranean London’ will be posted on Youtube next week and I will post the link to it here when it is. In the meanwhile I’ll be talking about ‘Plague – A Novel of London’ for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries at 6.30 p.m. GMT on Wednesday 16th December, if anyone is interested in hearing more. It’s another FREE event, but to attend you must register on Eventbrite.

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