The Hidden World Of Underground London

An entire world lies beneath the streets of London, from Roman amphitheaters to infamous gang hideouts to the modern day Tube. Guy Raz talks with writer Peter Ackroyd about his new book on this hidden world.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. A decade ago, English writer Peter Ackroyd came out with an unusual biography, not of a person but of a city - the city of London. That book spanned from pre-history to modern times. And in the course of his research, Ackroyd realized that a lot of what happened in London took place underground, and that's the subject of his latest book. It's called "London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets." Peter Ackroyd spoke to us about it from our studio in London.

PETER ACKROYD: Almost as soon as I'd finished my study of London, I became interested in and fascinated by the history of the city which lay beneath it. It's almost as large and as complicated as the city above-ground. And in fact, in some senses, the workings of the underground city determine the pattern of life on the surface above.

RAZ: You talk about these layers - layers of sediment and clay that go sort of down about 30 feet under the city of London. It's essentially city upon city upon city. I mean, all of these civilizations are kind of trapped in those layers, right?

Yes. That's correct. Between 24 and 30 feet of material lie the remnants of all the past Londons, which date back more than 2,000 years ago. When Christopher Wren was building St. Paul's Cathedral, he discovered in his excavations sacks and boach(ph) and beneath that he discovered a Roman object, then beneath that he discovered what looks like a sort of prehistoric tool. And then beneath that sand and seashells.

Christopher Wren doing that in the 17th century, and London today is a very different city, as you describe it. We all know of the Thames, of course, the River Thames, but I was surprised to learn that there are 13 rivers and brooks in London. They are all still flowing but they're not visible from above-ground.

ACKROYD: No, they're now underground rivers running silent and unregarded by the populous. They have names like The West Born(ph), the Tibur(ph) and the Fleet, the Efra(ph). They were once great river roads. They entered the heart of the city and along them flooded vessels of various kinds. Some of them had bridges over them. Some of them had little islands in the middle of them. But the inexorable development of the city meant that they were all in the end bricked over and forgotten.

RAZ: Certainly, the most prominent feature of London underground is actually the subway system, which is the world's oldest, opened in 1863. You write that when it opened, Germany was not yet a country, America was still largely agrarian and this was an incredible feat of engineering at the time.

ACKROYD: Yes, the pioneer, the innovator, the one who inspired the building of the underground, Charles Pearson, was actually born in the 18th century. He was born in the same week that Marie Antoinette was executed. So, you can see the longevity of this scheme. When the underground was finally finished in 1860s, it could have been used by Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin. Oscar Wilde used to use it when he commuted to work as the editor of a latest periodical. So, it is a very old system indeed. And it still, in certain respects, retains some of its ancient features.

RAZ: The early trains, you write, were, of course, steam trains identical essentially to above-ground trains except they were underground. And presumably it must have become very smoky inside.

ACKROYD: Yes. It became very what we would now describe as unhygienic, I suppose. It was full of smoke and certain dust and coal. It was essentially like taking a steam locomotive and putting it in a confined space. So, you can imagine the amount of discomfort it caused. People fainted on the platforms. It became quite common for people to have to be taken up into the air to recover. It was all together and unpleasant experience, and many travelers described it as if they were going into the bowels of hell, it seemed so difficult to survive there.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Peter Ackroyd. He is the author of a new book called "London Under." There's an amazing photograph in the book. It's of people sleeping on the escalators inside of a tube station.

ACKROYD: Yes. That was during the Second World War when thousands of people would buy a ticket at the end of the day, bring sandwiches or even beds and even deck chairs and settle down on the platforms in order to spend the night there. It was not a particularly agreeable experience because of the proximity of so many thousands of people. But they believed it to be a necessary one.

RAZ: Whole government departments moved underground at the time. There was a newspaper that was made available to people underground at the time.

ACKROYD: Yes. There were newspapers, libraries, the various refreshment rooms. It was another city which grew up at a time of danger.

RAZ: When you walk along the streets of London now, are you constantly imagining what is beneath your feet? A series of pipes and waterways and tunnels and paths?

ACKROYD: Yes. I think of it in certain parts of London. There's an area of London not so far from where we are now, which houses beneath the surface a huge underground city that was to be used in times of nuclear attack, for example. There were several miles of railways, there were rooms, bedrooms, studios, conference rooms - all of them just 100 feet or so beneath the surface. And that has never been used. It remains empty to this day. But whenever I walk over that part of London, I feel very strongly the presence of this space beneath me.

RAZ: And it's just sealed off. Nobody goes in there.

ACKROYD: It's sealed up and nobody goes. It was once an official secret, of course, but now it's simply deserted and abandoned.

RAZ: When you write about London, and obviously you live there, do you sometimes just walk around with a notepad and just take it in?

ACKROYD: I don't walk around with a notepad as such, but I certainly walk. And it's become my habit over many years to walk at least an hour every day, every evening, in order to reacquaint myself with the atmosphere and with the setting of the city. It's always haunted me and it's always been the place to which I return as often as I can. And I'm aware somehow of the presence of the past. The history of London is not, for me, some academic subject. It's a living presence, which I feel all around me. And I feel it just as strongly on the underground train as I do on the streets above.

RAZ: That's Peter Ackroyd. He's written a new book about subterranean London. It's called "London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets." Peter Ackroyd, thank you so much.

ACKROYD: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is NPR News.

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