In Sydney, to find the Tank Stream, you enter the post office building in Martin Place, you descend a flight of stairs, and beyond a bar there is a small display with a hole in the wall that allows you to view an arched, bricked drain pipe, which is a part of the original domestication of the stream that flowed through the heart of Sydney north into Sydney Harbour at Circular Quay. This slice of history is all the more intriguing because it is hidden from view, buried. Under our cities there are our own caves, constructed ourselves, but also imbued with a quietening fascination.
Peter Ackroyd’s London Under is a brief tour through London’s underground, and not just London’s Underground (the Tube). In London also, many of the streams have been buried, though of course the waters still flow, and so they are buried within the walls of huge drains. Ackroyd notes that these are rarely visited – much of what lies below the great city is little known, except of course for the Tube, which ferries vast numbers of commuters, but which, Ackroyd also notes, has its various moods depending on the line and the time of day.
There are the ancient sewers and drains, the disused tunnels, the extravagant Victorian works, led by Brunel. But there are also modern multi-storey constructions deep underground, secretive, high-tech, as grand as utility constructions above ground, right in the middle of the city, invisible, funnelling power, gas, water, and our own voices and images. One begins to wonder how there is room for soil and rock between it all.
Ackroyd’s book is a kind of appendix to his London: The Biography, and to some extent to his Thames: Sacred River. He is a prolific author who has investigated London inside and out, over and under. What is surprising, perhaps, is that a glance at the bibliography in London Under shows just how many writers have tackled the subject of underground London. Over the years there have been many books with titles that are endless variations on the phrase “underground London”. Although for many it is out of sight and out of mind, it also continually haunts.