London beneath our feet

‘One summer when I was growing up in the north London suburbs I dug a deep hole in the back garden. I was always digging holes, but this one was different — it grew deeper and deeper; I chopped through roots with the spade’s blade, I clawed out stones, old bricks and lumps of concrete with my bare hands. The rest of the family began to be vaguely impressed — my mother came and took a snapshot of me lying full-length in the bottom of my hole, listening to the big hit of that year (1974), on my transistor radio: Seasons in the Sun was a mawkish ditty sung from the point of view of a dying man saying goodbye to his loved ones; the refrain: “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun” seemed peculiarly apposite when you were supine in what, to all intents and purposes, was a freshly dug grave.

“To be a true Cockney you must be attuned to Bow bowels quite as much as Bow bells”

‘Not that I felt morbid about my plague pit — for me it was just another attempt to tunnel my way into underground London. I was already sensitive to the truth every Londoner comes to intuit: our city inheres just as much in the ground as it soars skywards, and to be a true Cockney you must be attuned to Bow bowels quite as much as Bow bells.

‘Of course, like any other London 13-year-old I was already riding the Tube, and so was sensitive to the distinctions between the sub-surface, cut-and-cover lines such as the Circle, and the deep-level tunnels of the Northern and Central. But this utilitarian boring was augmented by my trips to the model mine which sank down several sub-basements beneath the Science Museum; I also liked crawling through the culvert that took the Mutton Brook under the North Circular, and I was thrilled when I discovered the foot tunnel under the Thames from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs.

‘It wasn’t that I was any more troglodytic than the next Londoner — after all, we all go underground, just as we all ride the lifts up the blocks we live and work in. It’s often in this radical juxtaposition, between, say, rising up from the stygian hugger-mugger of London Bridge station and then shooting up the glassy sides of the Shard, that we most actualise our urban selves: to be a city-dweller is to embrace the extremes of the manmade; its ying and its yang, its pits and its pendulums.

‘As we grow older we all acquire a smattering of lowdown London lore: we learn about the mythical black cattle that are supposed to graze the Fleet River’s underground banks from Hampstead Heath to Farringdon. We become conscious that there are many other rivers that have been interred beneath our feet in pipes and tunnels. I well remember meeting the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell at a New Statesman party in the early 1980s, and him telling a spellbound group of us how he had descended through a manhole in Aldgate into the secret network of government tunnels that snakes below our streets. He’d had the foresight to take his folding bike down with him, and he spent an entire night cycling through brightly lit but utterly empty nuclear emergency command centres.’

Read the rest of this article at the Evening Standard.