We walk the streets of London, circumnavigating humans, dodging traffic, while scarcely giving a thought to the world beneath our feet. The daily commute on the Underground fails to excite our curiosity about the subterranean realm. Tom Chivers has journeyed across the metropolis, his thoughts focused on what lies underneath its more than 600 square miles of pavement. In doing so, he has produced a delightful narrative of the deep city, inspiring him to proclaim, ‘London shimmers beneath you’.
Collins Streetfinder in hand, the author sets out to explore ‘the city beneath the city’, which turns out to be a hidden landscape of lost rivers and secret woodlands, long-buried marshes and islands. The launch pad for the expedition is Aldgate, the easternmost gate into the Roman city. Chivers was first attracted to this spot by a rubbishfilled hole 15 feet below ground, ignored by buses, minivans and cyclists tearing around the junction. He discovers that the roundabout lies within a wide band of Langley silt, or ‘brickearth’, that was once the source of London’s iconic ‘yellow stock’ bricks. Aldgate emerges as the story of a ruined station, a lost playhouse, criminal terror, political protest, poetry. It is but one of a multitude of revelations brought to light in this gambol through London.
Chivers does not shirk from taking the plunge, quite literally, into this hidden past. Outfitted in boiler suit, steelcapped boots and hard hat, he is lowered into the vanished Fleet River’s ‘super sewer’, currently under construction, smelling one part urinal and one part wine cellar. It has yielded coins that can be viewed at the British Museum, not to overlook the bones of mammoths, whales and oxen horns. ‘Once you have been down into this shadowy place,’ Chivers says, ‘the city never seems the same again.’
From the depths of a lost river, he moves on to the chapel of St Etheldreda’s in Camden, whose sixth century crypt marks his second descent underground. At last, after a threeyear quest for treasures in London’s most ancient quarters, Chivers finds himself back at the Aldgate hole to rediscover, ‘This path. This Earth. This broken, sacred ground.’