Welcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British-themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post.
Last week’s British Isles Friday round-up of posts included several interesting book reviews, photos of Buckingham Palace, and a helpful link that Becca found for understanding when to use the terms British Isles, United Kingdom, and Great Britain.
For my British Isles Friday post this week, I’m reviewing London Under by Peter Ackroyd.
Book: London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets by Peter Ackroyd
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication date: 2011
Summary: London Under is a quirky little history about an astonishing subterranean world that we mostly ignore, what goes on underneath the streets. London, of course, is a particularly interesting city for digging deep, with archaeology going back to the Romans and the singular achievement of the first underground railway. In an elegant book, lovingly typeset and with beautiful illustrations, Peter Ackroyd explores the history, myth, and psyche of the dark and buried places under London.
Thoughts: London Under added several items to my “must see” list when we visit London, like the Greenwich Foot Tunnel built beneath the Thames in 1902:
It makes its way beneath the ground between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, and has remained a gloomy and intimidating place for more than a century. It is impossible not to feel the force of the water, some 53 feet above the pedestrian’s head at high tide. The tunnel is lined with white tiles, and is always cool; it has an air of dankness. At a length of a quarter of a mile it is an unnerving space, with the constant fear of the tiles coming apart to make way for the deluge. p. 128
I read that passage to Rick and he pointed out that it’s been there for 112 years — he’s not going to worry about it caving in on the day we walk through it to get a good photo of the Royal Greenwich Observatory from afar.
A couple of weeks ago, in the comments of British Isles Friday, Tanya of 52 Books or Bust mentioned how much she liked Rick Steves’ podcasts. I downloaded the British ones in DoggCatcher. The most valuable bit advice, so far, was to take the London Walks walking tours. I discovered them just as I got to the tunnel and Tube sections of London Under. It turns out that there are some walks that are a perfect accompaniment.
One of the longer sections of London Under tells about the building of the Thames Tunnel, the first tunnel under the river. The chief engineer was Marc Isambard Brunel. After several years and multiple disasters, his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel took over the project.
Two separate London Walks have Brunel themes and allow for access to Thames Tunnel, now used as a railway tunnel and generally not open to the public:
- Brunel’s London – Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10:45
- Gulliver’s Travels to Brunel’s Tunnel – Sunday at 10:45 and Wednesday at 5:15
The Lure of the Underground is a ride on the Tube as much as a walk, starting at Baker Street station. I assume it will include platform five which Peter Ackroyd describes as “restored to its pristine condition” revealing the “wonder and spectacle” of the first underground railway when it opened in 1863. I hope we will see a selection of stations, revealing architectural preferences at different places and times:
Above ground these early stations were build of white brick with slate roofs and stone dressings. Other stations were given a Moorish, or a Gothic, tone. The City and South London Railway preferred to construct great domes to house the workings of the lift shaft, complete with cupola and weather vane. They are still to be seen as at Clapham Common. p. 151
Other stations, apparently, have Greek and Roman classical elements, or Aztec temple inspirations, or more modern Bauhaus influences and even some brand new postmodern architecture.
Appeal: London Under by Peter Ackroyd is entertaining and wide-ranging enough to appeal to most readers who love history, London, engineering, archaeology, rivers and wells (I was fascinated by the number of rivers and wells that are buried beneath London).
Challenges: This my fifth book for the British History Reading Challenge — my stated intention was to read three so I’m doing great with that. London Under is my eleventh book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge — I’m well on my way to my goal of 16 books.
I almost forgot…also linking this up to Non-fiction Friday at Doing Dewey. Besides nonfiction book reviews, there’s also a terrific weekly round-up of news about nonfiction.
Reviews: Several book bloggers have read London Under, including Citizen Reader who also read the book I reviewed last Friday (The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick). Citizen Reader liked London Under much better. Marie, the Boston Bibliophile, read London Under in preparation for a trip, as I did. She mentioned that it might be better to read this after a trip — a certain familiarity with street names is assumed, something that I don’t have yet. Sam of Book Chase had the fascinating perspective of being a former London Underground commuter.
Have you read this book? What did you think?